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Opacity doctrine and the authority to know her own mind

While 2018 has been called the year of the woman, in US politics, 2018 has been full of contradictions. Women, and particularly women of color, have made their voices heard, winning elections from school board to Senate. And yet, at the highest levels of government, male rage still carries the day.

This contradiction in the valuing of women’s voices was prominently on display during the hearings to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States. Yet again, even wealthy, white, well-educated women are not afforded the same credibility that men are. Not only do women have to perform perfectly just in order to have their voices heard, even when they do, their testimony about themselves is still not authoritative. One part of this story has to do with whose voices are heard. Another part has to do with who has the authority to evaluate another person’s internal state of mind.

To claim to know what is happening in another person’s mind is to claim authority over them.

The internet is awash with discussions of the hearings in terms of what Ellen Basso terms “ordeals of language”—the self-suppressions of voice in response to powerful actors—that women in all walks of life must face in order to express themselves.

But Dr. Christine Blasey Ford navigated those ordeals of language flawlessly. Republican Senators—and even the president—tripped over themselves to describe her testimony as credible. Apparently, it takes something more than credible testimony from a woman to prove that a man is lying. As Chuck Grassley put it, “I found Dr. Ford’s testimony credible,” before he went on to say, “There is simply no reason to deny Judge Kavanaugh a place on the Supreme Court.” Having identified her actions as sincere and her reasoning credible, Grassley and other Republican Senators determined that her intentions were based on an error.

What Grassley suggested is that something more is at stake for Republican Senators than whether Blasey Ford was telling the truth. To find a reason for Judge Kavanaugh not to be confirmed to the Supreme Court would require finding that he had been lying, rather than simply finding that she had been telling the truth. Evaluating whether someone is lying involves making inferences about their intentions: “What were they really thinking?”

Social sciences, and particularly the philosophy of language, have “attributed a central role to intentionality and have assumed that people are adept at construing the intentions behind the communications other people produce,” claim Robbins and Rumsey. Learning language, according to this model, is a question of learning to understand the intentions of the speaker. Robbins and Rumsey contrast this theory of mind with those situations in which people emphasize the inability to know another person’s intentions, a condition that they call the “doctrine of ‘the opacity of other minds.’”

Rupert Stasch suggests that opacity doctrine is related to politics and authority. “We can get to people’s culturally-distinctive understandings of political coexistence through their understandings of their access to minds, both their own minds and the minds of others.” Stasch identifies such attempts to penetrate the opacity of other minds with claiming the “authority to impinge on others’ relation of knowledge and authority vis-à-vis their own actions and reasoning.” That is, to claim to know what is happening in another person’s mind is to claim authority over them.

In this case, the privilege of an opaque mind is unequally distributed. To say that Blasey Ford is credible while choosing not to believe her denies her the authority not just to speak for herself, but even to access her own mind and intentions. It presumes that the authority to know her mind and understand her intentions lies not with her, but with the Senators who judge her.

This treatment stands in contrast to the treatment of Kavanaugh, who was afforded the privacy to have thoughts and emotions that could not be known. For instance, while Senator Collins was willing to make judgments about Blasey Ford’s intentions and internal mental world in her speech on the Senate floor, she studiously avoided making similar judgments about Kavanaugh’s intentions or mental world. Republican Senators declined to scrutinize Kavanaugh’s mind or evaluate his intentions in the way that they scrutinized Blasey Ford’s. If they had subjected his intentions to that kind of scrutiny, they would have concluded that he was lying. But they treated his mind as a private sphere. Their respect for the opacity of his mind allowed him to speak authoritatively about himself in a way that was not permitted to Blasey Ford.

Her mind was treated as more transparent, his mind as more opaque.

Certainly, these hearings showed that white men are given a pass for their rage-filled behavior, while women must suppress their voices in order to be heard. While this analysis is necessary to understanding our politics today, it is insufficient. Looking at the unequal application of the opacity doctrine might tell us more about our culturally-distinctive understandings of our political coexistence.

Chuck Sturtevant is a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law. He writes about political anthropology in the Amazonian lowlands of Bolivia. His recent published work includes “Habilito: Debt for Life.”

Cite as: Sturtevant, Chuck. 2018. “She’s Credible—I Don’t Believe Her.” Anthropology News website, December 10, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1054

Featured image: Andrew Worley/Unsplash