Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Abnegation of Empathy

Today a lot of people were praising the article "I Am Not Your Wife, Sister or Daughter. I Am A Person" on The Belle Jar. I couldn't disagree more. I abhor it.

The author does a fine job of summarizing the Steubenville rape trials and their troubling implications. The rational part of her article ends with a summary of the rhetorical device that concerns her.
You should stop defending the rapists and start caring about the victim. Imagine if she was your sister, or your daughter, or your wife. Imagine how badly you would feel if this happened to a woman that you cared about.
Abruptly the piece lapses into a flurry of logical fallacy.
You know what, though? Saying these things is not helpful; in fact, it’s not even helping to humanize the victim. What you are actually doing is perpetuating rape culture by advancing the idea that a woman is only valuable in so much as she is loved or valued by a man.
Nonsense. Utter nonsense. Of course imagining your sister, daughter or wife helps humanize the victim. That's how empathy works for primates. Beyond a certain number, we literally do not see others as human. To see one of those others as having the same nature as those we hold dear helps us to value that other. I'd like to know what evidence the author has to support her assertions to the contrary.

I'm stunned at her dismissal of the rhetorical device, but that's nothing compared to her baseless assertion that what I'm "actually doing is perpetuating rape culture". Again, where is the evidence? I'd like to know what, aside from the author's overweening self-satisfaction, gives her the right to tell me not only that I've not helped, but that I've contributed to the problem.

This is just the kind of peremptory narcissism that makes men throw up their hands and walk away from the entire conversation. I know, because that's just what I did. Over twenty years ago I was stupid enough to buy into the constant barrage of accusation. No matter what I did or said, I was always an oppressor who would never deserve to take part in the conversation.

Twenty years. Twenty goddamn years. Maybe I could have been useful during those twenty years. Maybe my words could have prevented one woman from being raped. But I kept my mouth shut. Because of horseshit just like this.

Do you think I'm being harsh? Do you think I'm letting my anger control me? Maybe. But what I'm doing is nothing compared to what the author does. On my very worst day I would never write anything as inhumane as what follows.
This rape, and any rape, was wrong because women are people. Women are people, rape is wrong, and no one should ever be raped. End of story.
No matter how angry I got, I would never presume to co-opt objective truth, as though anyone who dares disagree with me is a rape enthusiast. And I damned sure wouldn't write "End of story." Because I know that those words are the guillotine of dialectic and the death knell of empathy. And that's the greatest irony of this article; in seeking to define true empathy, the author achieves its abnegation.

But it gets even better. Near the end of the article, she says this.
I have value because I am a person. Full stop. End of argument. This isn’t even a discussion that we should be having. 
So please, let’s start teaching that fact to the young women in our lives. Teach them that you love, honour and value them because of who they are. Teach them that they should expect to be treated with integrity because it’s a basic human right. Teach them that they do not deserve to be raped because no one ever, ever, ever deserves to be raped.
Oh, yes, it all sounds so bloody easy to agree with, doesn't it? Applause all around. But once we've all come down from the high of masturbatory self-righteousness, let's breathe for a moment and see what we've accomplished.

First, we've imbued the word "should" with a power that will never, ever be more than imaginary. If you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, go back and read the article carefully. The word "should" appears a number of times. Take 'em in. Then come back to that last pair: "This isn't even a discussion we should be having... Teach them that they should expect to be treated with integrity because it's a basic human right." 

Wonderful. Teach them not to even listen. Teach them never to seek dialectic. Teach them that the way they think the world should be is the way the world is, so they need never prepare themselves for a reality that has never once given a shit about your "should".

The author talks a lot about how women are people, and how we need to teach this notion. What I'd like to know is "How?" Now that she's taken away the most obvious, effective and common-sense tool of empathy, what's her lesson plan? All I see is a blueprint for giving young women a sense of entitlement that enhances their already dangerous sense of invulnerability.

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