Power and Knowledge Then and Now

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I was interested in the Clarence Thomas Hearings before Anita Hill came forward with her allegations of sexual harassment. As I watched the hearings in the early 1990s, I was already a PhD student in the religion department at Temple University. My initial question was: why do people fight wars in the name of God? As I took the foundational courses required in the program I became interested in hermeneutics which led me to think about how people find meaning inside texts. As I watched the Thomas hearings, it occurred to me that what was happening was a matter of text interpretation. Texts inside texts. Contexts, pretexts, and subtexts collided.
When Anita Hill’s allegations came to light and the hearings were reopened, new facets of a clash of interpretations became visible. Issues of race, class, and sex made a complicated situation even more complicated. I believed Anita Hill then, and I believe her now. However, I must confess that before I started to study the hearings in depth, before I began to study women’s history, existential feminist theory, and womanism, I did not understand the daily struggle for respect that most women experience or the trauma of sexual harassment and assault. I may be one of the few women in the United States of America who do not have a “me too” story.
However, when I did begin to study these issues, I began to see that what Anita Hill experienced then and what Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is living through now is of a piece with women’s history that dates back centuries. One thing that remains the same is evidence that French philosopher Michel Foucault was correct when he helped us to understand the relationship between power and knowledge. There is a common saying that knowledge is power. However, Foucault taught that power determines what knowledge is. Power determines what we will know and what will remain unknown or at least uninvestigated.
Then, Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of speaking to her about pornographic material in the workplace and inappropriate sexual advances. Thomas issued a categorical denial of the accusation and called the proceeding a “high-tech lynching” invoking an emotionally charged racial trope. Hill testified. Thomas testified. Witnesses came forward to support Thomas, including women with whom he had worked. People came forward to support Hill. There was at least one witness who claimed that Anita Hill was given to delusions about whether or not a man was attracted to her. This was in keeping with the narrative that the Republicans wanted to advance that Hill was crazy. Women who dare to cause trouble for men have been called crazy for centuries.
However, there were women who had experiences with Thomas in the workplace similar to that which Anita Hill described. The powers that be on the Senate Judiciary Committee did not allow this testimony to be heard publicly. It is a part of the record of the hearings, but the general public did not have access to this information.
Fast forward to 2018. As I write this, Dr. Ford has not said whether or not she will appear before the committee. Her lawyers have said that she wants an FBI investigation before she agrees to appear, and she wants other witnesses called. Both are reasonable requests. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chair of the judiciary committee has said that he will not ask the White House to order an FBI investigation and that he will not call additional witnesses. We shall see what happens. This is another example of power making a determination about what kinds of knowledge the general public and the senators who are duty bound to say yes or no to this nomination will have.
It seems that the Republicans plan to rush a vote on Judge Kavanaugh no matter what Dr. Ford decides. They will very likely have their hearing on Monday and then call for a vote. When I wrote my dissertation twenty years ago, (Reading the Clarence Thomas Hearings: Ideology, Context, Discourse and Meaning) I started with the presumption of good faith on all sides of the public discourse. My work in discourse ethics was intended to show how miscommunication happens, that the meaning of a text is found in the meanings of a text. Everything open to interpretation is open to multiple interpretations. People who disagree with us are not lazy, crazy, stupid, ignorant or evil. They just disagree.
That was then.
Now, I no longer presume good faith. The Republicans in the United States Senate under the leadership of Mitch McConnell stole a Supreme Court seat and lied about a so-called Biden rule. This is a lie that Republicans continue to perpetrate, and far too many people in the media do not call them out on this lie. Now they are saying that the kind of investigation that Dr. Ford wants is not necessary. This is false and they know it since at least two of the GOP members of the judiciary committee – Grassley and Hatch (R-UT)– were members when Anita Hill came forward, and they applauded an FBI investigation.
The good news is that just as Foucault helps us to understand the relationship between power and knowledge, he also helps us to understand that power is everywhere. The truth will out. There is no doubt that there are people in the media who will chase this story until they find the truth. People who do not want their lives upended now, may very likely speak up once this particular moment has passed.
It may be too late to keep Judge Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court. We may have to live with another member of the highest court in the land accused of sexual misconduct, but we have yet another reason to remember in November and vote for people who will conduct their constitutional duties with integrity, not with hypocrisy and lies.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”