Intervention – “Christine Blasey Ford and Geographies of Aggression and Repair”

Natalie Oswin
Department of Geography, McGill University
[email protected]

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC on Thursday 27 September 2018. Commentaries on this event are already so numerous they could fill multiple volumes. This is not surprising. The stakes were incredibly high. The drive to fill a Supreme Court seat with a partisan, conservative white man was high on the how-to-slide-the-US-into-authoritarianism to do list. The lives, livelihoods, and bodily autonomy of women, people of colour, Indigenous people, migrants, trans people, queers, differently abled people – in other words, anyone not aligned with the white male supremacist end game of the current Republican administration (which is not to say that only or all “whites” and “males” are aligned with this project – think “homonationalism”, “model minorities”, “post-feminism”…) – hang in the balance.

I write this commentary to add to critical discourse at this historical conjuncture in a way that speaks directly to and with my academic peers. I write to share and reflect on my experience watching and listening to the hearing, and to draw on my professional expertise as a professor of geography to offer suggestions on how we might learn from this event as we go about our everyday work within the academy. The academy is a vital site for social justice work in these deeply troubling times, and we must strive to make it a place where we can do justice for and with survivors of sexual assault and other forms of assault and aggression, like Dr. Ford, Dr. Anita Hill, and countless others.

As Dr. Christine Blasey Ford spoke, I saw a heroic woman publicly share a horrific experience out of an urge to, in her words, do her “civic duty”. She faced her self-described terror to bravely recount the details of a sexual assault she reports was perpetrated by Judge Brett Kavanaugh and aided and abetted by his friend Mark Judge when they were all teenagers. She was calm, composed, accommodating, thoughtful, and wise. She shared not only her story but her expertise as a professor of psychology. When asked by Sen. Diane Feinstein how she could be sure it was Kavanaugh who attacked her that night so long ago she explained that the neurotransmitter epinephrine, “codes memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience is locked there, whereas other details kind of drift”. Poignantly, and heartbreakingly, in response to a subsequent question posed by Sen. Patrick Leahy about her strongest memory from that night, she stated, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” Also heartbreakingly, she made clear through her words and deeds that she was just trying to be “helpful”, even though she was testifying to a room of rich white men who had deliberately chosen, in effect, to put her on trial rather than respect her initial and repeated requests for an FBI investigation into the matter.

I watched every minute of her statement, and of the alternating five minute increments of supportive questioning/ conversation with Democrats and interrogation by Republicans through their proxy “female assistant”, prosecutor Rachel Mitchell. I could not look away from this extraordinary moment in which a woman spoke against considerable odds to a large public about an injustice perpetrated against her. It is not every day that a woman gets such an opportunity to speak truth to power.

Then came Brett Kavanaugh’s turn to speak, his chance to defend himself against her accusation, to protect his nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States, and demonstrate his worthiness for that position. I tried to keep watching, to listen, to hear. But I had to turn away before he completed his opening statement. I had to settle for reading second hand accounts of his remaining testimony after the fact. I simply could not stomach his aggression, his shoddy logic, his lies, his entitlement, his self-righteousness, and his rage in real time. I could not endure being yelled at by and asked (through his tears and complaints) to feel empathy for this man who was outright rejecting the call to account for himself. I could not watch as he, aided and abetted by the male Republican Senators in the room and by the accused sexual predator in the White House, tried to push Ford’s powerful statements to the side. Their words and behaviours demonstrated that Ford’s life, her experience, her personhood, do not matter to them.

Kavanaugh and his accomplices, I realized at the time, most certainly would not care that I could not stand to watch him, and that his words and tone did me harm. For while Ford aimed to speak to all, to communicate, to share her pain, and to be “helpful”, Kavanaugh clearly had different objectives. While she managed to make the space of that hearing, despite the large obstacles thrown at her, a welcoming and capacious one that drew me in, I felt him suck the air out of the room to hoard it – as the rich and powerful like him tend to do with all of the resources on our environmentally degraded planet – for himself and his allies/cronies. My inability to watch was an outcome by design. This tantrum was not for me, but for the cronies. Just like Ford, I and so many more of us are immaterial to them. This fact is crystal clear. And it requires action.

Most academics do not have access to the halls of power that are global media outlets and the US Senate. But that does not mean we are powerless in the face of these events. Not even close. We do have access to a lot of resources and avenues to shape thought and opinions (research funding, media invitations to comment on current events, lecturing and teaching opportunities, etc.), and we can do a lot through teaching, research, writing, and public engagement. But, as a collective, we need to do these things better if we are going to make change; and we can do them better by taking heed of the knowledge we have already built up through decades of social justice-oriented scholarship and by building stronger critical alliances. Geography tells us this! More accurately, a particular kind of geographical analysis tells us this.

This is how I read the geographies at play in the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing. Most obviously, it had an extraordinary geographical reach. It took place not only in a hearing room in Washington, DC, but in the hallways and streets outside that room where protestors gathered, and in homes and offices and bars and airports and schools as it was beamed out via satellite to television and computer screens in the United States and around the world. The consequential links that certain critical geographers (especially feminists) have long been arguing exist between the intimately personal and the globally political were demonstrated on that day.[1] As Ford’s trauma/courage and Kavanaugh’s entitlement/rage were conveyed across scales, millions were affected. In other words, the macro-geography of the hearing room as spectacle is tied indelibly, to borrow Dr. Ford’s term, to countless micro-geographies.

Many found Kavanaugh’s testimony gripping and persuasive. From the 11 white male Senators in the hearing room, to the white women who attended it to lend him support, to the male protestors sporting “Women for Kavanaugh” t-shirts outside the hearing room, and more, many people relate to Kavanaugh and put their efforts into elevating him (both personally and to the Supreme Court of the United States). This group clearly feels an entitlement to squeeze Ford and those like her out of the narrative, thus putting gates up around their world. Going forward, it will be important to think through why. As I mention below, we cannot effectively deal with exclusion if we do not challenge and undermine privilege. But here, I want to focus on the group who, like me, felt repulsed by the effort to silence, distort, and manipulate Ford as part of the effort to consolidate Supreme power.

Ford’s testimony deeply resonated with the far too many people who have experienced sexual assault. That much comes through clearly via the inspiring #WhyIDidn’tReport social media phenomenon.[2] Her testimony also – and this is key – touched the far too many people who understand that macro-aggressions like sexual assault are tied to a continuum of multiple micro-aggressions. I and others I know found ourselves somewhat involuntarily yelling at our screens throughout Ford’s testimony. We simply could not contain our frustration and despair at, for instance, Sen. Chuck Grassley’s frequent and hostile out-of-turn interruptions, and the prosecutor’s attempts to discredit her fellow woman. While Dr. Ford was just trying to communicate her reality as a good and concerned citizen, her space was constantly manipulated by some of those present, in ways that limited her ability to speak and be heard.

Surely everyone but a very narrow band of elites can somehow relate to that general experience. Surely almost everyone knows what it is like to be controlled in a space, and thus can have at least some empathy for what Ford went through in that hearing room. But – and I am making a guess here, an educated guess – I doubt very much that everyone was yelling at their screen that day, at least in the same way that me and my friends/ allies were. Those who share that particular experience share it because we understand Ford’s experience intimately, because we encounter it not occasionally but all the time, to varying degrees of seriousness and degree. We live it every day, over all the years of our lives. And it has thus been forged into our bones, and into our minds. It is, to borrow Ford’s word again, “indelible” to us. Ford’s testimony was intimately understandable to all of us who have ever been spoken over, dismissed, and, of course, laughed at, because we are embodied differently from the dominant members of our society (whoever those people may be in our given national contexts). It was intimately understandable to all of us who know what it is like to be deemed illegible and not worth hearing when we speak in our own voices of our own realities and concerns.

Further, though most public discourse on the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing and the broader battle over his Supreme Court nomination focuses on the gendering of these events, the “us” I am referring to is not “women”. Not all women, at least, as the women in the hearing room for Kavanaugh’s testimony attest. It is, instead, many women, people of colour, Indigenous, queer, trans, differently abled, migrant, elderly, youth, and more. This “us” is, in other words, all those who are embodied differently from the dominant members of our society (whoever those people may be in our given national contexts) and suffer diminishing life chances because of this fact. The specific assault that Ford endured and testified about was an expression of patriarchal power, to be sure. But patriarchy, as decades of scholarship informed by feminist, materialist, critical race, postcolonial, Indigenous, queer, trans, and crip theories tell us, is not discrete (just like scale). It intersects, with transphobia, homophobia, racism, capitalism, elitism, ableism, ageism, colonialism, and xenophobia. We all screamed at the same time and in a similar voice at our screens last week because of this fact.

So, the “us” that can relate to the micro-aggressions on display in that Washington, DC hearing room last week, the “us” that knows intimately that those micro-aggressions are linked to micro-aggressions like male rage and sexual assault and much more, is a massive group. Some readers may not think this is true, because so many of “us” have been disciplined into remaining silent about or – in the twisted flipside of Ford’s experience that long ago but still so present night – laughing off the many micro-aggressions we face daily. But trust me, we are many.

So, what do we in the academy do with our collective empathy and rage now?

Well, many of “us” are already doing much, and have been doing much for what seems like forever. Many of us already use the positions within the academy that we have fought hard to occupy to make badly needed change within it. We ensure that our classrooms are spaces of epistemic and experiential diversity, we craft sexual assault and harassment policies and practices, we try to change faculty hiring practices, and much more.

Those of us at the forefront of these efforts are mostly scholars whose work is informed by the critical perspectives of feminist, queer, trans, Indigenous, postcolonial, critical race, and crip theories. We do this work fighting against the grain, despite conservative fear-mongering in public discourse over “identity politics run amok” in higher learning. As Sara Ahmed states, “when you expose a problem, you pose a problem”. We are most frequently dismissed, derided, and yes, laughed at, when we raise our concerns and push for more than tokenistic diversity in the institution. As scales and power structures overlap and intermingle, so does the academy and society. The academy is of, rather than apart from, the wider world. Thus, the norms and power dynamics that we as critical scholars write about and face in society at large are prevalent within the academy. It is a space dominated by the few, not the many, and when the many try to break down the gates, the gates are bolstered in all kinds of ways (and often insidiously – consider, for example, the widespread employment of discourses of “merit” and “innovation” in hiring practices to hide and confirm biases that cannot easily be spoken aloud where “diversity” is ostensibly valued). An important corollary to this fact is that those who do social justice work in the institution often do so at considerable personal cost. These costs range, for instance, from occasional lost sleep or experiencing mild discomfort, to being denied tenure or promotion, or having to endure right-wing attacks on our work and very being.

And yet we keep going, we persist, because we know the stakes are high. There is a significant lack of epistemic and embodied diversity within our institutions, and this matters tremendously. The school-to-prison pipeline that too many people in too many places are on exists in a mutually constitutive relationship to the elite school-to-Supreme Court (or corporate board, or university president) pipeline that a relative handful of mostly rich white men take. We must work to alter both sets of social and political processes. Again, scales from the body to the globe are intertwined, and thus the exclusions and entitlements that go hand in hand in our educational institutions have tremendous reach, as the Judiciary Senate Committee hearing on Thursday 27 September 2018 showed us clearly.

Many academics with good intentions and critical aims are looking for ways to understand what happened in that hearing room in Washington, DC and why it has affected so many so deeply and so viscerally. I write to say to those people that there are many ways you can lend support. Foremost, recognize that there are survivors of sexual assault, partner abuse and child sexual abuse in our campus communities. Further, pay attention to your colleagues who are already doing social justice work on these and other related issues on your campuses. Work with us to challenge nepotism on our campuses, to foster diversity, to challenge precarity for contract faculty and students, and to be sensitive to all students’ experiences within and beyond the classroom.

Know that to do this work as a useful and effective ally, you must: first, take up less space; second, be willing to help make more space for those engaged and affected most directly by social injustices; and, third, take our ideas seriously. Your institutions’ libraries are full of critical race, queer, Indigenous, feminist, trans, crip and other scholarship that you may not have previously felt the need to dive into. But this work provides explanations for the kind of macro- and micro-aggressions and violence we saw in that Washington, DC hearing room, and that your friends and family and colleagues may be telling you they can relate to in a visceral way. Read that literature. Engage with it. Take it in. Show us that, unlike Dr. Ford and the rest of us to Judge Kavanaugh and his supporters in the US Senate, we are not immaterial to you. Do this by being willing to change your practices, as colleagues, as teachers, and as departmental and university citizens. Work with those of us that have been thinking and writing about the factors (i.e. xenophobia, homophobia, patriarchy, transphobia, racism, colonialism, capitalism, elitism, ableism) that created the tragic event in Washington, DC and occur all the time in all kinds of places to different degrees. Work with us to make our educational and other institutions places where we can all breathe the same amount of air, places where we can at last all speak and be heard.


[1] For feminist scholarship that looks at geographic scales as socially constructed and mutually constituted, see the following important essays: Sallie Marston (2000) The social construction of scale. Progress in Human Geography 24(2):219-242; Geraldine Pratt and Victoria Rosner (eds) (2012) The Global and the Intimate: Feminism in Our Time. New York: Columbia University Press; Ann Laura Stoler (ed) (2006) Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History. Durham: Duke University Press; Ara Wilson (2016) The infrastructure of intimacy. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41(2):247-280

[2] It is worth noting here that though much of the media coverage has focused on the experiences of mostly (white) women, the survivors coming forward through this hashtag and through other means are people of all genders, gender identities, races/ ethnicities, and sexual orientations.