Limerick: Here’s how to reckon with Kavanaugh…
Here is the mantra of consolation and reassurance I have been reciting to myself for years: “After this most recent episode of bitter and unresolved conflict, the polarization of the American people cannot get any worse. We have hit bottom, and we are ready for recovery.”
Repeatedly, this mental exercise for optimism has quickly collided with the next round of contention.
And yet I’m giving this declaration of hope one more try as a response to the deep divisions left in the wake of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation for the Supreme Court.
Nearly 40 years ago, I took part in the drafting of a sexual harassment policy for a well-known university. Charged with creating a new policy to deal with charges of unacceptable conduct, our group confronted an enormously complex challenge. We soon reached agreement on two principles, and steering by those principles gave us our bearings.
The first principle, we’ll call it Principle A, was that people who report that they have been subject to unwanted sexual overtures deserve a full opportunity to tell their stories. Since people who have been recipients of such conduct have struggled with feelings of powerlessness and intimidation, any policy for dealing with these dilemmas should steer clear of inadvertently enhancing those feelings.
The second principle, we’ll call it Principle B, was that responding to an accusation of misconduct with a leap to judgment is perilous to all — accuser, alleged perpetrator, and third parties carrying the burden of investigation and judgment. People who have been accused of misconduct deserve a full opportunity to tell their stories. Due process requires a careful, thorough, and deliberate weighing of conflicting assertions.
I pause here for a warning: Danger of over-generalization on the immediate horizon.
In my opinion, the fight over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh became a national calamity because these two principles parted company, because many Democrats tied themselves to Principle A, and many Republicans tied themselves to Principle B.
Wrestling with the aftermath of the Kavanaugh confirmation, we have an opportunity to reunite Principles A and B, and thereby to design practices that will help us deal with the many occasions when Americans make conflicting claims on truth.
A necessary feature of these practices will be the recognition that misunderstanding often plays a major part in setting off a spiral of injury and resentment, putting crystal-clear, indisputable certainty out of our reach.
Here is what we know from repeated episodes: if it separates Principle A from Principle B, a process of evaluating conflicting claims and opposing assertions will bring troubling results.
And we can do better than that.
That was what I learned, decades ago, by teaming up with a group of good-hearted people to rewrite a university’s sexual harassment policy. At that time, I had barely turned thirty, an uncomfortable milestone for the generation that had embraced the slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”
In truth, my strenuous service on that committee conducted me into a better phase of life, easing me into humility when confronting matters where “innocent” and “guilty” could not fully capture complexity.
A good-faith effort to reckon with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, as well as the many reckonings with the #MeToo movement, could position the nation’s citizens for a similar recognition.
Maybe, this time, we have hit bottom, and we are ready for recovery.