What can we learn from the Kavanaugh case? One lesson is about sex, gender, and politics. Another is about the fragility of memory. A third lesson has to do with living a virtuous life.
A glimmer of good news in this sordid case is that we no longer believe that sexual harassment and assault can simply be dismissed as a matter of “boys being boys.” We are learning to listen to victims.
So let’s use this case to teach our sons to behave better. Attempted rape at a high school party can have a lasting impact on both the victim and the assailant. The takeaway lesson is for boys to learn not to do what Judge Kavanaugh is accused of doing — whether he did it or not.
Another lesson is about the bitter harvest of the culture wars. Our partisan silos determine who we trust and believe. Kavanaugh’s opponents sympathize with the victim. They believe that Kavanaugh’s denials are simply lies. Kavanaugh’s defenders worry that Dr. Ford’s accusations are politically motivated attacks.
It is difficult to sort out the truth in a world divided about gender, sex, politics, and everything else. How do we know who to believe? On the one hand, we have a federal judge and Supreme Court nominee accused of lying to a Senate committee. On the other is a woman suspected of lying in public and under oath about being sexually assaulted.
But maybe neither party is intentionally deceiving anyone. Maybe they each believe they are telling the truth. And here is where memory goes up on trial.
Memory brings the ghosts of the past into the present. These apparitions are unreliable. We forget important things and confuse the details. We can be induced to remember things we never experienced. We can repress and deny what we’d rather forget. In all of this, prevailing power dynamics influence what we remember and believe.
Traumatic memories seem to remain consistent and vivid over time. But trauma is experienced differently by different people. A victim of assault may be left with an indelible memory that is forgotten by assailants and witnesses.
The images and episodes we preserve are selected in service to our self-image. Memory is constructed through repetition and confabulation. Repeated stories change over time as we seek to explain, rationalize, and organize the past. We emphasize some things, forget others, and fill in the gaps.
Our current values influence this process. Past experiences are reinterpreted by contemporary standards. Things are dredged up or fade away, as we assess their value with hindsight.
Behaviors that were typical and unremarkable in the “good old days” suddenly loom large in the rearview mirror. This is not to say that we should condone bad deeds from prior decades. Rather, the point is that our memories are shaped by present interests and changing power relations.
One lesson from all of this is modesty. Memory is changeable. It can be unreliable. And events are complex. We each play a part in the other person’s movie. We can’t be sure how our deeds have affected others. Or how they remember us.
This means we should live in such a way that our life cannot be mistakenly remembered. We should try to leave behind a legacy of good character that cannot be mistaken for something else.
This is an old lesson from virtue ethics. You should strive to live your life in such a way that the ghosts of the past cannot haunt you. If such a phantom does appear, you want to be able to look it in the eye and declare, “I’ve never been the kind of person who would have done that.”
The way to achieve that kind of virtue is well-known. Keep your promises. Help others. Tell the truth. Don’t take what does not belong to you. Avoid situations that can be misconstrued. And when you mess up, admit your failure and make amends.
Despite changing values and evolving power structures, some things remain true. It is wrong to lie. Politics is often ugly. Memory is fragile. Women have often been discredited and abused. It is not OK for boys to assault girls. And a life of virtue resists the ravages of time.