The publication of Clarence Thomas' memoir will focus new attention on the controversy over who was telling the truth about Anita Hill's charge that he sexually harrassed her. To my mind, the most interesting aspect of this debate is the way in which nearly all conservatives seem to believe Thomas, while nearly all liberals believe Hill. The few exceptions are striking precisely because they are so unusual.
Since only Thomas and Hill themselves really know what happened with any certainty, this degree of polarization is striking. Nothing in conservative ideology precludes the possibility that individual conservatives might engage in boorish and morally reprehensible private behavior of the sort Thomas is accused of; similarly, liberal ideology does not deny the possibility that a person in Hill's position might lie for political gain. Given the murkiness of the underlying facts, unbiased observers would not split so sharply along ideological lines on this issue. You would expect to see at least some significant number of liberals who believe Thomas, some conservatives who believe Hill, and many in both camps who aren't sure who to believe.
Some of the polarization was probably just a matter of political posturing. Conservatives did not want to lose a valuable Supreme Court seat (as they might have, if Thomas' nomination had been defeated and President George H.W. Bush were forced to nominate a centrist or liberal replacement comparable to Souter or Anthony Kennedy). Liberals, of course, sought Thomas' defeat for similar reasons.
However, most of the polarization over Thomas-Hill probably wasn't feigned. It was instead a consequence of the all-too-common assumption that our ideological adversaries are not only wrong but also evil - or at least far more likely to be so than those who agree with us. If you believe that liberals are, on average, likely to be morally corrupt, then it would be rational for you to assume that a liberal is more likely to be lying than a conservative and thus to automatically believe Thomas over Hill even in the absence of clear proof. And vice versa if you hold the reverse view.
I have previously criticized the unthinking equation of political ideology with moral virtue here, in the context of explaining why many people are excessively hostile to the idea of dating someone with a different political ideology. The two situations are very different, but the same phenomenon may be at work in each case. Both blanket condemnation of cross-ideological dating and the Thomas-Hill polarization are in large part the result of our unhealthy tendency to equate ideological disagreement with moral depravity.
UPDATE: Various commenters point out that the Thomas-Hill polarization can be explained by the possibility that conservatives are, for ideological reasons, generally less inclined to believe accusations of sexual harrassment than liberals are. There is some truth to this. But it fails to account for the fact that, just a few years later, most conservatives tended to believe and most liberals denied Paula Jones' sexual harrassment accusations against Bill Clinton. In such politically charged cases, the ideology of the accuser and accused seems to determine ideologues' reactions far more than their general perceptions of sexual harrassment.
Related Posts (on one page):
- The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Controversy and Irrational Hatred of Ideological Adversaries:
- The Left's Strategic Mistake (?) Regarding Clarence Thomas: