The uproar over the Kavanaugh hearings — even more powerful than the one that followed the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape during the presidential campaign, on which Donald Trump boasted about committing sexual assault — has plunged the nation into a sort of civil war. As a philosopher, I am inclined to see this as a war between two epistemic worlds. By “epistemic world” I mean a broadly shared framework for knowing in which emotions, moral sensibilities and reason are all informed by certain values, either consciously or unconsciously held. These values are at stake in moments like this one, and so are the material power arrangements that support and give rise to them. When our epistemic world is threatened, we feel ourselves being undone.
In the first world, privileged white men get to do with impunity what other men at least have to think twice about, and for women who dare to speak of them, the punishment is swift and devastating. Aggressive sexual behavior toward women, far from disqualifying a candidate for the highest offices in the land, demonstrates the kind of manhood that is felt to be a qualification for such positions (though no one with public power can say this out loud anymore — only “the base” can speak clearly).
In the second epistemic world, the default position is to believe women who make sexual assault allegations, the good ol’ boys’ network seems ugly and out of date (#timesup), and too often moral outrage substitutes for real thinking, and more important, for real power.
That photograph of the panel of 11 white men who represent the Republicans on the judiciary committee for Kavanaugh’s nomination provokes such unease in the second epistemic world, because it is the visual representation of the kind of institutionalized white male power that is supposed to be receding into the past. But make no mistake — the “old” world represented by that photograph is right here, right now, and despite the remarkable gains of the #MeToo movement, it controls every branch of our government. [Continue reading…]