Empath in the Wild: When I fight back

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Illustration by Hannah Myers

 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - 12:47am

Trigger warning: This article mentions sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

I’ve never been very enthusiastic about Michigan football, but it’s my senior year, and I decided the Saturday of the Michigan State night game that I would go out with my roommates and give tailgating one last go before I graduated. On Saturday afternoon, I was ready to go, but as I tied my shoes to leave, something inside me knew I’d end up lamenting later that I’d spent several hours on this.

I should have trusted my gut: That Saturday a guy groped me at The Pit, my roommate and I witnessed intimate partner violence on the street and we were verbally harassed by two men a block away from our house with a level of graphic detail and disregard for basic human rights that I have never personally experienced before.

My last column was about empathizing with people who promote violence without condoning their behaviors, and where empathy and justice butt against one another. I used the example of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who protested in Charlottesville, saying I can empathize with their emotions of, say, displacement, while still vehemently opposing their actions. I’m white, so to a certain extent, I identify that my call for all people, regardless of their race, to empathize with white supremacists and neo-Nazis may reveal a white-privilege-induced bias. Racism is a detriment to everyone, but it affects people of color much more directly than it affects me. One could say it’s easier for me to make this call for empathy because I’m white.

Although I realize racial oppression is different from gender oppression, I outline my experiences on game day to see if I, myself, could empathize with people who act violently toward me directly, based on my gender as a woman.

I won’t pretend to know exactly what goes through the minds of individuals who perpetrate sexual harassment and gender-based violence, but I can certainly speculate, knowing that anyone’s actions are a result of their inner thoughts and emotions. In addition, the perspective I’ve gained, living for 22 years as a woman in the U.S. can inform my speculation: From being catcalled while going on training runs for cross country in high school to encountering sexism in intimate relationships with men, I’ve been subject to both milder and more extreme sexual harassment and misogyny. I recognize men aren’t always the offenders in these situations, but they most often have been in my experience.

When the guy at the Pit groped me, I yelled at him not to. When my roommate and I witnessed a girl being physically and verbally attacked by her boyfriend, we offered her help. When my roommate and I were verbally harassed, I yelled at him (with plenty of expletives).

What’s frustrating is that yelling at people with such aggression and anger is not in my character. These instances of gender discrimination and violence force me into these kinds of behaviors because it feels like the only thing I can do in response. In a perfect world, I could try to speak out, take to activism, and educate people about sexual harassment, sexual violence and other related topics. People would listen, learn and adjust their actions accordingly.

But activist and educational efforts have been going on for a long time, and are going on right now at the University. The Take Back the Night protest happens every year; bulletin boards in dorms and University halls are covered with flyers for events such as the Vagina Monologues.

What’s more, women’s calls for equal treatment are all over the mainstream media. Hillary Clinton is a controversial figure, but she brings even basics of feminism into a general public. Further, assault allegations against public figures such as Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein also bring issues of gender equality to glaring attention.

The only reason I can imagine for someone to ignore calls for equality is because they feel threatened. If they ignore nonviolent calls, they can continue to reap the benefits of their privilege as men (in this case, white). Maybe they’re scared that if they begin learning more about women’s experiences, the faint call of justice may grow louder and force them to renounce some of their power.

This warrants fighting back. When one group makes nonviolent calls to change and the other  in power refuse to listen, choosing instead to continue oppressing those who call for change, I can engage in empathy but also violence—whether it’s in the form of yelling, punching a guy in the face, or getting my friends to yell at him with me. Women and LGBTQ activists have also been doing this for centuries: Take Carrie Nation, for example, who was part of the feminist temperance movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The movement sought to stop men from drinking because drinking was associated with increased instances of domestic abuse. Nation was (and, among some, still is) famous for leading all-women raids into bars and attacking the bar fixtures and stock with a hatchet.

Thankfully, These kinds of encounters are unusual for me. They stick out in a generally peaceful existence. But I know other people — specifically people of color and people who are genderqueer — experience oppression ranging in levels of violence every day, and can feel alienated on campus and in classrooms, which are spaces they’re supposed to feel comfortable. The existence of this oppression is clear from frequent and recent protests and demonstrations, especially in the case of race relations on campus.

When people in power deliberately and continuously ignore nonviolent calls for equality, what’s the next step? Refusing nonviolent calls provokes people to become violent, turning a dialogue into a fight.

Even if violence can be justified in fights for equality, what my fellow advocates for human rights must never forget is that the other side is made up of individuals with valid emotions. Ignoring anyone’s emotions is dehumanizing, and it’s easy to act violently against someone who is construed as being less than human. In this way, dehumanizing people serves to further violence, which I believe should be a last resort in any fight for equality, whether it’s for my own equal treatment or for that of others. Empathy and violence can coexist, but it’s certainly not ideal.