Roman politician and philosopher Cicero is often quoted as saying, “when you have no basis of argument, abuse the plaintiff.” The point should be obvious, but it is lost on too many who get distracted by irrelevancies in a debate. When a contest is going badly on the merits, it is tempting to attack the person of one’s opponent, knowing that doing so will sway large parts of the audience.
The attacks being made against Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University and the accuser of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, illustrate Cicero’s message. According to Ford, when she and Kavanaugh were high school students, both attended a party at which Kavanaugh allegedly held her down, attempted to remove her clothing, and covered her mouth with his hand when she tried to scream. This is a serious charge, one that is difficult to judge after so many years, but that does deserve to be investigated, particularly since Kavanaugh is not on trial in a court of law, but is instead being considered for one of the highest privileges in the United States.
One attack on Ford was a ham-handed attempt at discrediting her by citing evaluations from RateMyProfessors.com — except that the Professor Ford in question was the wrong one, as at least one right-wing magazine has admitted. The acknowledgment of that error has been, shall we say, overlooked by many who include a #MAGA hashtag in their biographies on Twitter.
Breitbart worked another angle, quoting from a San Jose Mercury News article that interviewed Ford at a march for science in 2017. Ford wore a knitted pink hat designed to look like a human brain, which Breitbart attacks as a “’brain’ pussy hat,” demonstrating a lack of anatomical awareness in addition to the magazine’s many other faults. The article, written by Penny Starr, takes pains to point out that Ford opposes Trump and other politicians who ignore science, as if that speaks in any way to how believable her allegations are. John Binder, also of Breitbart, would like us to know that Ford signed a letter written by the American Civil Liberties Union in opposition to Trump’s policy of separating children from parents who are seeking asylum in the United States, again as if her political stance has any relevance to the question of whether she was assaulted.
Challenging an accuser’s credibility is valid when that credibility is the point under consideration. If the person leveling charges has a history of lying to authorities, or if the person makes impossible claims — says that an attacker looked a particular way when the victim was unable to see at the time, for example — that undermines the person’s case. The same would be true if the accuser were shown to have taken money to testify. But telling us that Ford is a Democrat or a liberal or a Trump opponent by itself means nothing.
This dodging of the need to make a valid argument is not limited to attacks on Ford, naturally. Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy get dragged back onto the stage as exhibits of Democrats who were not sufficiently punished for their own assaults on women. This is the equivalent of what happens in elementary school when the teacher summons a young Republican to the front of the room over some offense, and said child screams, “But Billy did it, too!” It may feel unfair to be the one who gets caught, but as everyone’s mother has told every child in human history, it is best to think of that before acting.
The worst of all of this is the extent to which it is working with Republican voters. Each time the party is given the chance to do the right thing, they choose the opposite in the most spectacular manner possible. Whether or not Kavanaugh assaulted Ford when they were both in high school is a question that deserves to be answered. And the investigation to reach that answer will only work if it is done without wasting time on irrelevancies. The reality television show that is our country depends on a continual stream of fallacies to distract us from the fact that we can change the channel in November.