Guest post by Dr. Lisa R. Hale
Things moved fast for Brett Kavanaugh in that final week. Given the scope and gravity of a lifetime appointment, some would argue too quickly. But from others, there was angry lament of “unfair delay.” As we all know by now, that news cycle ended with a 50 to 48 Saturday vote, a prompt swearing-in via private ceremony, and much lauding by the White House in a public one (accompanied by the President’s strangely sweeping apology “on behalf of our nation.” That went over in the public about as well as you’d think). By Tuesday, our 114th Justice was at work on the bench. (By the way, if you somehow skillfully missed all this hullaballoo, you can catch up with a viewing of the HBO movie “Confirmation,” dramatizing the 1991 appointment controversy for Justice Clarence Thomas. Swap out specifics of the report, the eyeglasses, hairstyles and shoulder pads, and you’re good to go! Seriously. Not much else has changed).
Where were we?
Oh yeah … politicians are now busily congratulating or explaining themselves, while the rest of us are left to blearily trudge through the aftermath of all the heads exploding — an increasingly common occurrence for even the most apolitical among us.
To be clear, this was a mess made by both parties. Pausing only for their spotlighted theatrics, senators led Americans down a rabidly split path centered on one question: “Who do you believe?” Missing any hint of compromise or thoughtful evaluation of whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh reflected the temperament, character and nonpartisanship deemed necessary for an appointment to the Supreme Court. Some landed on a clear “yes” or “no,” but the truncated process left others with lingering questions about Kavanaugh, our elected officials, and the shell-game bluster of confirmation procedures (insert jaunty wave to Merrick Garland).
Returning to The Question that was thrust upon us, “Who do you believe?” I am trained in clinical research of human behavior, and the cautionary refrain throughout my career has been “feelings aren’t facts.” Decisions made from one’s gut, intuition or personal experiences, in isolation from objective data, are highly error-prone. No small irony that the information provided by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist herself, was steamrolled without regard to best practices for evaluating reports of sexual assault or data established and used by the types of resources you’d typically imagine conservatives would be a fan of, like the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). A narrative arose conflating the matter at hand — a job interview for a lifetime position — and the “presumption of innocence,” a principle of our criminal justice system. (But also scratching my head here, as this supposed bedrock is of course violated every single day in the places where it should actually count, as many from marginalized communities dealing with the legal system can tell you. And a few bonus hypocrisy points awarded in that some of the strongest “presumption of his innocence” outrage came from people who’ve been gleefully chanting “lock her up” for several years now. But again, I digress.)
Harmful to both the process and our country was the deliberate mischaracterization of “a lack of available evidence” with “false reporting”. We know from decades of research recorded by organizations like the National Sexual Violence Resource Center that estimated rates of false accusations are inflated, and many people inaccurately believe that false reports of sexual crimes are commonplace. A number of factors perpetuate this misinformation, including inadequate law enforcement training, inconsistent definitions and protocols, and weak public understanding about sexual violence. As a result, behavior typical for a sexual assault victim may be commonly misperceived as being contrived, inconsistent or untrue. Dr. Ford’s demeanor and the details she provided were consistent with information that would be viewed credible from a scientific and clinical perspective, including delayed reporting, trauma-related memory functioning, and fear of flying. As part of the aforementioned conflation of a job interview to a criminal trial, the committee was only able to “resolve” the situation by limiting the inquiry’s scope, while willfully ignoring that “a lack of available evidence” is not equivalent to either “false reports” or “proven innocent.” The position of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) is that a determination of a false report of sexual assault can only be made if “the evidence establishes that no crime was committed or attempted” (National Law Enforcement Policy Center, 2005, pp. 12-13). FBI and IACP guidelines also exclude certain factors, by themselves, from being labeled as a false report. These include:
- Insufficient evidence to proceed to prosecution
- Delayed reporting
- Victims deciding not to cooperate with investigators
- Inconsistencies in victim statement
- False report: A false report is a reported crime to a law enforcement agency that an investigation factually proves never occurred.
- Baseless report: A baseless report is one in which it is determined that the available evidence of the incident does not meet the legal elements of a prosecutable crime, but is presumed truthful.
Common characteristics of false reporting include their construction to match the public perceptions and myths surrounding sexual assault (e.g., dark alley, use of a weapon, an unknown assailant). While those types of crime do happen, the vast majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by someone known to the victim, and taking advantage of a power differential within an intimate or isolated setting. It is extremely rare in false accusations for a perpetrator to be identified by name. However, when that does happen, procedures of following where the evidence may lead almost always succeeds in disproving the false claim.
The senate accomplished appointing a new member to the Supreme Court at the high price of demonstrating that our government and society didn’t learn from and change anything after Anita Hill. And I hope we don’t have to explain to the next generation of young women why we didn’t learn from and change things after Christine Blasey Ford.
The preamble of our constitution indicates that the purpose of government is to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” So I believe in the importance of marching to the polls and voting for bright, level-headed public servants who will do this, with reason and heart, in whatever party they can be found.
Lisa R. Hale holds a Ph.D. in clinical health psychology and is winding down a career focused on the research and treatment of anxiety disorders and promotion of evidence-based care. While online dating profiles had correctly classified her as “spiritual but not religious” or “agnostic,” she’s been happily married for almost a decade to the pro-justice/pro-science Rev. Brandon Gilvin, senior minister at First Christian Church in Chattanooga, Tenn. and blogger at The Long Road Home. Lisa spends time looking for hobbies and inspiration, battling humidity and mosquitoes, and attempting to avoid topics of religion, politics and the field of mental health. Unless circumstances are outrageous and/or friends like Erin ask.
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