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The Kavanaugh-Ford Hearings

Forcing a decision without all the evidence is the mark of a crooked salesman.

There are many remarkable things about the Senate Judiciary Committee's questioning of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The most remarkable thing of all seems to be the rush by some members of the committee to get past this. The Majority would like to make a decision, to get a vote, and to make it quick. But after the hearing, if there is anything we're left with it's a need for more evidence. Forcing you to make a decision without all the evidence is the mark of a dishonest salesman or a con artist, not a judiciary committee.

Let's reflect on what we've heard.

Christine Blasey Ford's Testimony

According to everyone, including Fox News, Ford is credible. Given that Fox News is singularly on the side of Republicans on pretty much all issues, Fox News' confirmation of Ford's credibility basically confirms that everyone thinks Ford is credible. That should be enough to at least cast some doubt on Kavanaugh.

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Dr. Christine Blasey Ford
Source: Wikipedia commons

And yet some people, including many people on the Judiciary Committee, do not think Ford is credible. On Twitter it's easy to find people who are not moved and who don't believe Ford. What I find amazing about their apparent skepticism is the kind of evidence upon which it is based.

Given the questions of Rachel Mitchell, who is questioning Ford on behalf of the 11 Republicans, these skeptics don't seem to be getting much to work with, but that isn't stopping them.

Confirmation bias is working its magic.

Here are their claims.

The fact that she didn't come forward sooner. It is a well-known fact amongst anyone dealing with sexual assault victims that victims often don't come forward immediately and may never come forward. When a sexual assault victim comes forward, they will be forced to relive the event and tell other people, often strangers, about it repeatedly. Imagine telling the worst, most humiliating thing, that has ever happened to you over and over to other people.

Our present system does not support victims of sexual assault, it puts them on trial. Moreover American culture often explicitly blames the victim, especially conservative culture. Many Americans are fond of saying that if people are poor, they should get a job. They often say this even as they resist helping people in need with policies that might improve education or access to skills that would help people get those jobs. As I pointed out in my article on gerrymandering, these kinds of ironies are built into the American political experiment.

Sexual assault victims are also accused of wanting the assault. One person on Twitter asks what Ford was expecting when she went up the stairs. According to her testimony, she was expecting to use the toilet. But wait, what was she expecting when she went to a party with boys? These kinds of questions imply that the victim was complicit in the crime. This reasoning usually leads to something like 'hanging out with or near men is complicit with wanting to be sexually assaulted against your will'. Sexual assault victims know this. They know full well what many people will think of them and how they will be treated.

The #metoo movement is evidence that people are willing to stand up and say "No" victims should not be revictimized in their pursuit of justice. How exactly to achieve is likely to be difficult, but it is a cause well worth pursuing.

The fact that Christine Blasey Ford has a fear of flying and yet flies. Fearing things and yet facing them is part of being human. Many people fear public speaking, and yet they speak. Being scared of something and occasionally doing it does not make one a liar. If anything, it makes one brave. But it also doesn't have anything to do with sexual assault. The fact that this might be used as a way to question the credibility of Ford is another example of the blaming the victim.

The fact that she doesn't remember things that happened recently, but can remember specific details of her assault. Post-traumatic stress disorder, which is fairly common amongst victims of traumatic assault, tends to enhance memories associated with that event. It can also reduce other memories less well-associated with the event.

A well known psychological effect associated with eyewitness testimony is called weapon focus. When a weapon appears at the scene of a crime, people tend to focus on the weapon and not on other details of the event. This has consequences for what they remember or forget later. This is common. People remember stressful violent parts of a traumatic event more than they remember other unrelated details.

In fact, remembering some things and not others is common of people who are telling the truth. People who question criminals and liars know that people who are lying have an answer for everything. They think it through in advance and make sure their story is airtight. Honest people don't do that. They don't have an answer for everything because memory doesn't work like that.

There are other issues. None of them suggest anything questionable about Ford's behavior or credibility. You don't have to know any of the above to know that Ford is credible. Empathy alone is sufficient. That's why Fox News and pretty much everyone else says Ford is credible.

Brett Kavanaugh's Testimony

Kavanaugh's initial statement on the face of it seems credible. He passes the Turing test. That is, he seems human. He cries at things it seems reasonable to cry about, like his father. He is in an extremely stressful situation. Crying at big things is not uncommon. In these situations, crying at small things is not uncommon either.

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Judge Brett Kavanaugh
Source: Wikipedia commons

Kavanaugh is angry. This is justifiable. Whether the allegations are true or false, it is justifiable. Being angry at an accuser is not uncommon, whatever their evidence.

Because of the way Kavanaugh is angry, it tells us that he seems to wear his anger under his skin. His anger doesn't rise to a crescendo on a particular point. It explodes as if he's suddenly remembering something he's angry about. When Feinstein was questioning him, she asked about his interest in an FBI investigation. He said he wanted the hearing earlier but then burst out in anger about a side issue he had already talked about. Kavanaugh does this several times. He seems to be the kind of person who gets angry easily and explosively. His response to stress and fear is common to some people, but it isn't common to everyone.

People who get angry easily also get violent more easily when drunk. Drinking is well understood to prevent us from inhibiting ourselves. Kavanaugh drinks. Is he more likely to lose control of himself than a calmer person? The scientific evidence and common sense would suggest yes, he would. The claims about his violent drunkenness from his roommate are consistent with that. Kavanaugh denies this, which is reasonable. But in doing this he is making himself out to be a remarkable drunk, not an average drunk.

He does this again later. Kavanaugh claims that he drank a lot of beer. He likes beer. He claims to be just like everyone else in their high school days. Yet he also claims to have never experienced a side effect common to people who drink frequently in high school: blacking out. That is possible. But again, it is decidedly atypical for a frequent drinker in high school.

Kavanaugh seems unable to answer questions from Democrats directly. When attempting to avoid addressing issues they would rather not, people stick to talking points. They train themselves in advance to do this. Whatever the question is, they talk about the talking point.

Kavanaugh's talking points are what we hear over and over agains. Kavanaugh resorts to pointing out how well he did in school. That he likes beer. That he has neatly kept calendars. And that no one else remembers this unremarkable day except Ford, who obviously has reason to remember it. But he fails to answer questions in an honest and thoughtful way. He uses a common escape tactic to avoid answering questions. Does he have something to hide? It's hard to tell. But talking points are the strategies of partisans and unsavory salesman, not honest people with nothing to hide.

Instead of saying if he would like further investigation, he says he wants whatever the Committee wants, knowing full well that the Majority does not want an FBI investigation. When Kamala Harris asks him repeatedly about initiating an FBI investigation, he claims the evidence is already available, which Harris interprets as a 'no.' Kavanaugh does not deny this. It is once again curious that a Judge would claim on such an important issue, one that cannot be resolved based on the he-said-she-said accounting created by the Ford-Kavanaugh hearing, that more evidence is not needed. It is inconsistent with his position as a Judge.

Kavanaugh also states that the Devil's Triangle, which is on his yearbook entry, is a drinking game. Until today, the Wikipedia entry stated that the Devils' Triangle was a threesome with two men and one woman. As of today, there is a new entry on Wikipedia stating that is a drinking game, an entry created during the Kavanaugh hearing. At this point, you just have to throw your hands in the air.

Kavanaugh has been sitting in a courtroom for most of his adult life. He should know every trick in the book about instilling confidence and exactly how to create confusion. If he can't instill absolute confidence in you that he is telling the truth, then he is either a bad learner or he is lying.

The Senate Judiciary Committee

The Majority (Republicans)

They obviously want to get this over with. Do they want more evidence? No. They say they have all the evidence they need. Some of them are angry (see above). They don't want an investigation. Mazie Hirono stated the Democrats have asked for an FBI investigation at least four times. But the Republicans claim this isn't the case and simultaneously claim that no FBI investigation is needed and that it already happened. If that is not what they are saying, they are not making a clear case for whatever it is they are saying.

We have only Ford vs. Kavanaugh's testimony on which to make a judgment. It's well known that in he-said-she-said situations associated with sexual assault, victims rarely win. All victims often have is an allegation. It appears the Republicans would like to keep it this way.

But remember, this isn't a trial. It's a job interview. If you have doubt that a new employee might be a sex offender because it just so happened that a few people came forward and said he was, then you have to ask yourself, "Would I hire this person?"

The Minority (Democrats)

The Democrats don't have to do much in this context. They can be reserved and calm and ask for more evidence. If Ford is being truthful, and she seems to be, things can only get worse for the Republicans and Kavanaugh if investigations continue. And I suspect they would get worse for Ford too, wherever the truth lies. The Democratic motivation is to make this last longer. Luckily for them, doubt is on their side. And that doubt needs to be cleared up for the health of the nation.

At the End of the Day

If the Senate Judiciary Committee and particularly Chuck Grassley, the Chairman representing the Republican majority, leave things as they currently stand, we are left with a decision between Ford's statements and Kavanaugh's statements. Ford, as Fox News notes, seems perfectly credible. Kavanaugh doesn't exactly fall apart, but he makes a number of claims that seem unlikely. He creates doubt.

He also doesn't appear to want to really clear his name by getting more evidence. Of course, no one's life is so perfect as to survive international public scrutiny. Ford and Kavanaugh both stand to lose from further investigation. And yet, Kavanaugh, if he is telling the truth, would seem to have the most to gain from further investigation, as would the Republicans. But that doesn't seem to be what they want. That's odd.

None of this makes Kavanaugh guilty. This wasn't a trial. That should come in the future.

However, as job interviews go, I don't imagine any self-respecting organization would hire anyone with Kavanaugh's present credentials.

Update: The FBI investigations were initiated one day after the hearings, apparently only at the demands of several key voters. This is being called a reopening of the background check. This is political newspeak for attempting to provide at least lip-service to the obvious questionable nature of Kavanaugh's testimony. If this can be done without the meddling of the White House or the GOP or even the Democrats, there remains the possibility for some clarity and redemption.

Thomas Hills on Twitter