Guys. If you’ve ever found yourself saying the words “not all men,” we need to have a chat. Not about rape culture, or glass ceilings, or gender pay gaps… (We’ll leave the heavy stuff for another day). No. We need to chat about something far more basic. We need to talk about empathy.
Here’s the thing – you probably don’t have as much as you think.
The problem with empathy is that people assume it’s a sense in the same way that eyesight is. You either have it or you don’t. But empathy is more like a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it gets. Empathy is about taking a walk in someone else’s shoes, but you can’t do that until you’ve stepped out of your own first. Privilege is the set of tightly bound laces that prevents you from doing so. Until you’ve recognised that, and made efforts to address it, you cannot have a strong sense of empathy.
Trying to imagine someone else’s reality, without removing yourself from the comforts of your own, breeds arrogance, not understanding. To employ a metaphor: you’ve spent so long doing the backstroke in a heated pool, that you’ve deluded yourself into thinking you could take on the cold, angry, waves of a storm-battered Atlantic.[pullquote] Most people assume you either have empathy or you don’t. But empathy is more like a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it gets.[/pullquote]
I had too.
One Friday night, seven years ago, I got a wake up call that yanked me from my heated pool and threw me to those angry waves. When I hit the icy cold waters of reality, it left me reeling.
I was busking on Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork (it’s how I supported myself through my undergrad). It was getting towards the end of the night, and the punters were getting messy. I was exhausted, and was trying to suppress the self-loathing I felt while facilitating a drunken rendition of Wonderwall for the umpteenth time that night (Seriously. Fuck Wonderwall).
People stuck around for a few minutes at a time to commit war crimes against my eardrums, before making reparations in the form of pocket change. In between the sporadic “ear strikes” I stayed sane by shooting the breeze with a local who seemed impervious to the horrors unfolding before him. He had an intimidating stature; at six foot four, with a chest that could anchor a cruise liner. His moustache could be used to sweep out a stable. No drunks were going to mess with me as long as this guy was around. As I was getting ready to pack up for the night, he introduced himself as Tony.
“Where are you headed?” he asked. “Pope’s Quay. Not too far.” “Ah sure I live just beyond there myself, I’ll walk with you.” I strapped on my case. The numismatic shrapnel it had accumulated over a long, tiring, night weighed me down. It was going to be a slow walk home. I was glad for the company.
“Busking must be kinda dangerous,” he said as we neared my home, “standing there in the street, with all that money on display… Sure you’re only asking for trouble. Have you ever been robbed?” “Not really. For the most part, people are pretty decent.” “I’ve been robbed myself a few times.” “Really? That sucks. I’m sorry to hear that.” “Yeah, I’d slept with this young fella – I’m not gay or anything, don’t get me wrong, I just have sex with men every now and then – but when I woke up the following morning, he was gone, and so was my wallet. It’s happened a few times now…”[pullquote]This guy wasn’t taking no for an answer, and his posture was changing. He seemed broader. As if his whole body was building a wall between me and the safety of home. I wasn’t getting past him.[/pullquote]
He scanned my face for a reaction. I couldn’t understand why Tony was bringing up his sex life, or why he was trying to emphatically play down the fact that he was gay or bisexual. It made me uneasy without knowing why. We were approaching the entrance to the narrow lane that led to my apartment, when a heavy hand on my shoulder stopped me in my tracks. He got out in front of me and turned to face me.
“I don’t suppose you and I could become an item?” My stomach sank. It always sucks turning someone down.
“Oh sorry, I have a girlfriend.” I thought that would be the end of it. I thought it was the kindest way to let someone down, but no. “Are you sure? It would only be once. She’d never have to find out.” “Sorry. I’m straight.” “I am too. I’m just talking about experimenting…”
This guy wasn’t taking no for an answer, and his posture was changing. He seemed broader. As if his whole body was building a wall between me and the safety of home. I wasn’t getting past him.
“I’m sorry, but I’m really not into men.” “How can you be sure if you’ve never tried?” My discomfort turned to panic. He was bigger than me. MUCH bigger. That hand on my shoulder was like a vice. I knew that I was powerless to stop him if this took a turn for the worse. As the panic set in, I hoped that as long as I could keep him talking I’d be OK. “I really ought to be getting home, my girlfriend will be worried…” “I don’t live far away, you could be back home before she even wakes up…”
I was at the mercy of this giant, who was under the impression that consent could be negotiated out of me. The conviction in his voice suggested that he’d already decided this was happening, but he was doing me the courtesy of explaining why I wanted to be a part of it. He was just short of saying “You know you want it…”
Most people have experienced the terror of swimming out of their depth and that feeling of dread as their feet frantically search for solid ground that isn’t there any more. That was the kind of panic I felt. The kind where you know you’re fucked, but you don’t have time to dwell on it. You suppress it with every drop of willpower in your body, and devote your entire being to surviving the passage of each new second.
“Give me your number so I can stay in touch” “I can’t. My girlfriend is the jealous type,” I lied, “and if she ever saw that you’d been texting me…” “How would she ever find out?”
This guy wasn’t tiring, but I was. It’d probably only been 20 minutes, but at 3 A.M. on a dark, isolated street, it felt like hours. He effortlessly deflected every polite excuse I could come up with, and I was too terrified of what might happen to just tell him to fuck off.[pullquote] The conviction in his voice suggested that he’d already decided this was happening, but he was doing me the courtesy of explaining why I wanted to be a part of it. He was just short of saying “You know you want it…”[/pullquote]
In desperation, I blurted out,“Tell you what, I’ll take your number, and I’ll call you if I ever get ‘curious.’” Tony begrudgingly nodded his approval, and relaxed his stance a little. I quickly took down his number and dashed past him towards home. He stood watching me until I got through the front door, and that’s when the fear kicked in properly. The adrenaline was still pumping, and my hands were shaking as I picked up the baseball bat that hung from the back of our front door. Was he still outside? The creepy fucker knew where I lived now. I sat there, clutching the bat and staring meditatively at the door, until I coaxed my heart into abandoning its efforts to punch a hole in my chest. I didn’t sleep at all that night.
I joked about the experience with my friends the next day. They always get a kick out of my blasphemy-laden monologues about my misadventures. I figured that expressing myself in this self-deprecating way would get the unsettling feeling of my chest, without appearing weak, but it hung there for days. I couldn’t figure out why it was bothering me so much.
Eventually it clicked. The reason I was so shaken. I had never before been in a position where I was powerless; where I was essentially at the mercy of someone stronger than me, and who desperately wanted to take something from me that I didn’t want to give. Somewhere in that introspection, it dawned on me – women must feel like this all the time.
What I experienced on that night, was the receiving end of everything I’d ever been taught about meeting women. And it fucking sucked. The idea that anything less than “Fuck off” means “maybe,” and is an invitation to keep trying. We’ve actually engineered a social etiquette that requires women to insult a larger, more powerful, and potentially violent, person in order to escape his advances. That’s like expecting someone to get away from a boisterous Doberman by slapping it across the face, instead of just saying “Down boy” or walking away.
Now I’m not saying that this moment led to an epiphanic understanding of the plight of women. Far from it. What I did learn, is just how hopelessly inadequate my sense of empathy is. When I tried to imagine what life was like for a woman, I thought of it purely in terms of the most superficial limitations. My lived experience plus boobs and more body-care products… More or less. I dismissed the historical, cultural and societal baggage that came with it. How could I even begin to fathom what that entailed, when I’d never listened, really listened, to women when they tried to tell me?[pullquote] We’ve actually engineered a social etiquette that requires women to insult a larger, more powerful, and potentially violent, person in order to escape his advances.[/pullquote]
And so I decided to try harder. To truly listen. To shut the fuck up when women were talking, and not just wait for my chance to speak. I decided to give women the benefit of the doubt. I decided to believe women, because the part of me that doubted their stories was still rooted in my inability to empathise with their experience.
Colossal failings of empathy, such as mine, are what lead to some men feeling as if the rhetoric of the feminist movement paints them as monsters, and that the “baying mob” is about to be set on them. If you’re frightened by feminism, you’re seeing a threat that isn’t there. If you spend enough time listening, you’ll come to understand that “the mob” are not calling for our heads, they’re calling for our help. They aren’t holding up pitchforks, they’re holding up mirrors; pleading with us to really look at the ways we’ve become complicit in a problem that we can’t see through our privilege-tinted glasses.
Once you get that, once it finally clicks, everything takes on a different light. It’s a shift in perspective. A cry for help will illicit one response in a bad guy, and another in a Samaritan. If you’ve been reacting to that plea with fear, panic, or derision, I hate to break it to you, but you’ve been part of the problem.
I’m not asking you to agree with me, and I’m not saying you must accept everything that you hear uncritically. I’m asking you to do just one thing. Listen. That’s it. Expose yourself to the voices of those who claim to be less privileged than you are. Listen to women, to people with disabilities, to people of colour, to people of other faiths and none. Resist the urge to debate. Just keep listening. Your goal isn’t to agree, but to understand. That’s what empathy is. When someone tells you their story and you can at least begin to imagine what it was like for them.[pullquote]Every rape joke we laughed at, every time we derailed a discussion because our egos got bruised, every time we said “not all men”… We were complicit.[/pullquote]
When you’ve heard enough horror stories about men, you’ll come to accept that the occasional sweeping generalisation about us is understandable. You’ll understand that we’re not all being accused of overt misogyny, but that every little thing we do to impede the struggle against a culture that enables it, makes us complicit in it. Every rape joke we laughed at, every time we asked if the victim had a role, every time we derailed a discussion because our egos got bruised, every time we said “not all men”… We were complicit.
The first step in solving a problem is to recognise that it does exist. You can choose to remain blissfully ignorant; oblivious to the reality that even when convicted, rapists can receive pathetically short sentences, or none at all. You can choose to ignore the fact that the 8th Amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann denies women the most basic rights guaranteed to them under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You can try to explain away the 14% pay gap, and countless other injustices… Or you can do something. You can open your eyes and ears, and try to see the reality that’s been obfuscated by your privilege. You can show some empathy.
When you’ve done that, you’re really only left with two choices: help those of us who are trying to build a better Ireland, or get the fuck out of our way.