The Clarence Thomas – Anita Hill affair in 1991 polarized America along male-female lines in the same way that the OJ Simpson trial polarized the nation along the black-white fault line, and the debate still rages over what happened.
And without a fuller understanding of what happened then, the chances of avoiding another smashing of a woman victim of sexual assault are minimal.
Suzette Haden Elgin, a socio-linguist, professor and author of the series: The Gentle art of Verbal Self-Defense postulated a reason Anita Hill was never believed, and Clarence Thomas was found credible by the white male senators. In her 1993 book Genderspeak: Men, women, and the gentle art of verbal self-defense, Haden Elgin identified gender-based “Operating Metaphors”; metaphors by which people run their life.
A person’s Operating Metaphor fills in the blank in the sentence “Life is a ……..” and enables them to have fundamental rules about how to run their life.
Haden Elgin found that many men’s Operating Metaphor is “Life is a team sport,” and that most activities are therefore a game, where the objective is to win, even if you need to bend the rules (i.e. stealing a base in baseball). In a team sport everyone has a role to play and you are expected to play your role.
She found that many women run their lives as if Life is a “Traditional Schoolroom,” where if you do the right things, follow the rules, and work hard you will be promoted (pass exams, go to next grade). Failure is a disgrace. Cheating or being dishonest is shameful.
Haden Elgin’s explanation of the Thomas-Hill debacle is that Thomas played the game very well. He played the race card, the victim card and since he played these roles very well, his role in the game being played out was fully understood by the white male senators holding court. For Anita Hill to have had any credibility with these men, she would have had to look the part and play the role of a victim of sexual harassment. In other words, she needed to look downtrodden, beaten-up, her life in tatters.
But this was not her game. She wasn’t playing a game. She bravely did the right thing and stood up against someone who broke the workplace rules. She forthrightly and assertively made her case, without embellishing or cowering under the barrage of invasive attacks by the Republican senators. She most certainly did not come across as a victim.
So they couldn’t believe her —- she was not in the same story as the decision-makers.
If Dr. Ford is to have a whisper of a chance of being believed, unfortunately she will need to demonstrate to the game-players in their terms that she was indeed a victim of Judge Kavanaugh’s sexual aggression. And this in an era where facts are construed as partisan wrangling – once again the game metaphor at play.