A Cornell philosopher on Trump, Kavanaugh, and our moral confusion.
I was struck — but not surprised — when I heard President Donald Trump express sympathy for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh at a White House press conference last Tuesday. “I feel so badly for him that he’s going through this, to be honest with you,” Trump told reporters. “This is not a man that deserves this.”
Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing has been derailed — temporarily, at least — by multiple allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor from California, says that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both teenagers in the 1980s. Deborah Ramirez, a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s, says he exposed himself to her at a drunken dormitory party during their freshman year.
And a woman named Julie Swetnick says Kavanaugh and others targeted women at parties with drugs and alcohol to cause them to “lose their inhibitions” so they could be “gang raped” during high school. Swetnick says she was a victim of one of these “train” rapes and that Kavanaugh was “present” when she was raped, but she does not directly accuse him of participating. Kavanaugh denies all these allegations.
One would expect compassion for the alleged victims in this case — and there has been, particularly among Democratic lawmakers and former classmates of Ford.
But we’ve also seen an outpouring of sympathy for Kavanaugh, exemplified by Trump’s remarks above. Blogger and radio host Erik Erikson called the allegations an attempt at “character assassination” against Kavanaugh. Former White House press secretary to George W. Bush, Ari Fleischer, questioned on Fox News whether committing sexual assault ought to “deny us chances later in life.”
These are all examples of what Cornell philosopher Kate Manne has dubbed “himpathy.”
Himpathy, Manne argues, is the disproportionate sympathy powerful men reap over their less powerful female victims. Whether intentionally or not, Trump’s comments essentially erased Ford from the moral picture. The only potential victim in this case was Kavanaugh, not the women he allegedly assaulted.
I reached out to Manne to talk about these responses and what they reveal about the role of himpathy in our culture. I also ask her what advice she would give to women who are hesitant to come forward with accusations out of fear of retribution or judgment.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
We’re having this conversation against the backdrop of the Brett Kavanaugh accusations. How is this story an example of “himpathy” as you define it?
I think Trump’s reactions to it, his expressions of support for Kavanaugh that utterly dismiss the female accusers, is a good place to start.
Immediately after the accusations by Christine Blasey Ford were published, Trump said that this was a man who doesn’t deserve this, that he’s a good man who’s being unfairly attacked. He didn’t even mention Christine Blasey Ford’s name; she was totally erased from the discourse.
It’s as though her perspective, her story, her experience, doesn’t exist in his mind. This tendency to dismiss the female perspective altogether, to empathize with the powerful man over his less powerful alleged female victim is what I call himpathy. It’s a refusal to take the female perspective seriously, and it amounts to a willful denial rather than a mere ignorance.
And you see this as a manifestation of something fundamentally true about our broader culture?
I do. I think the rush to take Kavanaugh’s perspective sympathetically and the way that it comes at the expense of a female perspective is symptomatic of something much broader and really pathological in our culture.
What are the roots of this impulse, or this pathology as you call it?
There is some interesting social science that shows that if you’re disposed to sympathize with someone beforehand, and that person is in a confrontation with someone else who you’re not disposed to sympathize with, you tend to be way more aggressive toward the person you don’t understand or don’t identify with.
So it’s an interesting result that shows that you can actually generate aggression by already being sympathetic to someone beforehand.
And I think the fact that the male perspective is primary in our culture causes a lot of hostility toward women who come forward and testify against them in these cases, offering a challenge to their otherwise good names or hitherto good reputations, which is of course what breaking silence involves.
Let me press you a little and ask if there’s something fundamentally unique about this phenomenon. In other words, is there a broader tendency among human beings to identify morally with their group at the expense of other groups of people?
It’s a good and fair question. I think there’s something particularly insidious about himpathy in that women are often guilty of it. So it’s not merely another in-group/out-group phenomenon. Take New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss’s himpathetic, and incoherent, response to the initial Kavanaugh accusations, for example:
Brett Kavanaugh has a reputation as being a prince of a man, frankly, other than this. Now, I believe her. I believe what she’s saying. I’m just saying, at the end of the day, it is one word against another. … I guess I’m thinking of it today from the perspective of, let’s all think about our worst instance that’s happened to us in this world and imagine it paraded out in front of the country. And that for most men we know — It’s a horrible reality.
This is a pretty paradigmatic case of the tendency of women to fall into this same trap, to reflexively take the side and perspective of the powerful male over that of his less powerful female victim. They’re committed to upholding his reputation and supporting him using whatever rationale comes to hand. And I’m guessing there won’t be a “mea culpa” or retraction from Weiss even though Kavanaugh’s case has now emerged as yet another instance of “hesaid, she said, she said, she said.”
Do you see anything like a comparative phenomenon among women, some expression of female solidarity that mirrors himpathy, even if it’s not as prevalent or consequential?
I really don’t at the moment because I think of himpathy as a pathological tendency to disproportionately or excessively sympathize with the male point of view. And so I think we’re just beginning to see a corrective to himpathy in the form of the #MeToo movement and other social changes. As this becomes more mainstream, perhaps things will start to balance out more.
But I don’t think we’re seeing anything that I would describe as pathological identification with the female point of view. I think the tendency to focus on the male point of view, to support exonerating narratives about men whose reputations are being questioned is very entrenched in our society.
Can you think of other notable public examples of himpathy in action?
The Brock Turner case was a classic demonstration of himpathy. This was a Stanford University student, a swimmer, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a 22-year-old woman behind a dumpster in January 2015. And what we saw, from his father and his friends, was this wave of sympathy over what the whole ordeal was costing him.
Brock became the victim, the otherwise-good kid who made this one mistake and who was so sad and depressed now. Much like the Kavanaugh case, there were several supporters who would say things like, “I’ve always known Brock to be a gentleman; he would never do this” or “Brock is not the kind of monster who would rape someone.”
Even the judge in the case seemed to buy into some of these character witnesses, saying the rape was not consistent with the impression he’d formed of Turner. There was much more made of his swimming prowess, even though the female swim team had various things to say about feeling that he’d been kind of a voyeur and really creepy around them in ways that were really inappropriate.
If himpathy is a byproduct of an inherently patriarchal culture, then I’m not sure there’s a solution that doesn’t involve living in a non-patriarchal world. Do you have any sense of how to overcome this failure of moral intuition?
I think you’ve put it exactly right: It’s a failure of moral intuition. Our moral instincts are really skewed and biased in ways people underestimate, so I don’t think there’s any easy solution to it. I think part of what will help and get us into a less patriarchal society is for people to be more critical of their own gendered instincts and thereby raise the consciousness of others.
It’s tricky because emotions like sympathy and empathy are good for society, and important to being a good person, but these emotions can lead us astray if we’re not aware of what’s driving them. So we have to be hypercritical of our own moral reactions as potentially misogynistic or racist or whatever, and then make an effort to correct them.
It’s impossible to watch the Kavanaugh story and not think of the broader #MeToo movement. Every time a woman is subjected to this sort of mistreatment, it encourages countless others to stay silent. I’m curious what your advice would be to women in this predicament.
I don’t think anyone is obligated to speak out, but I do think that women who want to speak out shouldn’t be subjected to fears over how they’ll be treated. They shouldn’t have to ask themselves, “Is this truth going to be instantly productive? Is it going to make people feel better, or will it lead to pain?” Quite often it will lead to pain for the man being accused and the people who believed in him, it will cause friction, and it can even make one’s own life more difficult.
I’m very hesitant to put pressure on anyone to speak out because it’s hard and it’s not an obligation. But the desire to tell the truth can be a kind of a deep desire, and it can be a very liberating path to tread.
And I would say to girls and women in that position, you are absolutely entitled to tell the truth regardless of the consequences. You have a civic and human right to exist in a world where your experience is taken seriously and not assessed with regard to their often immediate short-term consequences.