Narrow bridges

Reviews | Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges’ Senate testimony is a Rorschach test


Everyone agrees it was a clean epic. There is much less agreement on who became the owner.

At Tuesday’s Senate hearing on the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) asked Khiara Bridges, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, if she thought an unborn baby was valuable. This ensued:

“I believe that someone who can get pregnant has value,” she replied. “They have intelligence. They have the agency – “

“No, I’m talking about the baby,” Cornyn interrupted.

“And I’m talking about the person with pregnancy capacity,” she shot back. When Cornyn noted that she wasn’t answering the question, she said, “I’m answering a more interesting question for me.”

Then, when it was his turn to speak, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) walked back that exchange, saying, “You made reference to people with pregnancy capacity. Could it be… women?

In an even tone, Bridges replied that while many cisgender women have the ability to get pregnant, many do not, unlike some trans men and non-binary people. But after a little back and forth, she gave up. “So I want to acknowledge that your line of questioning is transphobic,” she said with an exasperated laugh, “and that opens up trans people to violence.”

Fareed Zakaria: Forget the pronouns. The Democrats must become the building party.

The whole thing quickly became a Rorschach test. Many progressives cheered to see Professor Bridges molding a reactionary Republican. But conservatives also applauded, seeing it as a giveaway to Republican election campaigns.

Unlike a Rorschach test, however, this one has a right answer, and progressives are wrong. Moreover, the fact that they do not see how badly this exchange turned out for them shows what a big mistake it was to let universities and the media turn into left-wing monocultures.

Within these rarefied circles, Bridges’ answers were delightfully and exactly correct. She left no hint that late-term fetuses might have any moral worth, as it might suggest their interests might be weighed against those of, well, capable of getting pregnant. She also didn’t give an inch to the idea that biology can trump gender identity. And when she ran out of patience with Hawley’s questions, she jumped in exactly the prescribed way: Your questions are transphobic, senator, and you put trans people at risk of violence or suicide by denying their lived reality.

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Yet, outside of those circles, Bridges’ answers don’t really seem that convincing. In most of America, “Does a late-term fetus have value?” is a soft ball. And when Hawley jumped in to ask if it’s women who give birth — a question few Americans would struggle with today — she resorted to long questions. That might be fine for a Berkeley classroom. But that won’t be enough for a political debate in which the majority of voters don’t agree with you.

Anyone who has ever tried to convince anyone of anything should be able to see that Bridges’ approach was counterproductive. Why, then, have so many articles and tweets applauded the way she “SHUT DOWN” Hawley?

Because there’s one place where sneers, eye-rolls and so on are most effective: within an island group, where they help delineate acceptable lines of belief. An “Are you suggesting…?” sufficiently incredulous. effectively signals a silent corollary: “…because if you are, we’ll shun you.” It tells people that this topic is not for discussion.

Within progressive institutions, “it’s transphobic” is another such cue, and it works… within progressive institutions. In fact, it works too well; this leaves them unprepared to chat with strangers.

When I was reporting on the story of transgender college swimmer Lia Thomas, I noticed a curious disconnect. If you read the newspapers, watched TV, or listened to academic pundits, you might have thought that most people supported Thomas, with some dissent from a few reactionaries or jealous competitors. Yet the overwhelming majority of people I spoke to thought it was unfair for her to compete in women’s events, even though most of them were liberals who would never dream of voting Republican.

They were a terribly silent majority, however, which meant that Thomas’ supporters never had to come up with good arguments. Instead, many of my questions received essentially the same answer that Bridges ultimately gave Hawley: even asking the question is transphobic and dangerous.

Within a narrow set of media and academic circles, it was a devastatingly effective tactic that prevented opponents from mounting an effective response. Outside of these circles, however, he failed completely; the swimming federation quickly established new rules to ban Thomas, as well as other athletes who transitioned after puberty, from competing in future races.

I then wondered if this decision might have been different, or at least less surprising, if Thomas’ supporters had been forced to wrestle more directly with the things his opponents were saying – quietly, in private, where they couldn’t be. heard. And I wonder, now, what other surprises we have in store if the progressives don’t know how to talk to the majority of the country that disagrees with them on a lot of things.