Those critical of the #MeToo movement have been looking for their perfect witch-hunt victim since the first murmerings that the gilded defences of the patriarchy might be starting to falter. They have auditioned several contenders: Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump.
Well, now, the #MeToo witch hunt has finally made it to trial and, despite countless headlines claiming the opposite, the witch is… Christine Blasey Ford. Because the essential nub of the witch-hunt metaphor is a woman in an impossible position – one who cannot win, whatever she says or does.
Yesterday’s Senate committee hearing of her allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were at high school, and his subsequent rebuttal, had all the components: near-hysterical hype, a farcical procedure with a nonsensical format, no clear basis in legality and distracting theatrics.
It was actually a Democrat who, in praising Ford for her bravery, neatly summed up her predicament when facing a hostile – and all-male – Republican panel.
As he addressed the way Republicans would try to undermine her account, Senator Dick Durbin said: “A polished liar can create a seamless story, but a trauma survivor cannot be expected to remember every detail.”
For Kavanaugh supporters, many Republicans and members of the public, this is exactly the logic that they have selectively chosen to apply. Their sudden understanding and appreciation that trauma might affect quality of memory lead to conclusions that if Ford was able to recount her assault – was able to be sure of the man that attacked her – she must be lying, because a real trauma survivor would not. But if she was hazy, muddled or confused, she most likely had been assaulted, but could not possibly confirm that it was by Kavanaugh.
Accusing women of being witches was primarily a way to oppress women who did not conform to the expectations of society – the unmarried, the old, the intelligent, the disabled, the childless, the insubordinate
The exchange between Senator Durbin and Ford has been highlighted as one of the most important points in the hearing, because it’s the moment when Ford confirmed that she was “100 per cent” sure that Kavanaugh was the person who assaulted her, but in weaponising the language and process of experiencing trauma, those who do not believe Ford are able to render her plight futile.
If she sinks, she is innocent but unfortunately now drowned. If she floats, she’s guilty and will be burned at the stake. She’s dead either way. She faced a firing squad, in the Senate and on social media, whose aim would not be moved – right-wing media was able to praise Ford’s testimony for being “extremely emotional, extremely raw, and extremely credible” all the while choosing to completely ignore what she actually said. She faced the judgement that all survivors of sexual harassment, assault or abuse are faced with: that even speaking up does not mean being heard.
Historically, witch hunts and massacres of accused witches took place in some of humanity’s most turbulent times – periods when religious factions were facing off against one another, when countries were at war, economies were in chaos, politics was divided and populations were unsettled. Sound familiar?
What anyone crying “witch hunt” or “witch trial” in relation to sexual-abuse allegations, #MeToo or Brett Kavanaugh is failing to understand is that the actual arrest, torture, imprisonment and execution of witches throughout history, including the 1692 Salem witch trials, was never about the politically motivated tearing down of powerful individuals with false accusations – it was the opposite.
Accusing women of being witches was primarily a way to oppress women who did not conform to the expectations of society – the unmarried, the old, the intelligent, the disabled, the childless, the insubordinate.
Suggesting that men accused of sexual harassment are the victims of a witch hunt is, as Kuba Shand-Baptiste has written for The Pool, the same as when white people use the term “lynch mob” – the repurposing of language that does not apply to them.
But it does apply to Ford, sat facing a bench of almost entirely powerful, old, white men primed to see her as a threat. Accused witches were perceived troublemakers. Their persecution was enabled by an innate mistrust, misunderstanding and suspicion of women.
Today’s troublemaker – the person who is truly damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t – is Christine Blasey Ford, not Brett Kavanaugh.