I hope this finds you well and centered.
Over the past week or so, I've been watching the developments in the US Senate's review of a nominee for a lifetime appointment to our Supreme Court. As initial allegations of his sexual misconduct emerged --- without consent of the survivor --- and as that first survivor stepped forward, I've found myself deeply occupied by this moment, and by how much hangs in the balance.
Here, I'm writing my way through the dense fog of the history of inequality and injustice, and toward the fissures of light we can notice right now, as we look carefully.
This essay will be unapologetically long, because not everything can be condensed to a tweet. Or three.
You've probably found my work because of an interest in narcissism or anti-social or "borderline" behavior. As recent history reminds the world, these are not just problems of familial or romantic relationships. The deficits, strategies, and tactics of narcissistic and anti-social people, elevated to a collective level and given platforms of power, underwrite structural patterns of inequality and public policies devoid of empathy, honesty, integrity, responsiveness, and commitments to the collective good. We're watching this in blatant forms on our national stage, and the developments around the current Supreme Court nominee offer another powerful example.
Nearly every woman and non-binary person, along with a significant number men, I have known and loved, has experienced some variety of unwanted, intrusive sexual behavior. Anyone with the capacity to love loves someone who has been violated. From street harassment to gender and body shaming, to workplace sexual badgering and bargaining, to physical boundary violations that include rape and murder, these behaviors resonate in the lives of survivors and the people who love them for a very long time.
Across these experiences, sexual violence is always used as a means of social control. Whether as part of the "rape and pillage" of war or the control of intimates, whether as part of intimidating women and other marginalized groups from walking freely alone in the outdoors or entering institutions of power, sexual and gender violence (and the threat of it) embodies dominance and an effort to maintain it.
One of the reasons survivors don't report these incidents is their very rational assessment that doing so will only set them up for more trauma, hurt, and hassle. If you are familiar with the narcissistic/anti-social play book, you'll be familiar with the tactics survivors face.
In 1957, sociologists David Sykes and Gresham Matza argued that juvenile delinquents use five techniques of neutralization to deal with the guilt they experience in the wake of deviant behavior:
- Denial of responsibility
- Denial of injury
- Denial of victims
- Appeal to higher loyalties
- Condemnation of condemners
It's easy to see how these techniques of neutralization show up in the crazy-making playbook used by people with narcissistic and anti-social traits:
- Deny the incident ["Didn't happen." "Didn't do it."]
- Deny the impact ["If it were as bad as she/he/they said, they would have called the FBI three decades ago]
- Use a status shield ["We're The Church!" "They're your coach!" "He was a boy scout!"]
- Undermine the victim's credibility ["They were too young, too drunk, etc. to know what was happening."]
- Blame the victim ["If they hadn't faked their ID, they wouldn't have been out with older guys."]
- Acknowledge the incident but claim there was a misunderstanding ["Yes, we did xyz in the Oval Office, but that's not sex;" "They were agreeing to it; they fact that they were stoned doesn't matter." "They didn't say 'No' (because they were incapacitated). ]
- Blame someone else ["Yes, I did xyz, but it was because you made me" or "Yes, we did XYZ, because the club required it." "Yes, I did XYZ, but the the Church would have kicked us out if hadn't."]
- Project it onto you ["You attacked me;" "You're messing with *my* mind." "You wanted me to humiliate you." ]
It is tempting to look at what's happening and collapse into the hopelessness of "here we go again." It may well be that the US Senate will confirm for the highest court in the land someone about whom credible allegations of egregious personal misogyny have been raised; after all, it has done so before. But in this moment, another possibility hangs in the balance, and that possibility gives me hope.
Sociologists know that people in power do not willingly surrender their power. We know that institutions do what they always have done --- like narcissists do what they always have done --- until it becomes too costly for them to continue to do it. In the Senate's refusal to re-open an FBI investigation into the candidate, in 45's unprecedented restraint, in the Republicans' move to hire a woman prosecutor to frame the hearing scheduled to happen tomorrow (because they are at least finally aware of the price their own behavior could cost them in the confirmation process and the upcoming election), there appears to be a new awareness that doing the same old thing could, for a change, have consequences the people in power wish to avoid. People in power do what they've always done --- until it becomes too expensive for them to continue to do it. And then they do something different.
Sometimes this is the narcissistic partner who does, at the end of the day, not want a divorce. Sometimes, it's the anti-social kid who decides they would prefer freedom to jail. Sometimes, it's the polluting corporation facing newly instituted, massive fines for dumping toxins in the river. Sometimes, it's a political party beginning to understand that its way of doing business --- and the personal gain individuals receive as plunder --- is at risk. Standing on the scaffolding built by several generations of feminist, suffragist, abolitionist, civil rights, anti-war, and LGBTQ activists, millions of people in this current moment are attuned to the realities of mothers and sisters and daughters and little brothers who are coming forward to say, "Enough."
Nearly two and a half centuries ago, American Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, on the eve of the Continental Congress:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
The full representation that Abigail Adams envisioned still eludes us. But every woman senator, every woman judge, every woman scholar, every woman doctor, every woman newscaster, every woman commentator, every woman who raises children to respect women, every woman who reads and writes and votes has moved us closer to it. Every person of color, every queer person, every immigrant and child of immigrants who reads, writes, serves, teaches, and votes has moved us closer to it. Every person who stands up and stands against the abuse of power in the home, in the workplace, and in the public sphere has moved us closer to it. Every man who stands for women has moved us closer to it. And this is why the system is working so hard at the moment to not collapse.
Of course, the tipping point of a vote or two is incredibly delicate. Institutions do not change easily, and the seating on the court of a judge who seems to believe that Presidents should be given immunity for crimes is very desirable to the current administration. But just as we know this, we also know that tomorrow, when Dr. Ford addresses the Senate in the US, the narcissistic desire of the people in power to *look good* and to avoid losing control of the system that serves them, may help for a moment to bend the arc of history toward justice.
I'm not giving up. And neither should you.