When I was a student at Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, a bracket was created to determine who, among a select group of girls, was the most attractive. Beginning with 64 girls – randomly grouped into 32 pairs – the bracket eventually led to the selection of one girl. The girls whose names appeared on the bracket were entirely clueless about its existence until someone typed one of the girls’ names into Google and the bracket appeared. It was subsequently taken down.
Later, a meme group was created where several extremely offensive and often sexist memes were posted. One featured screenshots of a conversation between two men discussing the rape of a young girl. Others made offensive comments about people’s sexualities. At around the same time as this previous incident, a bulletin board promoting feminism was defaced with misogynistic jokes. Twice.
The people who created these vehicles for harassment and hate at my high school will, I hope, as they mature, realize their previous missteps and treat women and other traditionally oppressed groups with more respect and grace. However, should they ever attempt to gain nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States, I would hope that not only would these previous missteps be revealed publicly but that these past actions would automatically disqualify them from consideration.
The job of a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States is not just a legal post, but a moral post, and fundamental to its role are questions of ethics. The job of a Supreme Court justice is to love, to care about and to do no harm to over 325 million people, regardless of their race, creed or gender. This, while simple on paper, is an extraordinarily difficult task, and it requires the highest level of empathy and moral character. It is a task that must be considered impossible to demand of an individual who has abused the humanity and individuality of women – or anyone else – previously.
This brings us to the case of Brett Kavanaugh, the justice who, interestingly enough, Mitch McConnell – and many other Americans – never wanted to nominate. Over the past week, I have tried to think about the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh in the way many academics seem to be: They are just accusations, and this is not an appropriate legal trial. However, I keep coming back to the same conclusion: Regardless of a lack of ironclad proof or other extenuating circumstances, we would never dream of placing someone on the court who was even accused of murder, theft, larceny or a multitude of other crimes. Robert Durst, for example, is not going to be considered for high office anytime soon. Why does the crime of sexual assault or harassment bear any distinction?
As a college student with very clear memories of my high school years, I am living in the world that Kavanaugh’s stories, as well as his yearbook, describe. To me, the image of an imperfect man in an imperfect culture is not an abstraction, but an everyday reality.
The main argument for placing Kavanaugh on the bench despite the accusations has become, not that these accusations are false, but that they are irrelevant – he was in high school, after all, and can the actions of a high schooler can continue to impact society’s view of the character of the adult, especially when these actions are considered “normal” for young boys growing up in the 1980s and 1990s?
Although he claims the opposite, it is clear that Kavanaugh partied to excess as an adolescent. His yearbook features phrases such as “Devil’s Triangle,” “boof” and “FFFFFFourth of July,” which not exactly the words of a quiet conservative youth. However, these accusations, in my mind, bear little importance. After all, there is nothing morally wrong with partying.
If you were to go through my correspondences with friends, or the correspondences of any young adolescent for that matter, (texts, emails, Snapchats, and, yes, maybe yearbook notes), you would find references to sex, to parties and to alcohol. After all, love it or hate it, underaged drinking is part of growing up. It continues to be, and has always been, extraordinarily common. However, what my correspondences would not feature is any reference to sex that demeans someone else, any indication that I have previously placed someone else in a position of humiliation. There is nothing morally wrong with drinking to excess. What is morally wrong is harming other people at parties, harming other people while drunk. What is morally wrong is disrespecting women, regardless of the presence – or lack thereof – of alcohol.
Regardless of what the cultural norm is or was at the time, people, or at the very least the people we nominate to the highest court in the land, should have an ingrained sense of morality, a sense of right and wrong. It is not about drinking or partying or having sex, none of those make you immoral, or even remotely morally compromised. It is about the very simple phrase, “do no harm.” Kavanaugh has done harm. Maybe he has changed, but this past error still disqualifies him from obtaining a job that demands the highest moral competency.
Contact Claire Dinshaw at cdinshaw ‘at’ stanford.edu.