Or, rather: He could be any man. And here is the deeper venality of the boys-being-boys defense: It normalizes. It erases the specific details of Christine Blasey Ford’s stated recollections with the soggy mop of generalized male entitlement. What red-blooded guy, after all, its logic assumes, hasn’t done, in some way, the kinds of things Ford has described? Who, as a younger version of himself, hasn’t gotten stumble-drunk, pinned down a woman, groped her, tried to undress her, and then, when she resisted, held his hand over her mouth to muffle her screams? (“It was drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven,” the Fox News columnist Stephen Miller tweeted, derisively.)
Once again, in much of the public discussion, the empathy settles on the man accused. There but for the grace, etc.: If youthful indiscretions like that are allowed to affect the fate of a basketball-coaching, soup-kitchen-volunteering, daughter-nurturing, carpool-driving Supreme Court nominee, whose fortunes wouldn’t be affected? “We’ve now gone from ‘he did this terrible thing at 17’ to ‘he’s a man who treated a woman like that,’” the professor and author Tom Nichols tweeted on Sunday. “Man, I hope all the people who are making this case had spotless lives at 17, because I sure as hell didn’t.”
Nichols has since deleted the tweet; in erasing it, though, he reiterated the general point: “All of you arguing that what someone did at 17 is relevant when you’re 53 better to be [sic] ready *always* to die on that hill, because it’s going to be the new rule. Don’t complain later when the revolution eats its young.” Even in this reconsidered argument, it is not the substance of Ford’s claim that is treated as the primary outrage; it is the vintage of her claim that is. We all did terrible things when we were young, obviously; do we really want to live in a world that holds us accountable for them?
And so, this weekend, within the space of a few hours, something remarkable happened. The salient question about Ford’s allegations became, in some quarters, not whether they are true, but rather whether they count as allegations at all. The cruelties she describes—the alleged acts of dehumanization that left her traumatized, she says, as a 15-year-old and, still, as an adult—might be “terrible,” yes, but they are also … simply part of the natural order of things. Boys, figuring out how to be men. Locker-room talk, made manifest. “Drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven.” Who wouldn’t be implicated in that? Who doesn’t see himself, in some way, in this age-old story? If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.
Americans talk a lot, these days, about norms. What will be preserved, in the tumult and chaos of today’s politics; what is worth preserving; what will fall away. Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court was already, in the profoundest of ways, a matter of norms: It will determine, almost inevitably, whether the women of America maintain autonomy over their bodies. Here, though, in Christine Blasey Ford’s claim that a young Brett Kavanaugh compromised her autonomy in another way, another norm is being litigated: the way we talk about sexual violence. Whether such violence will be considered an outrage, or simply a sad inevitability. Whether it will be treated as morally intolerable ... or as something that, boys being boys and men being men, just happens.