Read more: The logical fallacy of Ford’s “choice” to testify
Here is something that Christine Blasey Ford, who is an expert in the workings of the human mind, seemed to know in her bones, just as so many other women know it in theirs: Part of her job, in her Senate testimony as in so much else, was to be likable. If her credibility, as so many pundits argued, was the thing really being cross-examined in that faux courtroom in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, then the thing that would inevitably be tested along with it—the “court” being what it was, the world being what it is—would be her ability to seem pleasant and accommodating and, in general, nice. As Ford was grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee (by the members themselves and, in the case of the Republican members, by Rachel Mitchell, the “female assistant” brought in to do their questioning), it became ever more clear: Being believed would require her to convince her interrogators of something that has very little to do with the truth of her allegations. She would have to prove that she is, rather than angry or bitter—these are not the emotions of the credible—approachable, and helpful, and appropriately vulnerable.
Here, then, was one more absurdity among so many others, in the hearings that took place on Thursday: Christine Blasey Ford, in order to be deemed a reliable narrator of her own experience, would also have to be deemed a likable one. As CNN’s Jake Tapper put it, summing up many pundits’ impressed reactions to her testimony: “When we started this coverage, we were all talking about how we didn’t know how credible Professor Christine Blasey Ford was going to be. And now we’re at a point where everybody—I think there was consensus in Washington that she was pretty credible, pretty likable, pretty believable.”
Pretty credible, pretty likable, pretty believable. Because of that conflation—the epistemic dimensions of charm—there was another kind of testimony taking place on Thursday. Ford, as she went through what will likely be one of the most difficult and public and consequential moments of her life, was also engaged in that familiar form of labor: the woman, going out of her way to make everyone else comfortable. Ford, while being questioned by interrogators both kind and hostile, smiled a lot. She apologized about gaps in her memory. She asked—multiple times, with a note of apology in her voice—for a bit of caffeine to help sustain her through the long stretch of questioning. (In response to this meager request, she was initially presented with a small, cardboard cup of coffee, complemented with a packet of sugar.) Ford, through it all, helped things along by making jokes and making light and making things—for everyone else, if not herself—a little easier.
There is, in this, very likely a blend of truth and performance: Ford probably is, as she seems, extremely kind, and genuinely nice. She is, indeed, as a performer on a national stage, extremely likable. What is revealing, though, is how blithely those qualities became the terms upon which her credibility was seen to rest. Another pundit on CNN, assessing Ford’s testimony during a short break in the questioning, reportedly deemed Ford’s performance to be particularly resonant because—unlike Anita Hill, who, questioned by some of the same characters, had projected “strength and poise”—Ford projected “vulnerability.” Orrin Hatch, one of the senators who had questioned Hill, those 27 years ago, dubbed Ford a “good witness” precisely on the grounds of her likability. (“I don’t think she’s un-credible,” he put it, magnanimously. He added: “I think she is an attractive, good witness.” Asked what he meant by “attractive,” the senator replied: “In other words, she’s pleasing.”)