Boys Will Be Boys...and Supreme Court Justices

by Helen Horan | 10/17/18 2:25am

by Mia Zhang Nacke / The Dartmouth

In the wake of the polarizing confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court following multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct, this week’s Mirror theme of gender falls at an tremendously relevant time. Many students and faculty were largely disappointed, creating increased urgency for continued campus discussions around sexual assault and the proper treatment of survivors and accused alike. According to a poll of Dartmouth’s campus by the website College Pulse, 68.9 percent of student respondents believe Kavanaugh should not have been confirmed. For national context, a recent Washington Post poll found that 51 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation, compared to 41 percent who approved. Rather unsurprisingly, a miniscule percent of women at Dartmouth supported confirmation (4.5 percent), while the number of men supporting the confirmation was almost five times that of women at 19.8 percent. Nonetheless, more than half of men opposed confirmation, and around a quarter responded “not sure.”

Student Assembly expressed disapproval of Kavanaugh’s confirmation in their email to the entire campus, titled “Dr. Ford: We believe you,” referencing Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. It reminds students to “take note of the ways we contribute to a society where survivors of sexual assault feel systematically silenced.” The College Democrats also echoed the importance of hearing and believing survivors in an email addressed to the student body. The organization encouraged people to act on their “obligation to survivors” at the polls and vote for candidates that support their values.

As an American historian, and as a woman, history professor Annelise Orleck was somewhat surprised by the outcome and spoke about the hearing as a troubling representation of where we currently stand as a country. 

“It was another sign that the political moment we are in is one that is marked by cruelty,” she said.

Orleck believes the treatment of Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez was evidence of a culture of contempt towards women. In terms of the protection of women’s right to bodily integrity, she feels things have definitely gotten worse.

There are parallels between Anita Hill’s allegations of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation and Ford’s accusation, with both prompting FBI investigations. 

“[The FBI’s probe into Kavanaugh was] a sham investigation in which witnesses who wanted to come forward were ignored. The FBI literally did not return their phone calls, and they were not interviewed,” Orleck said. “When I used to teach the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings in my modern US history class and in my women’s history class, I would always point to it as a turning point ... Now, I would have to say it was a turning point then and that we have gone backwards,” she said. 

She also predicted the repeal of Roe v. Wade: “The estimates are that abortion will be illegal in 22 states in the next 18 months to two years,” she said. Orleck pointed out that just a few days ago, Planned Parenthood unveiled a new plan for an “underground railroad” for women seeking abortions. 

If Kavanaugh’s confirmation does indeed lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the victory for pro-life supporters will be a shallow one, hinging on the dismissal of women’s claim of sexual assault and the desperation of a party that is increasingly anti-women. The right to abortion will be threatened by a man who is under a cloud of suspicion for attempted rape. As certain men who believe they deserve immunity from accusations of sexual assault sit haughtily on our Supreme Court and in our nation’s Oval Office, the power of the patriarchy is palpable. 

Entitlement is really what this entire case boils down to. Kavanaugh very well may be innocent (unfortunately, false accusations of sexual assault against men do happen), and if he is, the mark on his name is unfortunate and unfair. But still, what strikes me the most about the hearing is the way in which Kavanaugh reacted — adolescently and impudently —  as if this whole case was a big pointless burden that blocked his steady climb to the top. The appointment of an entitled and politically controversial man, assaulter or not, erodes at the legitimacy of what is supposed to be our nation’s highest legal institution. 

I went to a small independent high school in the Washington, D.C. area, not unlike a 16-year-old Brett Kavanaugh did during the early 1980s. The schools nestled in the woody suburbs of Maryland and Virginia belong to a tight constellation of private institutions which breed high-achievers. Growing up in a predominantly white enclave just outside the district, I understand the area’s private school life and the privileged culture that accompanies it. The elite D.C. high schools remind me of mini-Dartmouths: microcosms of privilege and power. The students are incredibly intelligent, hard-working and deserving of a great education; but still, it is wealth that drives the success of these elite, politician-producing, supreme-court-justice-making prep schools. I admit I am not unfamiliar with the beach week tradition Brett Kavanaugh alluded to in his now infamous calendar, the heavy drinking and adolescent feelings of invincibility at Bethany or Rehoboth beach. Yet my experiences were always safe and happy; I cannot relate to Christine Blasey Ford, only sympathize. Nonetheless, I have witnessed privileged abuses of power, prominent Washingtonian families and glorification of partying, all of which helped produce a proud, drunk (and allegedly violent), young Brett Kavanaugh. 

Kavanaugh’s sense of entitlement stems from his time both at an old-boys high school and in a fraternity at Yale University, an elite institution not dissimilar to Dartmouth. Accounts of heavy drinking and unruly behavior during college, bolstered by an all-male space with a toxic ethos, were undeniably a part of the accusations against him. One question is whether the creation of entitled, powerful and aggressive men like Kavanaugh is still happening, and whether it happens here at Dartmouth. 

Paulina Calcaterra ’19, who is the executive chair of Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault, believes elite (or Greek) systems can sometimes be responsible. 

“[They are] complicit in making it harder to prevent harm because the norms that are harmful are just baked into everything we do,” she said. She believes harm is certainly individual; however, culture plays a part. 

“Even if the individuals who now are in them don’t necessarily agree with those social norms, we can’t fully divorce them because [these spaces] have been constructed on that basis,” she said. 

To be clear, the discussion is not at all about the majority of male students; we are talking about individuals who already have predispositions toward violence or arrogance, and how fraternities and elitism can bring out these malicious qualities, thereby making sexual violence a problem. Dartmouth is unbounded in what it offers students: endless resources, financial support and a phenomenal education. And most people leverage those opportunities toward creating a unique self and a meaningful life. Still, there are those who inadvertently let the privilege Dartmouth provides guide them toward egotism or vile behavior. I believe that those who abuse power and perpetuate sexual misconduct are one-offs. Yet it would be wrong to completely dismiss the elite culture that exists at this school and how it could potentially nurture problematic individuals.

Fortunately, Dartmouth is making progress. Calcaterra referenced Movement Against Violence facilitations, documentary screenings and events hosted by houses about raising awareness as examples of normalized and engaging conversations about sexual violence prevention. Interestingly, according to the College Pulse survey, 43 percent of men in Greek life at around 50 universities supported the confirmation, yet only 11 percent of affiliated men at Dartmouth overall support Kavanaugh, showing the liberal tendencies of the College’s fraternities compared to others in this country.

Calcaterra thinks most people at Dartmouth have relearned many harmful norms that the Supreme Court still perpetuates. However, she is hopeful that a group of Dartmouth leaders would have made a different decision. Similarly, Orleck notes Dartmouth has entered a new era.

“[The College] has come a long way unlike the Senate Judiciary Committee,” she said. 

At a time like this, it is fruitless to fight over what did or did not happen. Instead, students and community members should let this debate ignite an urgency to create a safe culture here at Dartmouth and beyond. 

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