I sat back in my chair, silently listening to a man yelling on the other end of the line. At this point, I had stopped taking notes. The notepad in front of me already contained 20 minutes of notes from the ongoing rant, all centered on one topic: Judge Brett Kavanaugh. I instantly regretted telling the caller my first name, which he felt the need to utilize as frequently as possible.
He addressed all of his concerns to a girl he had never met: “Emma, if this Dr. Ford is really telling the truth, why didn’t she come out earlier?” He told me that I sounded “young” before launching into personal questions. Was I a coward? Would I report a case of sexual assault if it happened to me? He left no space for me to answer, just reasserted that only a coward would wait to come forward about their sexual assault. If he realized how inappropriate his questions were, he didn’t seem to care. With little regard for my emotions, experience, or history, the caller continued his rant.
Kavanaugh supporters and protesters alike phoned their senators’ offices en masse during the hearings this September. As an intern for Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, I answered aggressive calls from both sides of the aisle.
The partisanship I experienced as an intern was not new to me. When my father, Neil Gorsuch, was confirmed to the Supreme Court last year, I learned how quickly emotionally-charged politics can undermine basic human decency. Many people were supportive, but there were a handful of individuals who prioritized politics over long-standing friendships. My background has made me both more sensitive and outraged by the negative effects of polarized protests. However, that year took an emotional toll on my family, and I am not comfortable making that part of my life public. Instead, I want to describe my experience as an intern during Kavanaugh’s confirmation process to bring to light the risks of poorly executed protest.
Martin Luther King Jr. outlined how to effectively protest in his speech “The Quest for Peace and Justice.” He explained, “Nonviolence is a good starting point. Those of us who believe in this method can be voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion. We can very well set a mood of peace out of which a system of peace can be built.” King didn’t believe in taking the teeth out of protest, but he urged people to be aware of the consequences of their actions. There is a place for emotion—maybe even a place for violence and hatred—when protesting grave injustices, but it ought to be accompanied by reason, sanity, and understanding to be an effective, or ethical, protest.
Ethical protest does not mean eliminating outrage or accepting the government’s actions in blind faith. Ethical protest simply means being thoughtful. It means being aware of all the effects, intentional and otherwise, of your behavior. Ethical protest is a careful response to a situation, not a reaction or an indiscriminate form of lashing out. Ethical protest shapes history. Unethical protest merely heightens partisanship and increases conflict. It gives each side an excuse to isolate themselves from the other party, avoid discussion and shut down disagreements. Unethical protest rarely incites positive change.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation provides ample examples of unethical protest. Even before Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault charges were made public, people were upset because they feared Kavanaugh would overturn Roe v. Wade if confirmed. Under that fear, a constituent threatened a young woman on Senator Susan Collins’ staff. He said he wanted to rape her so that she could get pregnant and see what it is like not to have access to an abortion.
Take that in for a minute. A man advocating for women’s rights did so by threatening to violate a woman’s physical safety. This man’s violent language was not a tool he used to advocate for his cause. He did not further women’s rights through protest. Instead, he undermined the values he advocated for by creating an unsafe environment for Republican women. There was no utilitarian outcome either. The news story was well-publicized on the Hill, and, if it had any effect, appeared to push Republican senators into a more partisan stance. No senator wants to feel strong-armed into a vote because someone threatened to “track down” their staffers.
Less extreme examples were prominent throughout the Senate. A week before the vote, a man stormed behind my desk and leaned over my face. I was physically blocked from standing up as he yelled at me to “tell Senator Corker not to put that bastard on the Court.” I nodded and took notes until he walked away. Even though I did not believe the situation would escalate to physical violence, I felt cornered. That man did not channel his anger to make his voice heard. He was simply looking for an outlet to vent his frustration, and I was an easy target.
At various times I’ve been told that I should “Be scared … Get up and run … Be very careful … ” or threatened that “everyone working with a Republican will be tracked down … Shame, shame, shame … ” Other times, callers have made moral judgments about my own life: “You will never achieve your potential if you work for Republicans … You deserve to have that happen to you … If you ever have a daughter, you are responsible for when this happens to her.” Most of these callers have some goal: to prevent Kavanaugh’s confirmation, change the culture around sexual assault, or punish people they believe to be responsible for Kavanaugh’s success. However, yelling at an intern achieves none of their goals. It becomes hostility simply for the sake of hostility.
A demonized view of the other party has led a few callers to absurd conclusions. One woman began by telling me I didn’t deserve access to birth control because I work for a Republican senator. Throughout the call, she continued to suggest my right to birth control was tied to my political party. She told me I would be stuck in an abusive relationship and only have myself to blame. Her assertion was that any relationship with a Republican would be abusive, and since I work for a Republican, I was bound to marry one.
Her assumption that all Republican men are abusive is objectively false. I was concerned by how quickly she caricatured men from my party. I was equally concerned that her negative view of Republicans extended far enough for her to preclude me from basic rights. Most of our callers would never say a woman was “asking for” poor treatment because of how she was dressed or where she spent her time, but this woman told me I was “asking for” abuse because of who I was working for.
Sitting in an office for hours, listening to people attack my character and interrogate me about graphic hypotheticals, was emotionally draining. I was lumped into the generalized class of “evil Republicans” by callers who knew nothing about me. This problem reflects more the widespread polarization in our country.
Having spent time with both Republicans and Democrats, I genuinely believe neither party is trying to destroy our country. There are very few people in the world who aim to create discrimination, pollution, authoritarianism, or poverty. Often the parties’ aims are similar—creating a free, just, and safe society. People simply have different beliefs about how to achieve these goals. Polarization occurs when protesters conflate disagreement into an existential battle between good and evil. Once that happens, the other side becomes “the enemy,” and “the enemy” is not treated as human.
Demonization often stems from poor communication. Hate evolves from fear, and fear, in turn, evolves from ignorance. To stop the kind of unproductive aggression directed at our Senate office, the public needs a better understanding of what a senator’s office does.
To start, a call to a senator is almost always answered by interns or low-level staff. Given the nature of an internship position, it should be clear that anger or ad hominem attacks are not appropriate. These young adults in their late teens and early 20s have moved away from family and friends to learn about their government. They record information and answer questions. They do not make decisions, and no amount of shouting or cursing will change that.
Interns are not accountable for the position of their senator, nor do they even necessarily share their senator’s ideology. The internship position helps young people learn how the government functions and how a senator’s office works. Some people put aside party preferences for the learning opportunities involved in an internship.
Even interns who align with their office’s political party still don’t agree with their senator on every issue. Everything in D.C. is in motion—when I applied to my job, Justice Kennedy hadn’t even announced his retirement. There is no way to know in advance of your boss will decide and quitting over a vote is not always the right option.
Protesters are often frustrated when they don’t understand the limitations of our government. Uninformed callers with an opinion on Kavanaugh frequently ask our office to do things which are beyond the scope of Congress or our office. Many people don’t know who is on the Judiciary Committee, how FBI requests work, or which senators are up for re-election. When we cannot help someone due to the nature of their request, they frequently escalate to anger.
The most effective advocates don’t just stay up to date with current events, but are also aware of the Congressional procedures and make demands that are realistic for a senator. Not everyone has the time to delve deeper in their civic education, but as Colorado College students, we certainly have the resources to better understand our government and share that information with others.
A common cause of frustration is non-constituent callers. Passionate Texans and Californians often called Corker’s office in an attempt to swing the vote of a Tennessee senator. The truth is, Corker does not represent them, and their voice is not as powerful to us as it could be to their home-state representatives. Out-of-state messages are rarely passed along, or recorded at all.
Senators are aware of the broad impact of legislation and nominations, but they also have a duty to their constituents. Phone calls are how senators get a read on the unique issues his or her state faces. When out of state residents call, constituents are the ones who suffer. Constituents end up on hold and don’t receive the time and attention they deserve. Every voice should be heard, but the only way that can happen, given our limited resources, is if people go through their respective representatives.
Though you’ve all probably heard that you should “call your senator” about hot-button issues, no one really explains what “calling your senator” entails. Often, callers don’t expect to hear an actual person on the other end of the line. Every letter, email, voicemail, and phone call (to your senator) is in some way seen or heard. It does make a difference.
It is also important to know the type of information that we pass along. Senator Corker’s office has three interns and staff answering calls and entering the overall position of the caller into a computer system (the same kind used by all the other Senate offices). At the end of the day, an email is sent to the senator and the entire office with call statistics.
The computer system records general sentiment en masse, which means the woman who spends 20 minutes on the phone insulting me and my life decisions will be recorded in the same way as the caller who makes a two-line statement that ends with a “Thank you, have a nice day.” Both are put down as “Delay vote on Supreme Court nominee until after midterm elections—Pro.” Phone calls are valuable as a general read on public opinion, but a phone call is not the most effective median for detailed narratives.
This is especially true regarding sensitive topics. Dr. Ford’s allegations prompted men and women across the country to come out and share their experiences of sexual assault. Coming forward takes courage, but there is an appropriate time and place to share these powerful stories; recounting trauma for the first time should take place in a secure setting with people who are trained to provide the best support. A senator’s front office is not that setting.
When constituents speak to an intern, they don’t know that person’s background, and they don’t know what might be triggering. There was one woman that stood out to me—she was hurt, angry, and frustrated. She gave me an in-depth account of the trauma that she experienced as a kid and the effect it had on her life. Her story was moving and ended with the usual request. In strongly worded language, she asked that I ensure Kavanaugh not be confirmed. I told her I would pass her message along, and I appreciated her courage.
At the end of the call, I said something insensitive. In a mindless slip of the tongue, I told her to “Have a nice day.” She was furious. She explained that what I had said was incredibly inappropriate. There was no way she could “have a nice day” after sharing something like that. And she was right. What I said was inappropriate. The truth is, I don’t know if there is an appropriate response to stories of sexual assault.
I wish I could have communicated that I saw her pain, that I recognized how much this impacted her life, that I knew how triggering Dr. Ford’s allegations were. I simply didn’t know how, and I was not prepared to emotionally help the survivors who called our office. I was shaken up after the call, and I ended up taking a break to sit and cry in the bathroom before returning to the phones.
Her call was incredibly emotional for me, but it was still ineffective in making the kind of change she wanted to see. There are so many narratives like hers. Eventually, everyone in the office hit a point where we simply could not process any more cases of sexual assault. There was nothing I could do to help her. Nothing I could do to alleviate her pain and trauma. Nothing I could do but pass her message along in a distilled Pro/Con computer system.
For people who want their full story to be heard, details included, I’d recommend a different avenue, such as a local newspaper, an interview, or even a blog. Senators are updated on stories mentioning their name and receive articles from their local newspapers, so there is a good chance those stories will get back to the senator. But nothing positive resulted from these emotionally tense calls. The survivors who shared their stories did not receive emotional support or feel heard. The intern who answered almost always ended the call in distress.
People have the right to reach out and criticize their representatives, but it is important to be conscious of how that message is delivered. It doesn’t take a great understanding of American politics to know that another divisive controversy will inevitably spill over into the headline, and the issues that have come up with the Kavanaugh protests will not go away with a Senate floor vote. There will be some injustice great enough to move you to action—as you should be. Protest, but as you defend a moral standpoint, be careful that you honor those morals in the way you behave.
Michelle Obama urged Democrats to respond to right-wing behavior with civility: “When they go low, we go high.” Following this motto goes beyond just modeling “the high road,” but extends to taking responsibility for those in the party who do not. There were several disgruntled Republicans whose support of Kavanaugh was harmful, and in many other areas, Republican protests undermine their own message. My party is flawed, but I have a responsibility to do my part in informing other Republicans how to be respectful in expressing their views.
Most of you, as CC students, fall on the other side of the aisle, but you face the same challenge. There are people in your party who undermine your message. Some people claim to care about women’s rights while verbally abusing a woman in the next sentence. These people talk about tolerance but refuse to treat the other party with any degree of tolerance. They fight under the same banner as you—protecting rights—but some quickly limit those rights to only the people who agree with them.
I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, as a Republican surrounded by Democrats. I chose to go to a left-leaning school because I value having people I respect challenge my beliefs. Although I rarely agree with the platform, I respect the Democratic Party. It is full of intelligent, good-hearted individuals who are passionate about improving the world around them, and CC is proof of that. I know Democrats can be so much more than the type of people who called our office with nothing but unproductive anger and insults.
Even if you are not personally responsible for these aggressive protests, it is up to you to protect the type of Democratic Party you want to be a part of. It is easy to criticize someone on the other side of the aisle. It is harder to look at the people around you and criticize individuals who are supporting your cause. However, the best way to practice your values is to make sure your own party doesn’t fall into hypocrisy. Model how to protest ethically and encourage others to follow suit. When you talk to someone who agrees with your political opinion but does so in a way that seems violent, hypocritical or inappropriate, don’t let the opportunity for conversation pass.
It is up to you to point out logical flaws out when you see them in the fringes of your party. It is the role of a good Democrat to inform others that a female Republican deserves access to her basic human rights as much as any other woman. A Republican survivor deserves to be respected just as much as any other survivor. A person of the other party is still a person. Each party needs to do their part to move past this wave of partisanship. That starts internally, by learning to express disagreement in a way that is respectful to the person on the other end of the line.
Heat Issue | November 2018