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Radical Empathy

The danger of blogging is that it’s thoughts about a moment in time, an experience, a topic. And current events have the particular concern that additional information about the event will emerge and change the story completely. So that’s a disclaimer. But for now, I am compelled to write about “The Stanford Rape Case”. It’s impossible to not be feeling “some kind of way” about the case.

In case you missed it, the case involves a Stanford male student, with a promising academic and swimming career, who raped a woman he met at a party. She also had/has a promising academic and work trajectory. He has been named, and she has chosen to stay anonymous. She was unconscious at the time of the rape. He was found in the act by two other students who chased him down while he tried to run away. The trial and sentencing concluded in the past few weeks. His sentence was 6 months in prison. The case has captured international attention because of the apparent lack of insight of the defendant, his family, his lawyer; the legal system which appears to have failed everyone; and a survivor who has been courageous and articulate.

The survivor’s letter to the court was everything. Moving. Articulate. Painful. Real. She is an amazing human being, survivor, writer, and namer of the impossible to name. Her ability to give language to her experience has me in awe. I know that her courage in the situation faced was not of her choosing. And that is what makes her so remarkable. Despite what happened to her, she has found her voice, and has found a way to speak for so many others in similar situations who cannot speak. I wish she was never raped, of course. Trauma is never just, fair, deserved. Healing from trauma is always impossibly hard. This I know though, this survivor has already changed everything about how rape is seen, how justice is perceived, the impact of social media when justice gets it wrong.

Like many of you, I have received innumerable articles, memes, comments and other social media content regarding this case. You may have seen the meme with the perpetrator’s face and comment “this is who you should be afraid of in bathrooms, making the point that danger is not in the transgendered who just wants to pee, but in those who may look like one’s brother, father, cousin. Like you, I have also received social media feeds which intentionally humiliate the perpetrator, purportedly because “justice was not served”. Of course I agree that one’s person’s life has been permanently changed by the cruel actions of another. He needs to be held accountable. But the other intention of these posts is to intestinally humiliate. And this is where I get a bit stuck.

There is an emerging concept in Relational Cultural Theory, of “radical empathy”. Radical empathy is the concept that empathy is ALWAYS required, and that only with the constant reaching across can we know one another’s experience. Even when it’s hard. Only through radical empathy can our world change. Radical empathy does not imply required forgiveness or a lack of accountability. It means that each person, each community, has a story which requires understanding and healing.

So I am interested in the possibility for radical empathy in this case. It requires digging deep. It does not require minimizing his privileged status and how yet again a white male has come out on top. What I worry about is that Brock does not appear to have anyone role-modeling for him the most important relationship skills; empathy, compassion, self-reflection, insight, relational responsibility. When I see someone without these skills, I always wonder what their story is – how has one been raised to end up without these components? What is his story, that he believes that he can just do what he wants and take what he sees without consequence. I have no doubt that he will recover from the embarrassment of the trial, and have a life that somehow reduces his current story to a blip in his college years. What I want though, is for him to “get it” and to grow from his story.

Before concluding that I am over-emphasizing Brock’s story, hear me out fully. This is about Brock, but it is more importantly about a young person, raised in privilege, protected by racial and socioeconomic privilege, and someone without the relationship skills which are critical in a world where the messaging from social norms and media support his way of being and do not support his relational healing, or being concerned at all about the survivor’s healing. Instead of lawyering up and protecting what he has, what if instead his sentence included experiences in empathy. What if instead of being sure that his life was ruined, he was reoriented to understand that this tragic story was actually an opportunity for emotional growth, because we know that growth does come out of even the most awful circumstances sometimes. Is this even possible? We don’t really have a construct for this type of path. What if he had an experience which focused on him accepting responsibility, and moving toward healing whatever is broken in him which allowed him for a moment to think that it was okay to do what he did, that what he wanted in a given moment was more important than anything or anyone else? Isn’t this type of understanding, insight and growth really the goal? I propose that the hell of his emerged understanding of what he did, if this was even possible, would be appropriate.

Maybe his prison sentence, short as it is, will provide the experience and insight of what he put the victim through. Maybe he will be victimized himself. Would this make us feel better? We all want to see white male privilege taken down, and some would say this should occur by any means necessary and that justice would be served by him experiencing what he put someone else through.

But, I’m not sure. Maybe we just end up with more very broken people.

ts and responses are welcome.

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