This week, it’s impossible to ignore the unfolding story of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The politics aside, there are two threads in this controversy that affect everyone who interacts with other people while trying to build a career.
It has never been truer than it is today that everything you’ve said and done (or not done) will find its way into your work record—particularly when the stakes are high like they are here. That being said, there is no denying that Kavanaugh has amassed a sterling resume as a lawyer, judge, colleague and community stakeholder. The number of people who have come forward to testify to his good character is remarkable; we should all be so lucky to have this many people we have known stand up for us. But after the testimonials were over, Christine Blasey Ford came forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct in high school.
Her accusations put Kavanaugh between a rock and a hard place. The job of a lifetime is within his grasp. It seemed that he had already proven his fitness for it “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But in this hyper-political context, there seems to be almost no possibility for any kind of resolution of Ford’s charges.
It’s likely that we’ve all faced “moments of truth” like Kavanaugh’s while climbing the career ladder—where whatever you say or do could jeopardize your reaching the next rung. When your sense of personal responsibility and the uncertain path of forgiveness collide with your fear of letting yourself and those who have vouched for you down, how do you respond?
Much of the answer comes from the philosophy we bring with us to work. The ego and ambition that drives a candidate for the Supreme Court is only different in degree from what motivates us to gain the raise, the next promotion or the coveted office perk. Is the deep-down philosophy “whatever is good for me,” while I keep up the appearances of modesty and collaboration? Or is my drive “to realize my best self though my actions” bound up with “my enabling others to realize themselves through their work too?” These are two, very different orientations.
Of course, it’s never just either/or between our selfish and generous impulses.
To put us (along with Kavanaugh) in the most favorable light, what if our drives have been almost entirely generous towards those who have been touched by our work over the course of our careers? Would an 11th hour charge of behavior that is sharply inconsistent with the reputation you have built stimulate your long-standing generous impulses or the more selfish ones that have been in tension with them all along, particularly if your’re ambitious and competitive by nature? In the heat of that moment, will you define your character by its lesser angels or its better ones?
A lifetime of good work is almost never called into question by facts or accusations but by how you respond to them. This is why our system of justice is based on regular people (the so-called fact finders) determining whether witnesses who have sworn to tell the truth are actually doing so. Whether it’s a global audience watching on TV or the managers and co-workers in your office, regular people can generally “hear the truth,” so it helps to be able “to speak it” when your character is called into question
What follows are some of the factors that I’ve been mulling over as I get ready to sit in the Kavanaugh jury box with everyone else.
Some Similarities and Differences With Judge Kavanaugh
I have a lot in common with Judge Kavanaugh.
We both grew up in similar towns in the urban corridor that stretches between Boston and Washington. In our lifetimes, many of these zip codes became the breeding grounds for an elite that, according to Charles Murray, would see men and women like us intermarry and establish an aristocracy of education, income and status that increasingly divides America socially and economically. In other words, we are both on the fortunate side of that divide. I’d argue that good fortune like this creates noblesse oblige or a special obligation on the part of its beneficiaries to act in a noble manner—not to justify our privilege but to serve others along with ourselves. In other words, we’re duty bound to act beyond our self-interest.
When I was 14 and 17, I know what I was doing on weekends (and often during the week) when I was in high school. Hormones and drinking never made for a pretty picture. No one here seems to be disputing that Kavanaugh did some partying too.
He and I also profited mightily from our Jesuit educations, which for me at least included a weekend bar in every college dorm to alleviate the academic pressures imposed by the right graduate school and career. Maybe it was some kind of Irish-Catholic rite of passage. All I know is that by working hard and playing hard, Kavanaugh and I ended up at similar law schools.
On the other hand (and at least as far as I know today), Kavanaugh and I don’t share anything like what happened next for me in common. The fellow lawyer I met in law school and later married went on to testify a few years later at the first federal trial in the US that was brought by a female lawyer against a major law firm for sex discrimination. I held my baby daughter in the courtroom during her mother’s testimony. The experience couldn’t help but provoke a great deal of thinking on my part about both Fran’s and Emily’s future prospects in what I increasingly came to realize was a man’s world.
The Moral Education We Had (or Didn’t Have) When You Were Young
This week, I heard a public radio segment called “How to Talk to Young People About the Kavanaugh Story.” Of course, kids and teenagers are following it and thinking about how his story relates to them. This radio piece was aimed at giving parents points of entry into a timely and important conversation.
Part of the dialogue that the piece was urging relates to consent in the exchanges that kids have with one another. For example, your 4- or 5-year old grabs a crayon from another kid. The adult in the room (or you, when you find out about it at home) needs to explain to him that he has to ask for the crayon first, and if the other child says “no,” you need to find another way to get your own crayon. It’s the beginning of consent education, flows naturally into discussions about bodily autonomy, and should always predate conversations about sex later on.
Another point of the broadcast was about our need to have this conversation about consent with boys as well as girls, particularly as the sexes become interested in one another. The fear was that we’re not having those conversations with boys as much as we need to. Here is the part of the segment that included comments from Karen Rayne, a sex educator:
When talking about sexual assault and consent, we often focus on victims, and primarily on girls. But, ‘it’s the people who are doing the sexual assaulting that need a different kind of education and a different kind of support starting from a very young age,’ says Rayne. ‘About things like [what to do] when they’re attracted to someone or interested in someone and that person rejects them. With the right education a young man might be able to say, Oh, you know what? I’ve been drinking too much and I feel like my capacity to make wise decisions is failing me. Or, Hey, you know, when someone’s trying to push me off of them, that’s something that I should take as a cue to get off.’
In 2018, it’s a conversation that many boys are still not having with their parents or anyone else.
Finally, older boys as well as girls are following the Kavanaugh story for suggestions of a double standard. By the end of these Congressional hearings, these kids are likely to learn something about whether adults in power take claims like Ford’s seriously, and whether alerting those in authority about bad conduct results in harsher consequences for those who speak up than for those they are complaining about.
It bears reminding that our kids are part of the public who will be listening for the truth in Kavanaugh’s and Ford’s testimony.
Listening For the Truth in Unanswered Questions
Kavanaugh has already stated “under oath” that Ford’s claims are “categorically and unequivocally false.” On the other hand, it seems likely that Ford will testify that when she was 15, a drunken Kavanaugh held her down on a bed, tried to engage in sexual activity with her, covered her mouth when she protested, feared for her life, and that she only escaped when one of Kavanaugh’s friends who was also present fell on top of them, interrupting his advances.
“The truth” of these accounts will emerge from a couple of directions as questions we have today begin to get answers. The first direction concerns the motivations behind Ford’s assertions and Kavanaugh’s denial.
We already know what Ford has lost (or stands to lose) by coming forward: her privacy, having to relive the incident she alleges, having to relocate her family to maintain their privacy, a disruption of her worklife, hounding by the press, name-calling and condemnation by strangers, harm to her reputation, risks to her safety and her family member’s safety, the longer term consequences for her children and husband, to say nothing of the expense of lawyers, security guards and therapy for months if not years to come. What we have not heard is why she is willing to pay such a steep price for coming forward. This is the as-yet unspoken part of her truth, and if her motives seem political or delusional, most of us who still have open minds will likely be able to tell.
Part of what motivates Kavanaugh’s response to Ford’s charges is substantive (the prize is close and, until now, seemed well-deserved) and part of it is tactical (a flat out denial has a better chance of getting him over the finish line than a more equivocal one). On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder whether just such an equivocal response might have served him better—something like:
I went to several parties in high school and I don’t remember encountering you [Ford] at any of them. If I did and you were injured by something that I did or said, I also don’t recall your complaining about it to anyone at the time or contacting me afterwards to demand an apology. If you had, I would have done everything in my power to make it right at the time and I am still prepared to do so.
A statement like this concedes the possibility that Ford’s alleged injury happened but that Kavanaugh had had too much to drink to remember it. It also offers to address her pain if he can. It’s not about his prospects on confirmation but about her alleged injuries at his hands and a willingness to make amends.
Of course, that’s not how Kavanaugh responded. Where we are today, either he or Ford is lying–and because she is paying more for her accusation than he has paid for his denial, Ford has the presumption of our belief. Moreover, Kavanaugh’s denial to a jury that’s entirely comprised of current and former teenagers will likely leave everyone who still has an open mind with the suspicion that a liar is about to be confirmed to the highest court in the land.
It didn’t have to play out this way.
A Generous Instead of Selfish Response
Suggesting that this Supreme Court nominee might have been better off with a statement like the one above seems like a lawyerly solution to a sticky problem, and to some extent it is. Every trial lawyer begins with what everybody else (i.e. his or her potential jurors) already knows, which is what most teenage boys in high school are like, and to build your defense from there. How can Kavanaugh be “unequivocally and categorically sure” that what Ford alleges didn’t happen in the fog of high school partying?
But if Kavanaugh really has no recollection about what allegedly transpired 35 years ago, there is another, far better reason for an equivocal explanation here.
It’s the possibility that regular people in the court of public opinion (and maybe in the Senate too) could acknowledge your imperfection, forgive a drunken transgression that may have happened before you reached adulthood, and be grateful to have a flawed but human Supreme Court nominee. Under these circumstances, Kavanaugh’s response would have “spoken to” his character instead of merely defending his “perfect record.”
If Kavanaugh had responded in this manner, the shame today is that many would still have politicized it, and many others would never have forgiven him. But far more importantly, at some point in this process Ford might have if she felt his remorse, and others of us who are watching would have been glad for his admission that he might have hurt her. Sadly, he didn’t say that and it’s almost impossible to see how any of us will get to healing from where we are today.
“I don’t remember” opens up possibilities for understanding and forgiveness that “It couldn’t have happened” does not. At the workplace, in the ambition of our careers, in fact in all of our dealings with one another, I’d argue that acknowledging our shortcomings and offering to make things right (at least as best we can) imagines understanding, even forgiveness, and a better way for everyone involved to move on.
Unfortunately, in the selfish rush to protect ourselves and get what we want, it’s easy to miss the opportunity to be generous to an accuser– to have enough confidence, accomplishment and good fortune to also admit that we’re flawed, and maybe in our honesty and regret, still end up with the job.
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Over the years, several people who have come forward at great personal cost to speak their particular truths to power have been profiled here. These are links to posts about a Yale ethics professor and nun who confronted the Catholic Church over a book she wrote about love, internal whistleblowers in the American security establishment who challenged government surveillance programs, and Edward Snowden. There have also been stories here about admirable public figures who were trying to talk their way past their accusers at the time, including Lance Armstrong Post 1 and Post 2, before he confessed his sins to Oprah Winfrey, and Eric Greitens, who went on to resign as Missouri’s governor last May. Their stories are all similar to Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s.
I believe that the only way to nurture moral leaders and citizens is to talk about these controversies, learn from their successes and failures, and ultimately, to acknowledge that an accused’s response—whether made by a public figure, an institution like the Church or a government—always provides the opportunity for a better future when it’s motivated by generosity instead of selfishness.
This post was adapted from my September 23, 2018 Newsletter.