Liberal-leaning mainstream media’s employment of virtually any tactic available to undermine Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court is taking some concerning turns. Take The Washington Post’s print Sunday Outlook section. The latest one featured five articles related either to the Supreme Court confirmation process or sexual assault.
This is unsurprising, given the last week. Yet three of these all relied upon the same logical fallacy, one most high-school students are taught to avoid. Such a glaring ad hominem polemical assault, disguised under the cover of academic and journalistic expertise, suggests our political climate, regardless of the outcome of the Senate’s decision, is likely to become much, much worse.
The Arguments Rest on an Embarrassing Fallacy
Columbia University professor of sociology Shamus Khan, for example, argues that Kavanaugh obviously lied during the confirmation hearings. Khan provides a list of allegations and “probablies” to substantiate this claim.
The professor then asserts that Kavanaugh lies because of his “upbringing,” as “elites learn early that the rules don’t apply.” He claims that Kavanaugh has been instilled with a belief in his self-privilege, one that “suggests the rules that govern American society are for the common man, not the exceptional one.” Such a deeply ingrained confidence in his own privilege, says Khan, leads Kavanaugh to think he can “lie with impunity.”
Suniya S. Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University (and former faculty member at Yale University), alleges that affluent kids abuse alcohol more than poorer ones do. She notes that her research of high-achieving, elite schools demonstrates that “students at such schools show higher rates of disturbance compared with average American teens,” including “abuse of drugs and alcohol.”
In an implicit attempt to connect her research to Kavanaugh, Luthar notes a number of allegations made against the judge pertaining to his use of alcohol, including that he was a “stumbling drunk” and a “sloppy drunk.” She cites an excerpt from a book written by Kavanaugh friend Mark Judge that features a drunken character, and quotes Kavanaugh’s antagonistic defense of his alcohol consumption to Sen. Amy Klobuchar during last week’s hearing.
Andi Zeisler, co-founder of a feminist media organization, notes that there is a long history of men bonding over women’s sexual humiliation. She relates this to the details of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh, which included “uproarious laughter” between Kavanaugh and Judge, who were “having fun at my [Ford’s] expense.”
Zeisler then observes that the popular culture of the 1980s was filled with movies where males sexually humiliated girls: “Caddyshack,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Porky’s,” “Private School,” “School Spirit,” “Getting It On!,” “Revenge of the Nerds,” etc. These types of films, some of which Kavanaugh admits to watching and referencing in his high-school yearbook, prize masculine dominance and the sexual humiliation of females. As with Luthar’s article, the implicit argument is that the immoral nature of a subculture of which Kavanaugh was a member is evidence that the judge is guilty of such misbehavior.
The Guilt-By Association Fallacy
In each of these articles, the same fundamental argument is being made: (1) a certain group of individuals often acts in a certain condemnable manner; (2) Kavanaugh was, and is, a member of just such a group; (3) Therefore, Kavanaugh is guilty of all those traits which have been associated with that group.
Khan argues that upper-class kids’ sense of privilege leads them to think the rules don’t apply to them, and Kavanaugh was such a kid, so he doesn’t think the rules apply to him, either. Luthar notes that upper-class kids abuse alcohol more than other kids do, therefore Kavanaugh must have done the same. Zeisler reminds us that a lot of popular movies among boys in Kavanaugh’s day glorified the sexual humiliation of women; Kavanaugh must have engaged in this behavior, as well.
Yet all of these articles rely on the association fallacy, which claims that qualities of one thing are inherently qualities of another. It can be described as the following:
Premise A is a B
Premise A is also a C
Conclusion: Therefore, all Bs are Cs
Sometimes “guilt by association” is employed as an ad hominem fallacy. This occurs when the argument attacks a person because of some similarity between that person and the larger group of which that person is a member. Such an application of the fallacy has been central to some of the worst parts of American history.
The “guilt by association” fallacy has been — and still is — used by racists and nativists to impugn the character of certain races, ethnicities, or nationalities. My own Irish ancestors, for example, were caricatured by WASP nativists as ape-like subhumans who were lazy, alcoholic pugilists, subordinate to a foreign power (the papacy) who would destroy American society and make it a Catholic fiefdom. This caricature developed because some percentage of Irish immigrants were indeed alcoholics and prone to brawling.
Why This Kind of Argumentation Is Worrisome
Recognizing the poor argumentation visible across the pages of the WaPo’s Outlook section doesn’t acquit Kavanaugh of any of this behavior. It is indeed possible that he was, or even remains, someone who believes he can lie and get away with it because of his privilege.
It is possible that he was a drunk prep-schooler who made terrible decisions, including sexual assault. Perhaps he was a willing participating in a broader teen culture that sexually humiliated women. These are all indeed possibilities.
Yet their likelihood must be evaluated on the available evidence, not on broader trends among the “aristocratic” cohort of which Kavanaugh is a member. Otherwise we are justifying the evaluation of people based upon larger groups of which they are members, many of which, like race, ethnicity, sex, or class, they have little-to-no control over.
This Argument Is a Double-Edged Sword
Moreover, there is a double-edged irony regarding using the “guilt by association” argument as it relates to “the elites.” The authors are all members of the technocratic elite. Khan attended an exclusive New England boarding school and teaches at an Ivy League university. Luther previously taught at an Ivy League institution, while Zeisler “regularly speaks at colleges and universities and holds interviews in various national publications and radio programs around the country.”
Are we to assume that although these authors possess elite backgrounds or professional portfolios that they are exempt from the same generalizations they apply to Kavanaugh? I wonder what percentage of the Washington Post staff originate from “elite” communities or educational institutions — should their integrity also be questioned based on the same criteria?
Indeed, much of the top leadership of the Democratic Party, including some of those on the Senate Judiciary Committee who questioned Kavanaugh, come from elite backgrounds. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is the daughter of a former model and a surgeon and attended private Catholic school in San Francisco. Sen. Kamala Harris is the daughter of a Stanford University economics professor and a breast-cancer researcher who met at the University of California at Berkeley; her grandfather was an Indian diplomat.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is the son of career diplomat Charles Sheldon Whitehouse, and the descendant of an Episcopalian bishop and a railroad magnate. Whitehouse graduated from an elite New Hampshire boarding school. If we apply the same criteria employed by the aforementioned WaPo opinions, the character of all three of these people, and many more, should be equally suspect.
Ultimately, the essential concern with the reasoning applied in Sunday’s WaPo Outlook section is not because the same attacks can be lodged against the writers of those same articles, or even the Democratic Party more generally. The deeper problem is that it’s cruel and uncharitable to make judgments about people’s character based on broader trends that define their upbringing, race, or sex.
Indeed, such a strategy is inimical to the very foundations of the American political experiment, which argues that people should be judged on their merits. The Washington Post would never countenance a battery of opinion pieces that applied these kinds of generalizations about other demographics — say, poor black males or Latino female immigrants — to undermine an individual’s reputation. For the sake of what precedent this sets, it behooves them to avoid this temptation with Kavanaugh, as well.