What we believe is largely determined by what we want to believe. It was ever so. The internet has arrived, accompanied by lofty promises that widespread access to information will cause a revolution in research-, fact-, and reality-based argument. If anything, we've grown more steadfast in believing what we want to believe, bolstered by the ability to find other people online who agree with us because they want to believe the same thing. It will ever be so.
Virginia Thomas, who is married to United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, left Anita Hill a voice mail message asking Hill to apologize for the events of 1991. Presumably Thomas believes that Hill lied about Justice Thomas and should apologize for that.
This is an act of either ordinary love or extraordinary political calculation; I don't know which. Virginia Thomas is what some people call a "conservative activist." But was she trying to reboot the dispute over this cultural flashpoint in order to get attention for her causes? Or is she merely lashing out at someone she believes terribly wronged the man she loves, as any of us might lash out? Is she, perhaps, attempting to follow spiritual teaching by letting go of a long-nursed grudge through seeking reconciliation, albeit in an imperfect manner? Is she sincerely seeking justice?
I don't know. I don't think it's knowable by us. (And I don't think people are often motivated by single, uncomplicated ideas.)
Similarly, I don't know whether Clarence Thomas sexually harassed Anita Hill. (That is to say, I don't know whether he did the things she said — I have a legal opinion about whether those things, if he did them, constituted sexual harassment under applicable law.) I watched those hearings in my first year of law school, catching most of the highlights while tending bar in the butt-ugly student commons. Everyone had an opinion. I had one too. But those opinions (including mine) seemed largely determined not by the facts, but by your dog in the fight. I don't know whether or not Clarence Thomas committed the acts Anita Hill described. I don't think that Thomas' race, or religious background, or political beliefs make it any more or less credible that he did what Hill accused him of. I don't think that Hill's accusation is inherently credible in a women-don't-lie-about-that sense; men and women lie about everything and anything, for good reasons and bad reasons and no reasons at all. I don't think that Anita Hill's gender, or racial or religious or political background, made her allegations more or less credible.
I don't know what happened. And I don't think that anyone else (other than Hill, Thomas, and perhaps a handful of observers) did either.
Hill's allegations would have been sufficient to make a prima facie case of sexual harassment under a hostile work environment theory. It would have gotten to a jury, which would have made up its collective mind based in part on the evidence put to it, in part based on its observation of the demeanor of the witnesses, and in part based on what it wanted to believe. Just like us. I don't know which way it would have gone.
Yet this is one of those issues on which people very firmly believe that they know what happened. Clarence Thomas is still the butt of sexual harassment jokes reflecting a belief that he did it. Anita Hill is still the object of anger reflecting a belief that she lied.
People think they know. I don't think they have a reasonable basis for thinking so. I think they only know what they want to believe.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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