The congressional hearing and confirmation process of Brett Kavanaugh has been full of heightened and dismissive dialogue. The questions and accusations brought to the forefront were not treated with curiosity and a quest for due process, but an immediate and wild backlash that sought to paint Christine Blasey Ford as a liar and a pawn.
It should come as no surprise as it is the way accusations of sexual misconduct are frequently treated in this country. Those in power often blame and shame victims, devaluing the validity of their claims before they can even be investigated.
Congress showed tremendous bravado in their attempts to dismantle the claims of Dr. Ford, which they quickly followed with an act of tremendous cowardice by refusing to question her themselves for fear of how it would appear.
They were comfortable with their own vitriol as long as it didn’t hurt the public’s opinion of them.
The most disheartening part of the entire process has been the complete lack of empathy from those in Congress for Dr. Ford. Because the current zeitgeist is increasingly being defined by a lack of empathy, I think it is important to remember what empathy actually means:
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
A general lack of empathy can be seen in every corner of our lives, both online and in person. When it comes to sexual assault though, the statistics show Congress should be more empathetic. Much more. And here is why.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. For boys, it is one in six. That means at least 25% of girls and 16% of boys will be sexually abused before they get to college.
Now, if you apply those statistics only to Congress, the numbers say 68 male members have been the victim of sexual abuse as children. For women in Congress, the number is 26. A total of 94 people elected to office who have most likely experienced some sort of sexual abuse before they were old enough to vote.
While five Democratic members of Congress have come forward as victims of sexual and domestic abuse, no victim of abuse of any kind should be required to share publicly what happened to them. Those who have told their story have been incredibly courageous in doing so. Despite what skeptics have claimed, there is little to be gained by digging up memories and exposing the scars of traumatic experiences for others to dissect.
Yet, Congress has been skeptical and pejorative towards Dr. Ford. Their words showcase a distinct lack of empathy. Especially considering how many of them most likely had a similar experience in their lives.
There is some serious cognitive dissonance taking place.
This lack of empathy becomes a springboard for us to treat others as less than. Empathy is a foundational building block of connection, compassion, and understanding. Foregoing such efforts emboldens us to feel justified in our actions and our speech. We begin to talk over, to speak louder, to ignore the questions of others and pose our own.
Dr. Ford was often asked why she hadn’t said something sooner, an incredibly hypocritical question when you consider the statistics. How come more men and women in Congress haven’t brought up their own assaults sooner or at all? As though reporting sexual abuse at the time of its occurrence is the only acceptable way to prove it actually happened. The rhetoric surrounding the Inquisition seemed to say if nobody else saw this terrible thing happen to you, how can we be sure it happened?
This isn’t about the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh or the FBI investigation. This is about the simple way in which we (don’t) honor the experiences of others. It is unrealistic to think all people will be able to feel and express empathy. But certainly, there must be some who can. Being able to live through the same experience as another connects you in a very deep way.
So why haven’t we seen more compassion in the language of Congress?
Many reasons. A lack of holistic sexual education. A culture that encourages men to be the sexual aggressor. Almost no understanding of what constitutes consent. And years of inappropriate sexual behavior that has gone unreported. All of this means we haven’t had to develop the empathy needed for victims of sexual assault. A lack of empathy allows for the proliferation of blame.
Hence the mistaken belief women are speaking up about their own sexual assault as a quest for fame and fortune. As though any man or woman in America watching these proceedings would subject themselves to demoralization, death threats, and complete career destruction because they want to be famous.
This complete distrust of victims is why only 35% of rapes are reported to the police. It is why a presidential candidate who openly admits to grabbing women by the pussy can be forgiven, but a Doctor of Psychology who admits to being sexually assaulted can’t be believed.
We have become too comfortable with silence.
Empathy requires an end to the silence that treats victims of sexual abuse as pariahs and those who speak up as liars. A silence that has made tens of millions of people in our country suffer in solitude.
The price of empathy is the admission our world is not as we might like it to be. And we can no longer move forward pretending as such.
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