On Wednesday, the day before a hearing on sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, Sen. Jeff Flake made a speech defending the right of Christine Blasey Ford, the Supreme Court nominee’s accuser, to be heard. “How many times do we have to marginalize and ignore women before we learn that important lesson?” Flake (R-Ariz.) asked, taking issue with President Trump’s questions about why Ford never reported the alleged attempted rape.
This followed a fortnight of sometimes surprising gestures from Kavanaugh’s ideological kin, who also seemed to draw on the language and concepts of the Me Too movement. Trump and his advisers initially avoided questioning Ford’s motives or attacking her personally (until the president exploded out of his box a few days later). Earlier in September, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) claimed that he wanted to give Ford “an opportunity to be heard,” and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) similarly tweeted, “I want to hear ur testimony.” Then there was the doppelganger theory advanced by conservative legal expert Ed Whelan , who argued that Ford had confused two hockey-haired Georgetown Prep students. His point (which he later recanted) was bizarre and possibly libelous, but it didn’t challenge Ford’s basic story of abuse, just her memory of the particulars.
Attempting to avoid the Anita Hill-esque optics of queries from 11 male senators, Republicans announced Tuesday that Rachel Mitchell, a sex crimes prosecutor (or “female assistant,” according to McConnell), would question Ford at the hearing. And finally there was Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who told reporters Thursday afternoon, “I found no reason to find [Ford] not credible.”
We are in a bizarre moment: As the strength of the year-old Me Too movement is put to its most public and crucial test yet, Republicans have the political savvy to recognize that they must pay lip service to it, even as they actively campaign against its aims. You could view these concessions as politically motivated to the point of being meaningless. But according to social science research into the complex interaction between social behaviors and privately held views, even self-interested nods at #MeToo may indicate some progress for the movement. Recent, highly publicized cases of sexual harassment and assault have rapidly created a new norm in which it’s toxic to dismiss alleged survivors. Kavanaugh’s allies are responding to that norm, even if they don’t fully agree with its principles. Over time — and with some serious caveats — norms can influence private views, suggesting that even conservative beliefs on sexual harassment are likely to be shaped at least in the long term by #MeToo.
There are many, many examples of norms shifting, sometimes quite abruptly, as institutions tip in one direction or social movements come to fruition: same-sex marriage becoming broadly acceptable after the 2015 Supreme Court decision, the bar lowering for hate speech after Trump’s election. Betsy Levy Paluck, a psychology professor at Princeton, researches “perceived norms” — people’s views about what’s acceptable and what’s not in their social groups. Because these perceptions are subjective, they can be shaped in a way that then shapes behavior, Paluck has found. By way of example, Paluck points to research that people are more likely to recycle after they learn — through an article or in conversation — that many of their peers are recyclers.
Yet the act of recycling — or offering lip service to the idea that women should be believed — doesn’t indicate a shift in private views. Note, for example, that after suggesting Ford might be credible Cornyn clarified on Twitter that he was still waiting on Kavanaugh’s own testimony. Flake, after sexual assault victims cornered and berated him, called for a brief FBI investigation but still voted Kavanaugh out of committee. “We often act in ways that will keep us safe in a crowd,” Paluck says. “If we understand that the wind is changing direction, we are likely to adjust our behavior — sometimes even when we don’t personally agree.”
There are plenty of signs that conservative beliefs on sexual abuse have barely shifted since the Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991, such as the apparent assumption among Republicans that Ford’s story would be just a “hiccup” that they could “plow right through.” Although the various #MeToo reckonings have led a majority of women to support the movement, they may still have a greater effect on behavior than on privately held opinion — which could explain the persistent backlash. Indeed, it may be like similar “evolutions” on racism, which find people eschewing the n-word in public while remaining as virulent as ever in private.
Still, there is a process by which norms can shape not just behavior but also attitudes. University of Kansas psychologist Chris Crandall has studied how people learn prejudices based on what’s socially acceptable within a certain group — and how they change their views once the group changes. In a 2002 study, Crandall and his colleagues showed how white college freshmen, entering a new setting in which prejudice against black people was less socially acceptable than in their home towns, learned over the following year to question racist thoughts. “When norms change, or when people join groups that have different norms, there is conflict — with the outside world at first, and then a more internal struggle to fit in better,” Crandall said.
The often-jarring conflicts we’re seeing between the public behavior and apparent private beliefs of those who support Kavanaugh may represent this initial, college-freshman stage of adapting to a society with changed norms on sexual assault. As #MeToo continues to shape norms around believing survivors, more conservatives could come around as well — not merely when it comes to action but also in their attitudes.
Unfortunately, prejudices about gender appear to be especially intractable, according to Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske . In cross-cultural work examining prejudice, she has found less sexism in more-developed countries, suggesting that sexism diminishes along with development. In general, though, sexism is a constant, while attitudes toward other groups develop more contextually. “People have women in their families, so changing stereotypic gender roles is more disruptive than for other biases,” Fiske told me.
The baby steps we’re seeing right now may demonstrate some progress, in other words — but it’s likely that we’ve still got a long way to go.
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