In case you hadn’t heard, yesterday Judge Kavanaugh appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to respond to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. His testimony, both what he said and how he said it, provides much for us to analyze. Consider this exchange with Senator Amy Klobuchar:
Klobuchar: You’re saying there’s never been a case where you drank so much that you didn’t remember what happened the night before or part of what happened.
Kavanaugh: You’re asking about, yeah, blackout. I don’t know. Have you?
Klobuchar: Could you answer the question, Judge? Just so you have—that’s not happened? Is that your answer?
Kavanaugh: Yeah, and I’m curious if you have.
Later, Judge Kavanaugh apologized. “She asked me a question at the end,” Kavanaugh said, “and I responded by asking her a question and I’m sorry I did that.”
Notice how this apology focuses on what we might call a formal error—responding to a question with a question—but in reality is addressed to the relational breach caused by his combative manner and tone. If you did not witness this exchange but instead just read the transcript above, you may not be able to recognize how disrespectful and uncomfortable this exchange was. Watching the exchange provides a more complete picture of what happened and why an apology was necessary.
Studies show that people appreciate apologies, even insincere or incomplete ones. That said, this apology is troubling for at least two reasons. One, it’s disturbing to think that the phrasing of an apology may alter how we understand (or remember) what happened and why it was offensive or problematic. Two, it shows how easily people can apologize, and perhaps get social credit for apologizing, without actually dealing with the harm they have caused.
Kavanaugh’s apology is an example of the communication disconnects that run through this entire confirmation hearing, and also in the broader sociopolitical landscape right now: the inability of survivors of sexual abuse to have their stories taken seriously, the starkly gendered norms governing appropriate behavior and speech, the grandstanding and doublespeak of politicians on both sides, the dog whistles, the deflections, the unbelievably horrific trolling and threats that people in the public eye endure.
For her part, Senator Klobuchar accepted his apology.