The American Civil Liberties Union has announced that it will deviate from its policy of political neutrality and oppose the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, “in light of the credible allegations of sexual assault against him.” I believe comprehensible is the word they wanted. And Dr. Ford’s allegations are comprehensible because they do not ask us to believe something we cannot under any circumstances believe, such as that a middle-aged Judge Kavanaugh traveled back in time to assault young Miss Ford, or that young Kavanaugh assaulted her in Maryland while he was at the same time playing the cello to a packed house at Carnegie Hall.
Everything that Dr. Ford tells us happened might have happened, because such things do indeed happen in the more or less the way Dr. Ford says they happened. This is why Dr. Ford’s story is believable.
But, believability is not credibility and comprehension is not grounds for assent.
This is evident when we consider that Judge Kavanaugh’s defense is also perfectly comprehensible, perfectly believable. Assuming that the dreadful party actually took place, I (at least) can easily conceive that young Kavanaugh might not have been there (“young Kavanaugh in attendance” not being entailed in the proposition “dreadful party underway”), just as I can conceive that, being there, he in fact refrained from groping and grinding Miss Ford (although I cannot conceive that, being there, he refrained from, say, breathing or appearing to the senses of other party-goers).
Neither story is absurd, which means discordant with the known ways of the world. But the world is full of stories that are neither absurd nor true. We call these stories fictions or, better yet, poetry. And as Aristotle long ago taught us, all forms of poetry are
“in their general conception modes of imitation . . . the manner or mode of imitation being in each case distinct” (Poetics I).
Now Aritstotle goes on to detail many different modes of imitation, most of which do not concern us here, but at length comes to the difference between poetry and history. The difference is not meter and rhyme, for “Herodotus might be put into verse,” but that
“One relates what has happened, the other what may happen” (Poetics IX)
What “has happened” is, of course, history, whereas poetry is an imitation of what “may happen.” This does not means that poetry imitates some particular action or event that has yet to occur, since that would be impossible and absurd. It means that poetry gives concrete form to what the poet wishes to represent as the underlying way of the world. This is why the poet shows us
“how a person of a certain type will on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity” (Poetics IX).
In other words, a poem illustrates a theory of the world, and this is why Dr. Ford’s testimony, even if it is not history, will still be received as poetry. It is poetry because it illustrates the way that a feminist believes “a person of Judge Kavanaugh’s type will on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity.”
And this is why her testimony will remain true in a poetic sense even if it is found to be untrue in historical sense.
With this in mind, I think we can understand why the ACLU has forgotten the difference between comprehension and belief, and why so many other people suffered a failure of critical faculties when Dr. Ford told them “he did me wrong.”