Belief and Proof

A few days ago Brett Stephens published an op-ed piece in the New York Times that began with a very reasonable statement. He said that he had no idea what happened in the room when Dr. Blasey Ford alleges she was attacked, and he points out that, unless we were in the room, we can’t know either.

He’s right. And he’s missing the point.

I don’t know what happened in the room, but I believe Dr. Blasey Ford. I believe her not because I reflexively believe any story a person tells about experiencing a crime. I believe her because I read her testimony, I watched her speak, and I found her credible. I understand that there is no corroborating evidence to help her prove the truth of her story. I believe her all the more after hearing snippets from, and reading the transcript of* Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s response. Instead of telling his story calmly and candidly, he exploded with anger, responded to questions with questions, and hurled accusations. In essence, the threw a temper tantrum instead of treating the situation the way she did, as one that demanded an actual accounting of events. (You can read a full transcript of their testimony here.)

There is an #ibelieve reflex that some criticize because, they say, it bypasses standards of evidence and the rule of law. They are confusing two different processes. Standards of evidence and the rule of law apply in situations where a claim is made and a court is asked to determine a set of facts and an outcome. Interpersonal relationships depend on day to day decisions about how to assess what is true and what to believe about what people tell us. We don’t apply courtroom standards of evidence in these cases. We apply our own standards. We measure what we’re told against what we already know. We weigh it against our own experiences of the circumstances or people involved. We ask whether it seems to fit the facts as we understand them. We do this all the time, and not just when someone comes to us and says, “I’ve been assaulted.”

If someone does come to you and say something like that, it is important to listen without judgment, and to offer support. Offer aid, information, and resources to help the person feel safe and to make decisions about next steps. A person who has just told you about an assault needs those things whether you believe them or not. Once the person is safe and supported you might begin to think about whether or not you believe what you’ve heard, but whatever you decide, know that it’s okay to believe that the person is telling you their experience even if they can’t or aren’t ready to provide corroborating details. Unless you sit on official investigatory or disciplinary bodies, it may never be up to you to apply procedural standards of evidence.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh was not facing trial for the crimes he is alleged to have committed. He wasn’t even facing a disciplinary process at his workplace. He was facing questioning by a group of Senators whose job it was to assess his qualifications and character before offering him a promotion.

I tell my students that they are entitled to believe whatever they want, and that even means that they can hold beliefs that are religious in nature and unprovable. I tell them that they can even hold on to those beliefs in the face of evidence that would undermine them as long as they do so consciously and honestly account for their dismissal of the facts. In this case there are few independently verifiable facts. In order to decide who to believe we are left to assess for ourselves the credibility of the people involved based on their words and actions, weighed and measured according to our own personal experience of and understand of the world.

I believe Dr. Blasey Ford, and because I believe her, I also believe that Judge Brett Kavanaugh has no place on the U. S. Supreme Court, not only because of his teenage behavior but also because of his adult behavior: his lying, his entitlement, and his attacking of those who would challenge his rise. The last of those three there is certainly plenty of evidence to prove.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s Opening Remarks from Rising Up With Sonali on Vimeo.


*EDITED 9/30/18. The sentence has been corrected to reflect what information I actually used to form my opinion. The original sentence read “more of” instead of “the transcript of”. While “more of” is accurate, in that I read the entire transcript, it did not clearly communicate the full scope of what I’d read. I thank the reader who pointed this out. 

3 thoughts on “Belief and Proof

  1. I believe her too, and feel I can relate from past experiences. She really struggled to come forward & wanted to do the right thing. It’s possible that he didn’t remember the encounter because he was so inebriated, however I believe that entitlement of violating another human to exert his power there has to be other victims. He also sounds like a dangerous person, so they may be reluctant to come forward. People don’t change who they are at the core. I applaud her courage to come forward.


    1. Jen, thanks so much for commenting. You are missed in Kew Gardens!


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