Empathy in Retrograde


I have been thinking a lot lately about the social construct we call victim blaming.

One extreme example of victim blaming is rape culture. You know, the idea that the woman who was raped was “asking for it” because she had been drinking, had a short skirt, flirted with the perpetrator and “led him on”, or whatever other excuse we can come up with.

Over this past week CNN expressed solidarity with two young men who were going to Juvenile Hall, their futures being sworn away, going onto the sex offenders list.

I don’t agree with public shaming (it’s counterproductive – that’s a subject for another blog entry, or just look up Brené Brown) but frankly, it’s not Ohio Law that has forced these men onto the sex offenders list. It’s the fact that they raped someone.

CNN notably expressed no solidarity with, or concern for, the young 16 year old woman who was raped and then publicly humiliated via social media as graphic pictures of her assault were circulated around her school and community.

I won’t attempt to address the politics of this in here – I will instead recommend you read Laurie Penny’s article here.

In searching for a suitable picture for this post, I did a Google Image Search for “violence against women”. If you want to get a grasp of the severity of this topic, I recommend you do the same; you will take weeks to get some of those pictures out of your head…

Instead I would like to address the victim blaming instinct that is currently married to rape culture (as well as so many other social ills). I have come to the surprising conclusion that victim blaming stems directly from empathy and vulnerability.

Here is my diagnosis:

Imagine a woman turns on the TV and is exposed to a brutalizing picture of a sexual assault that occurred in a nearby city.

Her immediate instinct is to empathize with the victim she sees in front of her. “That could easily have been me,” she thinks.

This thought rips through her, terrifying her beyond paralysis, through to the bone. Human empathy is often so strong that we vividly imagine experiencing exactly what the other person experienced – hence every crime is magnified a thousandfold, as people hear it and inadvertently go through the emotions they perceive the victim would have experienced.

But how many graphic, violent, destructive images are we exposed to on a regular basis? It’s more than we can handle.

The only way to get out of it is to convince ourselves that no, that couldn’t have been me.

That could never have happened to me. I need to avoid being so paralyzed so I have to disconnect. I have to determine some difference between me and her. 

I am now going to figure out exactly what she did to deserve to be the victim of such an atrocious crime.

I believe that the above process can be played out in our psyches in a millisecond. It’s a form of numbing vulnerability. But think of the consequences this kind of attitude brings back upon the victim of the crime.

This is one example which shows how critical it is not to numb our vulnerability…

We can’t undo a millisecond response, but we can start unraveling it by observing our thoughts and questioning their source…

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About Sadie

I grew up traveling and have developed into a full-time activist, full-time lover of humanity, part-time musician, and am now training to be a life coach. Above all, I want to reach people and bring on a new era of love.

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