It borders on the absurd: Aging white men lecturing an experienced Latina judge about her perceived inability to be objective and impartial. In tones melodramatic and patronizing, several male members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are giving voice this week to a persistent but long-discredited viewpoint on human nature: that it is possible to shed our histories—our upbringing, our social locatedness, our cumulative experiences as living beings—and gaze upon the world (or a legal case) with robot-like neutrality.
These Senators, who exist in a bubble of white male privilege, seem to consider themselves tradition-free, heritage-less, devoid of the kinds of (ethnic) identity markers that, in their view, make people like Sonia Sotomayor dangerously biased.
Of course, judges should examine all the facts of a case. They should possess a vigorous intellect and a rigorous yearning for the truth. They should be of sober temperament (but not humorless stiffs). They should know the law. At the Supreme Court level, they should possess a portfolio of judicial experiences that would give them every advantage in adjudicating the nation’s toughest cases. But their ultimate aim in deciding those cases, it seems to me, is not so much objectivity but fairness.
The goal of detached, dispassionate impartiality is illusory and robs the best would-be justices of the kind of humanity (empathy, as President Obama called it to much scorn and ridicule) that makes them effective advocates for fairness.
It’s not a little ironic that, in trying to beat back the rumor that she’s a Puerto Rican hot head, Sotomayor is coming off in her confirmation hearings as robot-like, dispassionate, lacking in empathy. This is tactical, I’m sure, and who can blame her? For her humanity to show, like a bra strap or a lacy slip, would be too much for these guys.
One of them, Senator Lindsey Graham, offered Sotomayor this warm, encouraging welcome on Tuesday: “Unless you have a meltdown, you’re going to be confirmed.”
That charmer, Mr. Graham! In saying “meltdown”—a term often used to describe what happens to an over-stimulated toddler—the Senator from South Carolina betrayed, unwittingly to be sure, some of his own biases.
And that’s the thing: because of our histories–our upbringing, our social locatedness, our cumulative experiences as living beings–we’re going to have prejudices and, from time to time, we’re going to reveal them. We’re going to say foolish things, as Graham did and as Sotomayor herself has done.
If we’re smart, though–like the wise Latina woman on the hot seat this week–we’ll recognize this as the truth about ourselves. And we’ll strive, whether in the workplace, in our homes and neighborhoods, or in the highest court in the land, to be fair in all our dealings with others.