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LETTERS: Readers to respond to controversial column about Kavanaugh



An IDS column with the headline "Democrats are using the sexual assault allegation against Kavanaugh for selfish political gain" elicited strong reactions from readers, many of whom disagreed with the argument made by IDS Opinion editor Ethan Smith. Below are some letters to the editor about the column, and a responding column written by IDS Opinion editor Emma Getz can be found here.

From Celeste Coughlin of Bloomington

Dear Ethan Smith,

Your cold position toward survivors of sexual violence and weak argument against Democrats is disappointing.

First, there is not a “strong double standard” between allegations against Representative Keith Ellison and Judge Brett Kavanaugh. There was only a limited investigation into the Kavanaugh allegations, whereas the Ellison investigation is ongoing. The two men hold drastically different positions of power and should therefore be held to different standards of scrutiny. One would hope the bar would be high for both. But I digress. 

Second, there is scientific research supporting how that survivors detail timelines. You have provided no rationale as to why Doctor Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was “seemingly false” outside of mixed timelines. 

Next, the cited investigation report come from a party appointed criminal prosecutor where she states specifically that the evidence provided does not “satisfy the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard,” this only suggests this case would not stand in a civil or criminal court. This is not a criminal case but rather a job interview in which an alleged habitual abuser said something akin to ‘I like beer,’ 30+ times and cried. Furthermore, this investigator was  appointed by only Republicans. This implicit bias shows in the subversive language used in the report that undermines Ford’s account. 

I will offer no speculation as to why allegations of abuse split the Senate, but will file this under the growing category of ‘Republicans v. Women’. Your baseless allegations of a scheme that is ‘‘a disgusting, unethical move to attempt to obtain political power,” does a disservice to journalism. While your fallacies and assumptions damage journalism, your elitist protection presents a threat to half of the world’s population and their daily fight for existence, not to mention the survivors of sexual violence whose stories you throw away. Your reduction of sexual assault is why survivors of abuse stay silent because people like you have attempt to undermine survivors validity. Reducing a person's trauma to contrite and poorly characterized parties is offensive to survivors. 

I hope you consider not only forming a better argument against the Democratic party but supporting it better too. If not for the women and survivors of sexual violence whose wounds you reopen by making such ostentatious claims but for the sake of the Indiana Daily Student’s reputation. 

From Madeline Klein of Bloomington

Note: Madeline Klein is a former IDS Opinion columnist.

Though he claims to “stand by” the poorly executed, insensitive argument in his recent column on the Kavanaugh debacle, Ethan Smith would do well to heed his critics. 

First, there are the facts. Or in Smith’s case, the lack thereof. He poses many ill-informed questions regarding Ford’s account that a cursory Google search could have answered. 

Clinical psychologist and nationally recognized consultant Dr. Jim Hopper, who would have delivered an expert testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee had a truly thorough investigation been conducted, explains that outsiders cannot judge the central details of a traumatic event. 

Crucially, Hopper emphasizes that a survivor’s inability to produce details of public interest damages “nothing about the reliability of the details they do recall, and nothing about their credibility.” 

As clinical psychiatry professor Richard Alan Friedman has said to NBC, “such peripheral details” as the ones upon which Smith chose to harp “might not become memories at all.” It is, therefore, not even remotely unclear why Ford’s memory exhibits gaps. 

Questions about traumatic memory are easy to address for reasonably engaged and thorough journalists. That Smith fails so glaringly to answer them casts a shadow of incompetence on his column. 

Furthermore, because he proposes to address Democrats’ manipulation of Ford’s testimony for “selfish, unethical and deceitful motives,” it then becomes blatantly hypocritical when Smith’s own column deceives its readers for political gain. Rather than the promised critique of Democrats’ inadequacies, we receive an unpublishable mess of bait-and-switch misogyny. 

To be clear, I believe that legitimate criticism of Democrats’ actions is plausible and deserved. But that is not what Smith delivers.

In the most poignant example of his journalistic malpractice, Smith performs concern that Democrats are “ruining lives,” including Ford’s, but predicates his entire argument on the act of discrediting a survivor of sexual assault, writing, “Ford has recently proven herself to be less and less credible.” 

Smith has no right to play the victimized male conservative. He isn’t wrong because he is a Republican man. He’s wrong because his argument neglects basic facts, misleads readers and attempts to discredit a survivor of sexual assault. 

From Josh Hoffer of Bloomington

Note: Josh Hoffer is a former IDS Opinion columnist and editor.

Ethan Smith’s column discussing the alleged partisanship of Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing neglects to include scientific evidence concerning trauma’s effect on memory, falsely equivocates separate instances of assault allegations, and, most importantly, fails to properly recognize the trauma Christine Blasey Ford experienced. 

Smith focused on details Ford was unable to recall, but does not mention the details Ford testified she remembered: that someone she was “100 percent” certain was Kavanaugh “groped me and tried to take off my clothes” and “put his hand over my mouth to stop me from yelling.” 

Jim Hopper, an expert on psychological trauma, told Scientific American the central details of a traumatic experience are strongly conserved by the brain’s memory storage and retrieval regions, even when peripheral details are forgotten. Numerous other scientific articles published by researchers specializing in this field support Hopper’s statements

The focus by Smith — and Rachel Mitchell, the prosecutor who questioned Kavanaugh and Ford — on peripheral details surrounding Ford’s assault tells a woefully incomplete story. 

Smith’s discussion of unrelated domestic assault allegations further undermines his argument. Every assault allegation should be fully investigated, a process that may take longer than a week, involve more than nine interviews of people, and perhaps even include more witnesses who are not “already sympathetic” to the abuser. 

Declining to turn over video evidence may result in unsubstantiated claims. Testifying to a wall of scowling men is far less insubstantial. 

Importantly, neither case can prove that the assault did not happen. 

Smith tweeted he “was saying that Dr. Ford was probably sexually assaulted,” but he spends far more of his article discussing Ford’s supposed “lack of credibility” and “seemingly false allegations.” 

Smith failed to contextualize this event as one that occurred in a society in which judicial leniency — or Smith’s lauded “insubstantial findings“ — have resulted in only 0.6 percent of rape cases ending in incarceration. Or in a society in which fraternity members are more than three times more likely to engage in sexually aggressive behaviors. Or in a society where Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, calls Ford an “attractive,” “pleasing” witness. 

Ford’s pain — a pain familiar to millions of women — should be given a little more thought next time.  

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