The Potential Of Empathy

An Argument for Story-Telling and Listening in a Culture that Accepts Both Sexual Assault and Anti-Immigrant Fervor

The inherently personal nature of both sexual and hate-fueled assault makes them uniquely hard to talk about. It often feels shameful. Both are notoriously hard to prove, and in the court of public opinion, rife with the risk of retraumatization and victim-blame. Culturally, we’ve created a subtext where the public writ large is given the space to “understand” where the perpetrator was coming from. The irony is that this courtesy applies only to the guilty party. Rape culture persists because victim-shaming out shouts rapist-shaming. Hate crimes are given a wink and a nod from talk radio and network news tickers calling white murderers “gunmen” and brown ones “terrorists.”

Victims of these assaults are too often without a platform of their own from which to speak. They are too ashamed of their experiences or too traumatized by them (whether they’ve survived rape or war) to tell the kinds of stories that might finally expose the ugly underbelly of a culture that quietly condones hate in too many forms. Identifying this silence as problematic allows us to identify a potential therapy: story telling. The political rhetoric of 2016 is heavy with generalizations and stereotypes; the only way to combat this ignorance is to refocus the narrative on the suffering themselves.

As women come forward with stories of presidential candidate Trump’s sexual abuses, they are systematically attacked for being attention seekers or “too ugly” to warrant his attention. Shocking as this is, my initial reaction to the news was to think that writing an op-ed referring to my own sexual assault would be clutter—just another nearly anonymous voice on the airwaves. But as Erik Campano of Columbia University wrote in a confessional piece, “Survivors like me have to band together, go public with the institution’s poor response, and demand change.”

I don’t need to disclose the uglier details of my assault, but I think it is important to say I was still a teenager, and the man who assaulted me was very much a fully-grown adult. He was a stranger, and I was naïve. I willingly went with him to a place I did not know would be private. Once I understood what was happening, there was nowhere to run. I held this secret for many years—because I held myself responsible for “letting it happen.” After all, I did go with him, right? It is because of this shame—and the realization that such shame is itself re-traumatizing—that I’ve concluded every woman’s story of assault and rape should be told. If we allow ourselves to be silenced by the fear that we were complicit in our own victimization, we are perpetuating the very culture that allowed for it to happen. Refusing to blame ourselves is the first step toward putting the blame where it belongs.

In an article for the New York Times, Daniel Goldman interviewed Dr. Barbara Gutek, a psychologist at the University of Arizona business school who had conducted extensive telephone polls on the gulf between male and female perceptions of sexual harassment. In research with 832 working women, Dr. Gutek found that although nearly half said they had been sexually harassed, none had sought legal recourse, and only 22 percent said they had told anyone else about the incident. Awareness of women’s widespread experiences of harassment may give more women the nerve to speak out; however, Dr. Michelle Paludi, a psychologist at Hunter College who specializes in the study of sexual harassment, concluded, “raising awareness among men may be more important than getting women to complain.”

Organizations like Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) have come into existence to emphasize the fact that sexual assault is a broad spectrum and its impacts are far reaching. Their website works to illuminate everyday examples of rape culture, but ultimately, victim’s stories themselves are central to instigating change. A staff member wrote, “You can never know how badly someone has been hurt by a sexual encounter…Staying aware of rape culture is painful work, but we can’t interrupt the culture of violence unless we are willing to see it for what it is.”

Ignorance about the pervasiveness of sexual assault is a major barrier to change. The average life experience of a man differs from that of a woman. Trained since pre-pubescence to view strange men as dangerous, I’ve grown up in a culture where the norm is to steel women against threats as opposed to warning men that they may be perceived as threatening. This kind of education puts the impetus on the woman to be aware and vigilant about risk; it is her responsibility to think constantly about her own safety. The role a man plays in this system is largely to be thought About. One in five women will be raped in her lifetime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. An unscientific poll among 11 male friends of mine found ten in outright disbelief of that statistic.

It is a failure of both culture and conversation. An educational model that relied on placing equal responsibility for threat identification on both genders would result in a broader understanding and condemnation of assault.

How does this relate to the modern Western backlash against refugees? The dominating narrative in our fiercely divided political landscapes is one of us vs. other. Both victims of rape and hate crimes are objectified. They are reduced by their attackers to be representatives of some change—whether a shifting power structure or a demographic in flux.

After all, what is the degradation of sexual assault victims but an expression of the very misogyny that shaped our modern patriarchy? Just as rape is an expression of dominance, the ensuing acceptance of victim-shaming expresses a deep fear of losing power. “Sexual harassment is a subtle rape, and rape is more about fear than sex,” said Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington. “Harassment is a way for a man to make a woman vulnerable.”

Similarly, hate crimes are often the manifestation of white fear that the long-standing model of white dominance is shifting. According to FBI statistics, between 50-60% of hate crimes are racially motivated. Beyond that, heightened fears of terrorism and “encroaching” populations of Muslim refugees have functionally blurred the lines between acts of “self-defense” and hate. Anti-immigrant sentiment is driven by fear that newcomers endanger America. A poll commissioned by Vox found “American voters are worried about immigrants mostly because they have racialized fears of crime and terrorism.”

When a brown person commits—or is suspected of—an act of terrorism, the focus is on what ties him to some other land. Did he spend time in Somalia, or at least the Somali-dominated parts of Minnesota? Did he travel to Pakistan—was he really “visiting family”? The instinctual act of most mainstream news is to differentiate him from the citizenship that rightfully belongs to him. Ahmed Rahami was an American citizen, as was Syed Farook of the San Bernadino attack. Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people in Texas, was born in Virginia. Omar Mateen, who killed 49 in Orlando, was a native New Yorker. In fact, of the 28 deadly terrorist attacks since 9/11, all were committed by homegrown terrorists. The more intensely we other another, the harder it is to empathize—and the easier it is to carry on in the status quo. Perhaps this refusal to broaden our definition of “American,” is the central reason behind homegrown terrorism. Perhaps elevating the stories of immigrants struggling to settle in this country—their new home—could bridge this precarious gap.

As with anything, it is easier to hate what you do not know. The Washington examiner quoted Bill Clinton in a September speech, saying “It’s very interesting that most of the anti-immigrant sentiment in America is concentrated in areas where people are having a hard time making a living and there aren’t many immigrants…We all want to blame somebody if there’s a problem.”

In the same vein, John Judis of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace examined the furor over “illegal immigration” in places like New Hampshire, Kansas, Ohio, Iowa and South Carolina, where immigration has had a negligible impact on population size. He writes, “How did so many Americans come to feel so vulnerable to what for many of them is merely a phantom menace? How did an economic problem that is concentrated in certain states and regions become a national Kulturkampf?” He concludes that today’s fervent anti-immigrant sentiment is the backlash of a native-born population facing a new global capitalism, fearing for America’s (declining) place in the world.

The emotionality of the neo-populist ideology paints the immigrant as a parasite, taking welfare benefits and free education while contributing nothing to the system. Judis continues, those “who feel left behind by capitalism, are susceptible to the darker side of populist appeal—to blaming those less well off than themselves for their plight.” Fear of change and an inability to know the “other” create the perfect environment for such nativism to fester.

Like sexual assault though, anti-immigrant sentiment and the rise of xenophobic political parties are not strictly American problems. Zealously anti-immigrant politicians flourish in nations where immigration has had a comparatively small impact; they preach a skewed narrative. In the October 2016 issue of National Geographic profiled the “Changing Face of Europe,” writer Robert Kunzig found that “hostility toward immigrants in Germany has been strongest where the fewest of them live, in the former [poorer] East German states.”

As in America, it seems there is a direct relationship between the volume of anti-immigration sentiment and the widening gap between rich and poor that leaves lower class citizens feeling disenfranchised. It doesn’t seem to matter that “there is no material basis for angst about the refugees,” said Naika Foroutan of the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research. “It’s not real panic. It’s a cultural panic.”

In Great Britain, where former Prime Minister David Cameron claimed “a swarm of people [were] coming across the Mediterranean seeking a better life,” anti-immigrant feeling was largely responsible for the economically destabilizing Brexit vote. However, Jonathan Portes of the Guardian describes the numbers as far less panic-inducing; “In the first four months of [2016], more than a quarter of a million people claimed asylum in a European Union member state; fewer than 10,000 of those claims were in the UK, although Britain has well over a tenth of the EU’s total population.” The migrants in Calais account for approximately 1% of those who have landed in Italy and Greece—a statistic you would be hard pressed to find the resurgent far-right admitting. Even so, (Britain’s) National Police Chief’s Council reported a 42% spike in hate crimes in the weeks following the referendum.

Hungary has been asked to resettle a mere 1,294 asylum seekers amongst its population of 10,000,000; still, its government has fought back bitterly. Human Rights Watch reported that a xenophobic state-sponsored disinformation campaign cost over $18 million in taxpayer money. “Asylum seekers and refugees are called ‘intruders’ and ‘potential terrorists’ all bent on destroying Western civilization, burying Christianity and the Western culture,” the report read. “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself in July referred to migration as ‘poison.’” The far right Jobbik party has been linked to many violent anti-semitic, racist, and homophobic incidents.

After parliament overwhelmingly passed a bill permitting the seizure of valuables from asylum seekers, Denmark has seen a steep drop off in the number of refugees at its borders. Yet, anti-immigrant fervor is at a fever pitch. Members of the National Democrat party have begun passing out hundreds of ‘anti-migrant’ spray bottles on public streets. The party has grown in popularity after “pledging to stop immigration altogether, instantly deport foreigners convicted of crimes, take Denmark out of the U.N. Refugee Convention and ban headscarves in schools and public offices.” In an interview with PBS Newshour, a supporter stated, “I think we have too many people in Denmark from Arab countries. I don’t like it. I don’t like Muslims.” It is these flat depictions of villainized strangers that nurture such hate.

Dehumanizing reactions matter because they force traumatized and vulnerable survivors into isolation or worse—convince them to give up on escape all together.

If the stories of refugees were championed louder than their statistical significance, if their trials and tales of survival and loss could be heard above the fray, perhaps the malicious rhetoric could soften. Perhaps the momentum of far-right isolationism could be stopped.

If we saw victims of assault, rape, hate, and war as whole people instead of two-dimensional characters on a news crawler, we could feel the visceral urgency of human connection. We could understand our own responsibility to find a plausible solution to these crises that respects the dignity of people on all sides. Certainly there is no solution to be found in the deepening abyss between us and “other.” The only way to stop “a cultural panic” is to broaden our definition of culture. The only way to change rape culture is to name it and confront it. After all, the only place peace can thrive is a place where everyone agrees that everyone deserves it.