Anger on display (or not): Ford and Kanvanaugh

Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh

The explosive Senate hearing last week involving US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault is still resonating this week. The two not only told different versions of what happened at a high school party 36 years ago, they differed significantly in how they expressed themselves. That includes paralanguage — tone, volume — and body language. The situation is of course unique and it’s problematic to extrapolate too far from the specific exchange to general differences in communication styles between men and women (a topic studied extensively by scholars such as Deborah Tannen). Nevertheless, I do believe the exchange fits into familiar patterns of communication that are gender-specific and socially-determined.

Ford’s testimony was calm, measured and deferential, while Kavanaugh was aggressive, belligerent and bullying. Some have commented that of course Kavanaugh was angry, since he was convinced he was innocent of the charges. However, there’s no doubt that Ford was just as convinced that she was telling the truth – many Republicans, including the President, found her testimony to be “credible”. Yet, she did not yell and engage in angry outbursts and accusations – despite the fact that the assault she alleges (attempted rape) would amply justify that behavior.

In a commentary yesterday on NPR, Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, explains that contrast by pointing to the social acceptability (in the US at least) of verbal displays of anger by males, but not by women: “He had in his arsenal the ability to use anger, fury, tears in a way that he felt confident would resonate with the American people”. According to Traister, those same tools were not available to Ford, at least in the sense of being socially acceptable as used by a woman. They are even less likely to be available to women of color in the US:

I think it’s almost impossible for us to conceive of the voices of women of color as being heard loudly enough because they have been so unheard and so marginalized for so long. In fact, it’s women of color who have been the leaders and the leading thinkers of so many of our social movements, in ways that have remained invisible to us.

For Traister, the anger that Ford suppressed in the hearing is likely to re-emerge in a different form:

My argument is not that women’s anger is always righteous. It’s that it’s very often politically potent and yet we’re told not to take it seriously, still. I think that it’s the anger that women are feeling across the country that is having a catalytic connective impact. And this is part of a long process — social movements take a long time. The kind of anger that women are feeling in this moment around Kavanaugh is going to be part of a far longer story that’s going to extend deep into our future.

It’s been interesting to follow as well as the analysis of the encounter from the perspective of nonverbal communication, as in a minute by minute analysis by Jack Brown. His conclusion, from studying the body language: “Judge Kavanaugh’s nonverbal behavior indicates he’s lying as well as deliberately withholding information (lies of omission). He believes he is guilty of sexual assault.” On the other hand, Carol Kinsey Goman, another body language expert, comments:

Habitual and well-rehearsed liars can become quite comfortable with their falsehoods. But the same response is true for liars who believe their own lies. When Ford and Kavanaugh say they are “100% positive,” they may both genuinely believe it.

This echoes an assessment by another analyst, Patti Wood:

Wood says that a key piece of Dr. Ford’s testimony was revelatory; when she said that Kavanaugh and Mark Judge’s laughter — “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense” — is the strongest impression in her memory. “If Kavanaugh did it and he was laughing, he may not have seen it or felt it as anything but ‘horseplay,'” says Wood. “He may not have had it register in his memory as anything wrong or bad. And if he was drunk, he may not have remembered it at all. This is important because his anger is so strong and he seems so emphatic, and he could actually feel he never did anything like this.”

We will see this week what conclusion the FBI investigation reaches. It seems likely that we will never have factual information that settles the claims once and for all. In the absence of conclusive evidence or convincing witnesses, we will have to continue to rely on our interpretations of the words and behavior of the two individuals involved.

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