Earlier this week, Tucker Carlson did the thing Tucker Carlson is consummately good at doing: He got angry on national television. The Fox News host’s performance, this time around, concerned the allegations of sexual assault Christine Blasey Ford has made against the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh; Carlson, echoing an idea that has become a common one in the heated national debate that has resulted from the claims, was working to cast doubt on Ford’s overall credibility by casting doubt on a specific element of her story: the timing by which she finally made her private memories public. “It’s pretty straightforward,” Carlson said, flush with indignation. “If you believe a crime has been committed against you, you report it … It’s your obligation as a citizen.”
Why didn’t she say anything sooner? It’s a talking point that has been a talking point since even before Ford came forward—or, more precisely, since even before she was outed against her will—as the author of the letter that had been sent to Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Anna Eshoo earlier this summer. Carlson’s innovation was to use the question of timing to minimize Ford on moral grounds as well as epistemic ones. Regardless of everything else, Carlson suggested, how could she have shirked her civic duty to talk about it at the time, all those years ago?
That Ford, a professor and research psychologist who has a reputation for particularly careful scholarship, might in fact have multiple, complicated, and eminently logical reasons for not coming forward until she did seems not to have occurred to Carlson. (Or at least not to the character he plays on TV.) Nor does it seem to have occurred to the many others who—not wanting to cast direct doubt on a woman’s stated experience, but at the same time, perhaps, very much wanting to—have navigated this particular collision of #MeToo and partisan politics by focusing, in their public doubt-casting, on the question of timing. Why didn’t she say anything sooner? No, but really, why?
In this, the commentators betray an ignorance that, at this point, can only be assumed to be willful: ignorance about the obvious answers to the question of temporal delay. Ignorance about how often claims of sexual abuse are mishandled by law enforcement. Ignorance about all the factors a person must weigh—assured costs to their reputation, likely costs to their finances, potential costs to so much else, in the life they have built around the violence—when deciding whether to come forward. Ignorance about the manifestations of trauma. Ignorance about the weaponization of shame. Ignorance about a culture that has found so many canny ways to tell women, in particular, that their bodies are not fully theirs, and that they misunderstood what went on, and that anger is ugly, and that boys will be boys, and that men will be men, and that maybe they should have thought about that before accepting the beer.
There have been particular strains of willful ignorance in the case of Christine Blasey Ford and her allegations against Kavanaugh—allegations that he has strongly denied. Attempts to assassinate her character, even before the character in question revealed her identity. Attempts to dismiss her, misleadingly, as “a major Democratic donor with a long history of left-wing activism.” To question her motivation under the (also entirely false) premise that Kavanaugh’s mother had once ruled against Ford’s parents in a home-foreclosure case. To brush aside the specific allegations she has made about what happened to her as a 15-year-old girl—being trapped in a room; being pinned down, her mouth covered so as to muffle her screams; being groped at so violently that she thought she might die—as the delusions of an unreliable narrator. It’s not her fault, Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator from Utah, concluded this week, magnanimously: The matter is simply that Christine Blasey Ford, in her recollections, must be “mixed up.”
“Believe women,” the ethic goes, in its attempt to correct misogynies that have accumulated over centuries, and in its two efficient words is summoned a determined optimism that the world that is can be better than the world that has been. What the public treatment of Ford has revealed, however, among so many other sad revelations, is that, even in the America of #MeToo—even in the America that promises so readily that Anita Hill’s warnings will be heeded, this time around—“believe women” remains a pipe dream.
The discussions of this week, which have found politicians and commentators finding new ways to cast the old doubts on Ford, have suggested how far the country has to go before “believe women” can manifest as anything more than an empty performance. And not only because the phrase has been, in the public discourse, breezily misrepresented. “Believe women” fails when Americans prove themselves—still, despite it all—reluctant to do the extremely basic work the ethic asks of them, as it asks for women’s experiences to be taken seriously: to acknowledge those experiences in the first place. To pay women that smallest and yet rarest of dignities: listening to them. And actually hearing them.
Here are some of the immensely predictable things that have happened to Ford, according to her lawyers, since she was coerced into coming forward publicly: She was hacked. She was doxxed. She and her family, including her two teenage sons, have had to leave their home, and are currently seeking refuge from the rage of their fellow citizens at a location that remains, for the moment, undisclosed. They have had to hire a security team. (There is currently a GoFundMe campaign, started by a law professor at Georgetown University, to help the family defray the costs of coming forward; it currently has more than $209,000 in donations.) The hiring of the security detail was necessary, of course, because—the world whirls in predictable patterns—Ford, those close to her say, as part of the campaign of “vicious harassment” that has been waged against her, has been receiving death threats.
She knew this would happen. Her lawyers, both women, knew this would happen. Anyone who has been paying attention—including the ACLU, which provides a detailed list of the protective measures one should take before going public with a story of assault—knew this would happen. After sending the letter detailing her allegations about Kavanaugh to her representatives, Ford had initially decided not to come forward, The Washington Post reported, precisely because she assumed that Kavanaugh would be confirmed despite her claims, and that she would therefore become collateral along the way to another American inevitability. “Why suffer through the annihilation,” she figured, “if it’s not going to matter?”
The annihilation has come. And it has, over the past day, taken on a new form. The story of Ford and Kavanaugh has come to involve another strain of coercion, one that is doing its insisting not in a bedroom, or in a home with eager journalists camped out on its front yard, but rather as a matter of public record: in the demands that Ford appear, on Monday, before the Senate Judiciary Committee—to testify, potentially, in the same room and at the same table, as her alleged attacker, as the nation watches and judges. Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has given her a strict deadline (Friday, 10 a.m. eastern standard time) for deciding whether she will appear. And so much will rest on that decision. “Everybody should be clear about what the stakes are,” the legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said on CNN on Wednesday evening: “If she does not testify, he is getting confirmed.”
The binary nature of such an appearance—“Will she or won’t she?” the San Jose Mercury News, Ford’s hometown paper, asked on Wednesday—suggests in its own way a failure of listening. Ford has asked for an FBI investigation so that her testimony might have the opportunity to be more than an empty, angry performance of a he-said, she-said show; thus far, that request has been denied. And so, with the “choice” being presented to her—by politicians, with their vested interests; by journalists; by a public that is not accustomed to listening to the words of women—Ford is being asked to do the thing so few people in her position would want to do: to make herself vulnerable in a new kind of way. To know a new kind of trauma. To risk going forward, in the most public of settings, to be heard but not listened to. To be that most telling, and most inevitable, of things: simultaneously famous and ignored.