“Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”
In the last week there has been a lot said about choosing who to believe regarding the Senate hearings and the accusations made by Dr. Ford against Brett Kavanaugh. On social media there has been a myriad of memes requesting to be shared identifying who you believe as if your proclamation of which "side" you are on will make any real difference in the end. Of course the implication is that one of them is lying. Likewise, the words "victim" and "credible" are being maligned.
One side is quick to point out that only about 8% of accusations are false and that the victim should be given the benefit of the doubt. The other side is quick to point out the inconsistencies of a 36 year old memory and the lack of collaboration by witnesses. Choosing who you believe isn't really about your evaluation of the truth, but a political identification. Maybe that isn't what you intend, but that is how it is understood whether that is your intent or not. This word "belief" is being strewn about as if it is some kind of subjective label that is really void of any kind of serious consideration. This word deserves more attention than it is being given and should be attached to something other than a person or political ideology. Belief is an epistemic term and should be evaluated from that perspective.
Many people are arriving at their beliefs based on a variety of issues that may not be the best way to approach this issue. Those who have experienced some kind of sexual assault seem very quick to believe Dr. Ford. This is understandable as her story connects with their own story. They will quickly say that her story seems "credible." After hearing at least some of her story live I found myself thinking that her story sounded sincere and on a surface level (that is to say without further evaluation) very believable. Likewise, when I heard Kavanaugh's defense I was surprised by how sincere and believable he came across. I will admit from the start that I identified with his story on a deeper level, in part, because I am a pastor and I have been told and believe that my ministry and my livelihood is one false accusation away from being over. I know others who have had false accusations made against them and though they have been restored to ministry after they were cleared of the charges, those accusations were harmful to them, their families, and their careers in ways that are hard to comprehend. However, my identification with Kavanaugh's defense is not enough to arrive at the belief that he is telling the truth and Dr. Ford is not telling the truth. So, how should one arrive at belief regarding this and other issues?
First, let's be honest about the level of certainty that is possible regarding a 36 year old accusation. The reality is that we will likely never know with a 100% certainty (I am not talking about psychological certainty but logical certainty) what happened. What are good reasons to arrive at some kind of belief? Should we simply believe something because it is on the internet? Of course not, this is more than that isn't it? Should we believe something simply because someone said it in a believable manner? Not in the house I grew up in, we made a game out of getting our siblings, friends, and others to believe lies...we called it joking around. That is obviously not what is happening here, but lying isn't a new phenomena, not to mention the possibility of false memories or the synthesizing of several memories to form one memory that may or may not be accurate. While I am not a memory expert, I have done a enough reading in recent days to learn that memories are malleable and unreliable even when they involve traumatic events and especially when they are 36 years old. Of course this means that both Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford could be misremembering something that happened 36 years ago, especially considering that alcohol was involved (according to Dr. Ford).
What should count as evidence that leads to a belief? It isn't evidence that I tend to connect or identify with Kavanaugh's story or that you might connect or identify with Dr. Ford's story. While this may influence our belief, emotional connection isn't sufficient for coming to a conclusion about who to believe. Assuming that the best that can be done in this case is corroborating testimony it would certainly be possible to come to the conclusion that this event likely happened as Dr. Ford described it (assign whatever percentage of certainty you would like to the word "likely" as long as it is over 50%). Even then, what percentage of certainty is enough to end a person's career? I'll let you arrive at your own conclusion, but for me it would have to be fairly high.
Another word that is being thrown around without much thought is the word "victim." The person who is a victim is the one who has had a wrong done against them. In this case, Dr. Ford is the victim...right? The answer is, maybe. Unless the wrong being done is a false accusation based on faulty memories or outright lying. Then Judge Kavanaugh is the victim. So when people say we should believe the victim, that begs for the question, who is the victim? It is possible that they are both victims. It is possible that she experienced sexual assault and that Kavanaugh wasn't the perpetrator (I find this to be a reasonable possibility given how memories work, especially old ones). Determining who the victim is and what they are a victim of is precisely what this is all about. It should be mentioned that statistically false claims of sexual assault are only about 8% of all claims; but, then again, that is almost 1 out of every 10. That is enough to make a false claim a very reasonable possibility. I also wonder if more scrutiny regarding that statistic would reveal that it is more prevalent than that, but that is conjecture on my part. Of course it is also true that people routinely lie about how much alcohol they consume, just another part of the equation in evaluating Dr. Ford's testimony of having 1 beer.
Last, people keep talking about "credible" statements made by Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh as if "credibility" is some kind of evidential standard. I have been using the word believable in this post because I think it more closely reflects what people really mean. Both people appear to be sincere and both have provided at least some level of detail although those details have been largely unverifiable. So, what appears initially as "credible" becomes less so if the details provided cannot be verified. Credibility is more than an initial reaction based on how connected one might feel to the story being told. It also involves whether a narrative is being expressed in a way that allows for verification and subsequently whether it is actually verified. Therein lies the problem with both stories. Kavanaugh can provide a calendar and say the event never happened, but just because something isn't on a calendar doesn't mean it didn't happen. Unfortunately Dr. Ford didn't provide a time, day, or location which makes it almost impossible to verify and almost impossible for Judge Kavanaugh to supply a alibi and does call into question the credibility of the story.
So where does this leave us? You can come to your own conclusion, but I hope you will go beyond emotional connection to one story or the other before you do come to that conclusion. Language has been and will continue to be abused for the sake of political expediency, but we can make that manipulation less effective if we can evaluate the rhetoric properly. We ought to believe what is true, not simply what we want to be true or what we emotionally connect with. Unfortunately, there is no action going forward that will not have significant implications for Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh. Someone is going to be harmed in some way as this unfolds. As a Christian, I am praying that the right decision will be made by the senate and that the truth will be made known. But, I'm not confident that we will ever know with certainty.
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.