Sentiment & Sentimentality: Gendered Credibility in the Kavanaugh Hearings

Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court today. The past weeks have been hard, but this moment, despite its inevitability, is especially so. There is bitterness and fear in my stomach. I desperately wanted to believe another ending was possible—to hope against hope for a political outcome that does not make my blood feel like acid under my skin. Instead, I am left with a feeling of disturbing un-surprise. If the insistent testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate is not enough to disqualify Brett Kavanaugh from a generation-long term of oppressive power; if that testimony, with the specter of Anita Hill and the hypervisibility of history standing at her back, is not enough; if the strength and deafening power of the Me Too movement filling the internet and the elevators of the U.S. Capitol Building and the homes and schools and streets of America is not enough—then what is?

If we have any hope in understanding what Kavanaugh’s confirmation means and why men accused of sexual misconduct continue to rise to power over and over and over again, we must look critically at the ways in which emotion and believability are deeply entangled with gender and racial politics in this country. In her 2012 essay “Taxonomies of Feeling: The Epistemology of Sentimentalism in Late-Nineteenth-Century Racial and Sexual Science,” Kyla Schuller traces the history of sentimentality as it was coded into the evolutionary science of the nineteenth century. According to Schuller, scientists of the American School of Evolution believed that, contrary to Darwinism, “sentimental feeling directs the physical evolution of the civilized races” (278). Put another way, Anglo-Saxons were considered more evolutionarily advanced based on their greater capacity for sentiment and feeling, while enslaved African Americans were regarded as less evolved, a threat to more evolved people. In addition to this egregiously racist and wildly incorrect belief, the American School also put forth a gendered idea of sentiment and sentimentality. Men were believed to act according to sentiment, a proportionately “emotional response to a physical impression,” while women acted according to sentimentality, a disproportionate response which “frequently verged on hysteria” (278). Schuller writes, “the Anglo-Saxon female absorbs the instability of impressibility and its tendency to excess, leaving her male counterpart to enjoy the benefits of sentiment while relieving him of the liabilities of sentimentality” (278). In other words, emotionality, seen as a liability and a danger and dismissed as such by men, was something for women (especially in heterosexual relationships) to shoulder, thus allowing men to move through life unburdened.

Even though this pseudoscience has long since been debunked, it was accepted as objective truth by many in its time and, I argue, is still at play today in the way that men and women are viewed as more or less credible. I observe the effects of the American School’s philosophies in the way that women like Dr. Ford continue to be summarily and routinely dismissed for overreacting, being excessively emotional or histrionic, and acting crazily. Under the guise of scientific objectivity, women’s so-called sentimentality and men’s proportionate sentiment have been etched into the way in which society regards emotion, and plays a key role in who is deemed believable or unbelievable.

This gendered conception of emotionality and believability is apparent in the dynamics of the Kavanaugh hearings. Dr. Ford’s testimony was objectively measured, detailed, and keenly felt; Kavanaugh’s responses were childishly angry and defensive. And yet, Senate Republicans considered Kavanaugh’s over-the-top displays of emotion indicators of his innocence. His face, voice, and outright denial of responsibility, though clearly behaviors demonstrating visceral anger, were nonetheless deemed an appropriate display of sentiment; his excessive emotion was absorbed into the masculine realm of credibility. Brett Kavanaugh’s presumed innocence lay in the fact that his emotional response was deemed proportionate to the allegations he was charged with. And though Dr. Ford’s testimony was deemed “credible” by Republican senator Richard Shelby, among others, she was, as a woman, inherently less believable and more easily dismissed (TheHill.com).

Unable to deny that her testimony was compelling, Republican senators instead became determined to erode Dr. Ford’s memory of the night in question. In Maine senator Susan Collins’s speech to the Senate Friday, in which she announced her decision to vote yes on Kavanaugh’s confirmation, she said, “I believe that [Dr. Ford] is a survivor of a sexual assault and that this trauma has upended her life. Nevertheless, the four witnesses she named could not corroborate any of the events of that evening gathering where she says the assault occurred…Judge Kavanaugh forcefully denied the allegations under penalty of perjury” (Vox.com). Ultimately, Kavanaugh’s denial was determined to be more believable, more correct, and more important than Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s story.

So where does this leave us? If I’m being honest, I feel, in this moment, hopeless. Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in just a few minutes ago. At 53 years old, he has a good twenty to thirty years on the Supreme Court ahead of him. When I think about this, I feel both furious and powerless. But tomorrow, I think I might start to feel something warmer and more resolute. I will remember those moments that I was filled with pride and admiration when I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford speak with unconquerable courage, when the women held open the elevator and forced Jeff Flake to listen to their stories. These are moments where I felt, mixed into pain and despair, incredible empowerment. I know I will feel this way again in the coming days, months, years, because I sense an undeniable momentum all around me. I believe that out of this disempowering moment will come many moments of storytelling, of whispers crescendoing into shouts, of women and survivors refusing oppressive silence, of being believed.

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To read more of Schuller’s essay, visit rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/Rutgers-lib/45690/PDF/1/play/

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An Affective, Subjective Reading of the Kavanaugh Trials

Trigger warnings: sexual assault

In trying to process the likely possibility that Kavanaugh will be nominated as a member of the Supreme Court despite multiple women’s allegations of sexual misconduct, it has proven extremely difficult for me to arrange my instinctive thoughts and feelings into a coherent analysis of the trial. Or to make any sort of substantial claim while feeling so emotionally drained by the constant onslaught of media. How are we meant to grapple with the trial in objective terms? It seems impossible to qualify and placate the resulting pain and anger with theory—seemingly, an anti-subjective academic container in which we’re meant to codify our subjective emotions. However, although there have been many times when theory has felt utterly disempowering to me, there are also as many when it’s felt empowering: a vessel through which to name abstract, peripheral experiences and, in doing so, validate them. In that vein, perhaps an analysis of emotion itself, as performed and produced in both parties’ opening statements, can act as a sounding board for this inevitably tedious psychic processing.

Emotions do things, writes Sara Ahmed. Particularly, they “align individuals with communities.” Consider this argument in the context of Lili Loofbourow’s Slate article, in which she situates Kavanaugh’s affective behavior in the cultural backdrop of toxic homosociality and male bonding. Every word in Kavanaugh’s opening statement seems spat, and every sentence—even the ones in which he appears to be (exaggeratedly) staving off tears—is punctuated by an unnerving undercurrent of anger. One might think this behavior antithetical to the calm, judicious attitude a Supreme Court nominee would want to portray. Paradoxically, though, it is precisely Kavanaugh’s melodrama that serves as his most effective and convincing—to other males in the room, at least—denial of allegations. Here, anger works to purport Kavanaugh’s words as authentic, because why would he express such emotion unless he was innocent? This distorted understanding of affect stems from, as Loofbourow puts it, “how much we value male anger, and how little we rate female sadness.” Perhaps this disproportionate valuing stems from our society’s aversion to any man’s expression of emotion; within a patriarchal system wherein stoicism is equated with “being a man,” male emotion is seen as either feminine or as an outlier, and thus as a display that must be taken seriously. In other words, if a man isn’t able to hold back tears or reign in irrational anger, this inability and apparent lack of discipline is then understood as genuine sentimentality.

When asked to identify her strongest memory of the assault, Ford recalls the uproarious laughter shared between Kavanaugh and Judge, laughter that came at her expense. This laughter, which Ford describes as “indelible” and “seared into [her] memory,” can be seen as a violent symbol for a cruel culture of male bonding, one in which boys will do anything to impress and entertain their friends. It seems as if Kavanaugh’s actions had less to do with inflicting violence onto Ford than with performing theatrics to impress Judge, demonstrating the lengths boys go to affirm their masculinity to one another; similarly, Deborah Ramirez remembers that, after Kavanaugh exposed himself to her, someone yelled across the hall, “Brett Kavanaugh just put his penis in Debbie’s face,” connoting yet another instance of the injurious theatrics of ‘bro culture.’

As much as the adherence of emotions, particularly male insecurity, can cause unimaginable pain, there also exists, in the aftermath of such events, the capacity for a united collectivizing. In working through my own emotions around the trial, I experienced much déjà vu in thinking about my fraught relationship to ‘bro culture’ and how toxic homosociality has impacted me, at drunken high school parties and beyond. My friends, my partner, and my mother have all affirmed to me that they, too, have felt triggered by the trials and the traumatic memories they’ve conjured. In crafting this piece, I dwelled on the plethora of media coverage for almost longer than I wanted to, but, at the same time, thinking through the tumult of my emotions felt somewhat cathartic. Despite the inevitable differences in how we will each process this news, I believe it’s important to recognize the radical potential in communal feelings of sadness, pain, anger and indignation.

I encourage you to read both of Lili Loofbourow’s poignant and clarifying articles by following these links:

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/09/brett-kavanaugh-allegations-yearbook-male-bonding.html

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/09/brett-kavanaugh-hearing-angry-shouting.html

The Inevitable?: Abuse of Power and Sexism in Current Academia

Trigger warnings: abuse of power, sexual abuse, rape

If we agree with Foucault’s suggestion that knowledge is shaped by power, and that power maintains itself through knowledge, then it is not surprising that the academe, the site of knowledge production, is also a site prone to the abuse of power. The surprise is that the problematic power imbalance inherent in institutions of education is not foregrounded when we try to tackle issues of sexual violence on college campuses. While the discourse around sexual harassment is often precipitated by individual cases of sexual violation, and focuses on repercussion and punishment, it is also necessary to look preemptively at the entangled state of knowledge, power and their relationship to sexual violence and gender-based discrimination.

In the case of individual instances of gender-based intimidation and sexual violence, the community’s attention expires quickly, even though the pain and trauma stay with those affected long after the event. Discussions about sexual violence on campus often culminate in an unsatisfactory end when the perpetuator exits the school community, either as a faculty member who retires, or a student who completes the natural course of graduation. Without detracting from the discussion around pursuing justified punishment, this article asks the reader to trace the root of sexual violence embedded in systems of knowledge production, by referring to two article published in the Chronicles of Higher Education.

Written shortly after the Harvey Weinstein reports, K.A. Amienne’s article speaks of the difficulty to speak up against faculty members who abuse their power in the hierarchical sphere of the academe. The author highlights the drastic power imbalance between a professor and a student, especially in the case of a female working-class student like herself, as the foremost cause of abusive relationships that hinder a student’s work and life.

“Anytime you have a highly competitive system in which a single person has the power to make or break someone else’s career — whether it’s the crowded, greasy pole of Hollywood or a flooded Ph.D. pipeline — you will have abuse. Not only rape and overt sexual aggression, but also the many complicated and twisted forms of abuse that can sink a woman’s chances of succeeding in an already biased business.”

It is not enough to pay attention to extreme cases of sexual abuse. These infuriating and heartbreaking cases are only a manifestation of the “systemic, sexist dysfunction in academe,” which is too often felt and yet tolerated. Gender-based abuse, as a result of power imbalance, affects more widely and frequently the marginalized identities who find themselves in the power-saturated world that is the academe. To clarify the operation of this problem, Amienne names four facets that enable the culture of abuse:

  1. Abuse is normalized.
  2. Abusers destabilize their targets.
  3. Abuse thrives because co-workers enable it.
  4. It’s easier to blame the victim than change the system.

To find out about her suggestions for establishing an enabling environment on university campuses, read the full article here: https://www.chronicle.com/article/AbusersEnablers-in/241648?cid=trend_right_a

Mingwei Huang, an anthropology PhD student, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the production of knowledge as entangled with the conditions that enable sexual assaults.

While conducting ethonographic fieldwork in South Africa, Huang experiences rape by someone related to her main interlocutor and host. Huang’s experience poses a challenge to simplistically viewing the university campus as the site of knowledge production. As the researcher’s work takes her off campus, and as the ethonographer’s body, voluntarily or involuntarily, becomes inseparable from her research process, how do we rethink the spaces in/through which knowledge is produced? Her narrative further shows that female students remain especially vulnerable to layered structures of violence and injustice, despite the apparent vitality of liberal discourses in the academe.

When she returns to her university in the US, Huang’s writing about her being raped as an ethnographer is met with doubt by professors who are unaware and unsympathetic of the vulnerability experienced by those who are not normative white males. Speaking of their implicit and explicit reading of her decision to speak about her experience as careerism, the author says,

“The recasting of rape as a desirable career event serves only to silence and shame, and provides yet another example (if indeed we needed one) that academe has not escaped the insidiousness of rape culture.”

I encourage you to read Mingwei Huang’s sincere and poised article “Vulnerable Observers: Notes on Fieldwork and Rape” by following this link:  https://www.chronicle.com/article/Vulnerable-Observers-Notes-on/238042

Stereotype Threat

“We believe in elevating the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are women, queer, trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim.…” There it was, the descriptive characteristic that labeled me as a minority and ultimately bridged the gap between me and the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Muslim myself, I beamed at the fact that marginalized black Muslims are outspokenly included in the platform. I have finally found the tangible thread that defiantly connects me with a movement so dedicated to equality and giving a voice to those who struggle to speak for themselves.

However, let’s get one thing straight. I have never experienced segregated schools. I have never been denied the right to vote. I have never been stopped and frisked. I have never been told by my mother how to act if stopped by a police officer. I have never been questioned by a police officer when I visit black neighborhoods. I have never been judged differently by my peers because of my skin color. Yes, I identify with two marginalized and majorly discriminated groups being a Muslim female and have experienced the devastating impacts of implicit bias in school and in my developing career. Despite that, I will never be able to fully comprehend or grasp what it is like to be black or gain access to that perspective. I have come to recognize and acknowledge this privilege more as I sat through each lecture of that class.

I desired to learn. I planned to educate myself further about the Black Lives Matter movement and really digest what my professor was teaching me throughout the semester. The semester has been rich with information about the struggles of achieving racial justice, from its economic aspects to the exploitation of race, and I’ve gained much more insight than I started off with. Despite my previous expectations, I realized that it is neither a black person’s job nor duty to educate me on their own oppression, but rather I should seek out resources on institutionalized and societal racism against the black community. The readings assigned to us as a part of The Profits of Race class have been nothing but thought-provoking and invigorating, allowing me to step outside of my comfort zone and learn information that I subconsciously was trying to avoid or internalize. The fact that I even have the option to avoid information about an oppressed mass is indicative of the privilege I have but did nothing to earn.

So why, then, was it so hard for me to voice my opinion during our discussion section? Why did I opt to keep my participation to a minimum? Why was it that when the TA asked us how we could work against the American dream that has been so ingrained in our culture, I couldn’t raise my hand and respond, even though I knew very well from what I learned and through personal experience how and why the American dream has devastating impacts? How much did my identity have to do with my reservation to voice my opinions in The Profits of Race? What does it mean to have an identity that evokes devaluation in the very setting that one learns, and how do we combat this?

Stereotype threat has been one of the most studied concepts in academic psychology for the past two decades. Its effects are important because they speak directly to a social issue of immense importance. I am aware that both are stereotypes imposed upon us by society––that only black people have the tools to speak on black oppression and that white people have the open-ended freedom to say whatever, whenever without fear of negative repercussions. Yet as I sat there once a week in my discussion class, the threat of possibly satisfying or confirming a negative stereotype attached to any part of my identity––whether it be cultural, religious, or gender-related––halted my courage to participate and interfered with my academic performance. I disidentified with that class and had lower self-esteem, causing me to underperform in that class according to my personal standards. I allowed myself to be implicitly grouped with an identity stereotype that I did not want to comply with, and I gave in to a stereotype threat.

When a student enters the classroom, they enter as a whole human being. They carry with them their multiple identities, making their backpacks heavier than they appear to be. To strip one’s brain of these identities and the stereotypes that come with each one is a feat much easier said than done. While there are many theoretical solutions published about how to make a classroom more inclusive, I believe part of the solution lies in empowering students through education so to build a community where self-empowerment is not only a teacher’s responsibility but the students’ as well. With the considerable negative impact of stereotype threats on performance, it is obvious to see the implications for efforts to promote an inclusive society. At every level of the educational system, stereotype threat can literally change who we are, who we aspire to be and who we become. I am privileged enough to have several platforms that, when used appropriately, will allow me to help disband the stereotype threat in Barnard classrooms. I should be able to support and even propel the Black Lives Matter movement forward with my classroom contributions, despite my domain identity. In my eyes, the movement does not have an isolated mission. Rather, it gathers a spectrum of minorities within black communities and brings them to the front line of the movement, making it inclusive and liberating. This includes black Muslims. The Black Lives Matter movement is an encouraging movement made to empower all those who are its allies. To be an ally for Black Lives Matter is to be an ally for equality for all––black, white, and everything in between.

Introducing the Speak Easy!

Last night, Speaking Fellows unveiled their new podcast, “The Speakeasy” at a launch party / spoken word event / listening session. The event was covered by Writing Fellow and BWOG Editor Betsy Ladyzhets:

“Last night, the Speaking Fellows drew people into Altschul 903 with a fun atmosphere and free food, but then challenged us to consider the value of speech and its intersections in our lives. The launch event was, in a way, a physical reflection of the podcast itself – it draws you in with funky jazz music and then causes you to really stop and think about your position as a speaker and listener. All four episodes are free on iTunes, and I would definitely recommend that anyone at Columbia/Barnard should take a listen.”

Listen on iTunes or SoundCloud to the first four episodes!

Repetition and the Transient Self

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by Ella Bartlett, Writing Fellow ’19

I watched this Spoken Word performance by Phil Kaye recently, but I first discovered it back in middle school. Watching it now and remembering how it affected me when I watched it 6 years ago was a meta-exercise for me. The poem itself is about repetition: how when you experience the same thing in two different points in your life (even if that is milliseconds later, like a repeated word), the experience changes.

Phil Kaye addresses his parent’s divorce:

“My mother taught me this trick: if you repeat something over and over again it loses its meaning. This became my favorite game, it made the sting of words evaporate–separation separation separation–see? Nothing.”

For Phil Kaye, repetition of this very heavy word made it more bearable for him, because, colloquially, it took away the punch. The word itself did not change, just his experience of it. I wonder what the word means to him, as a poet, now, 8 years after he wrote this poem. He– a listener/reader, the one who is experiencing the word— has changed states, ever so slightly, and that is what makes the meaning different.

In The Writer’s’ Process, we read Roland Barthes, who wrote about the dynamic between the author and the reader. He argues, “[The reader] is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (from Death of the Author, 1977). The author is dead, the words simply exist on the page, and the meaning arises from the reader.

When thinking about repetition, then, what does it mean for the same reader to experience the same thing over and over again? “Apart/apart/apart/apart” speaks Phil Kaye. To experience the word “apart” right now, and then experience it after three years and loneliness and straddling one’s self between two worlds of two parents—this is where the meaning of repetition comes from.

This is why I am going to make a point to reread books I haven’t read in a long time this summer, to hear poetry now that I haven’t heard since high school or experienced at a time in my life where I know I was a different person than I am now. The self is transient, and because it is, so is the meaning of a work of art.

Life as a Barnard Writing Fellow: Razia Sultana

Recently, one of the Writing Fellows, Razia Sultana, was featured on Her Campus talking about her experience in the Fellows program. Please check out this beautifully-written, inspiring account of why she chose to become a Fellow.

“I mean, critically thinking, empowering students, and fighting the patriarchy, are only a few of the many reasons of why someone should become a Writing Fellow, but for those of you who want a more substantial reason, it’s because you matter.

That’s right. I became a Writing Fellow because of all of you.

As a student at this premier liberal arts college, I am always fascinated by my fellow Barnard students who I come into contact with every day. Every student here has a unique story, an interesting perspective, and a different way of thinking. And so, I became a Writing Fellow because I wanted to learn more about Barnard students, from the Barnard students themselves.”