Privilege and Belief

Issues this post seeks to address:

  • How does privilege affect a person’s ability to choose what they believe?
  • How do our beliefs maintain or disrupt the systems that preserve privilege?

Posts related to this post:

This week, the eyes of the nation have scrutinized Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. This hearing seeks to determine whether allegations of sexual assault levelled against Kavanaugh are credible. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a former schoolmate of Kavanaugh’s, is one of three women accusing him. If the Senate Judiciary Committee determines that these accusations are true, Kavanaugh would undoubtedly lose his appointment to the Supreme Court.

These allegations come at a time when public awareness of power dynamics contributing to sexual assault is on the rise. The ‘#MeToo’ movement, popularized on social media in 2017 and 2018, has increased awareness that many victims of sexual assault, particularly women, may not report these crimes. This is often due to fears of not being believed or of reprisal from the perpetrators, who are frequently in positions of authority over their victims.

The current situation is a sickening one – neither outcome is particularly attractive. A nominee for the highest court in the United States may be an unrepentant, lying sexual offender, who sufficiently lacks respect for the US populace that he deludes himself into thinking that he is a better choice for the position than other possible candidates. Alternatively, a bright, educated college professor, a professor of psychology, is using sexual assault as a political weapon, cheapening and invalidating the claims of many actual victims of sexual assault in the eyes of the nation.

As a psychologist myself, I have a bias, one that I wish to own upfront. I’ve had no small number of therapy clients who have told me, in complete confidentiality, that they have been victims of sexual assault. In some cases, I’m the first person they have ever told. The reasons for this have become clear – there are massive psychological consequences of having people cast doubt or blame on their experience of sexual assault. The risk is often too great to talk about what happened. My bias tells me that Christine Blasey Ford is likely telling the truth, and that the fact that she hasn’t talked about it until now has little bearing on the truthfulness of her claims.

I’ve seen many, many posts on social media this week where victims of sexual assault, primarily women, talk about how difficult it is to trust that people will believe their story when they tell it. Some of them have shared their experiences of being invalidated, hushed-up, or outright disbelieved when they did try to talk. I imagine that there are a lot of factors that can make someone skeptical of claims of sexual assault – almost all of them, that I can think of, result from being in a position of privilege.

Cielle tells me sometimes that I talk about privilege too much. She’s probably right, but the justice-oriented side of me often just can’t help it. When it comes to discussions about sexual assault, I can identify a few different privileged positions that I occupy, which I imagine I share with majorities of the population.

I’ve never been sexually assaulted myself; this privilege allows me to think about sexual assault as often or as infrequently as I choose to. I’m a male, I’m heterosexual, and I’m married, so I won’t feel particularly vulnerable to being sexually assaulted, regardless of the cultural attitudes around this issue. In other words, I have the privilege of being as invested or aloof about the issue as I choose to be, with relatively little bearing on my own well-being.

Owing to the fact that I occupy these privileged positions, I’m free to believe anything I want about Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations. It doesn’t affect my life either way. No matter what I choose to believe, I will likely have plenty of people who will back me up; I might even enjoy benefits of others perceiving me more positively because of my privilege.

If I publicly believe Ford, others might applaud me for being an ally, or think of me as progressive, empathetic, or “woke.” When women publicly state their support, people might be more likely to think of them as overly-sensitive, overly-political, or uninformed. If I decide to disregard Ford and categorize her disclosure as a political move, I’ll still have lots of support, and nothing else about my life will change. Women who disregard Ford’s claims, or who live in a society that disregards Ford’s claims, have to face the continued secrecy and stigma surrounding and perpetuating sexual assault.

It’s not just women who don’t have the same privilege that I do about what to believe. Victims of sexual assault, single people, and LGBT+ people all face greater risks of experiencing sexual assault when society disbelieves those who come forward . And yet, we still easily write them off at times, and view them as agents advancing a “liberal agenda.” Those of us who comprise the majorities, the positions of power, the people whose lives won’t really change, get to have the final say, then forget about it the next day.

It’s for this reason that I choose to believe Ford. Even if due process eventually unequivocally proves Kavanaugh innocent, then one person has missed the chance to sit on the Supreme Court. If that happens, and Kavanaugh wants to rub my face in it, I’ll eat all the crow I have to in order to appease him.

If Ford’s allegations are true, and we privileged members of society choose to reject them, then millions of victims of sexual assault and abuse, including children, learn that people won’t believe you if you talk about being sexually assaulted. The claim is false until proven true, and the justice system is already notoriously bad at proving them true. So, it’s better just to suffer in silence, suck it up, maybe talk to a therapist. If you’re lucky, you might talk with other victims of sexual assault. But that’s the best you’re going to get.

I encourage those of us who are able to believe what we want without significant consequence, to recognize our privilege. To recognize that there are real consequences for some people about what we choose to believe, and they may not benefit from the same luxury of choice that we have.

We need to recognize that our beliefs will either maintain our disrupt our privilege. If most of us disbelieve Ford, then the narrative persists that people tend to “make up” sexual assault allegations. We get to continue to distantly evaluate each claim as it arises, setting the tone for this problem for the entire population.  If we’re ever going to empower those who are currently powerless and create a healthier culture around sexual assault, we’ll eventually have to disrupt these systems of privilege by consistently and earnestly believing those who share their experience.

2 Replies to “Privilege and Belief”

  1. Outstanding Ben! You wrote so clearly and succinctly what many woman I know believe but, like me, have not so thoughtfully and eloquently been able to express ourselves either verbally or in the written word.
    This case, regardless of the outcome, is shaking the status quo of power or “might makes right” from it’s foundations; which system has perpetrated so much abuse. And through this process those who find themselves in positions of “privilege” are almost forced to look at their past indifference.
    As I have expressed to you before, I thank you for the gift of your thoughtful, thought provoking, balanced discourses on the challenges of life, the human condition, surviving and thriving.

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