Civility has its limits

The struggle over Kavanaugh was, at its core, a struggle between people who want gender relations to change and people who want them to remain the same. And throughout American history, whenever oppressed groups and their supporters have agitated for change, respectable moderates have warned that they were fomenting incivility and division. In April 1963, seven white Alabama ministers and one rabbi wrote a letter to Martin Luther King. The letter articulated no position on segregation and the right to vote. It assumed, instead, a moral equivalence between blacks that wanted race relations to change and whites who wanted them to remain the same. Both sides held “honest convictions in racial matters.” Both “our white and Negro citizenry” should “observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”…

The problem that the Kavanaugh struggle laid bare is not “unvarnished tribalism.” The problem is that women who allege abuse by men still often face male-dominated institutions that do not thoroughly and honestly investigate their claims. That problem is not new; it is very old. What is new is that this injustice now sparks bitter partisan conflict and upends long-standing courtesies. Rape survivors yell at politicians in the Senate halls. The varnish—the attractive, glossy coating that protected male oppression of women—is coming off. Brooks, Collins, and Flake may decry the “tension” this exposes. But, as King understood, the “dark depths of prejudice” can’t be overcome any other way.