The Burden of Proof: Finding an Empathetic Middle Ground Towards Healing For All in the Wake of Jian Ghomeshi’s Acquittal.
What Does Empathy Have to do with Politics? How can Empathetic kindness represent a radical, progressive political position, answering the lack of real change, and the surplus of exclusionary, divisive antagonism in politics today? Let’s find out by exploring the example of Empathy and Innocent Until Proven Guilty in Sexual Assault. Justice in sexual assault is a divisive issue, with two ‘sides’ at each others’ throats about how best to go forward. Empathy Politics is a way forward.
Jian Ghomeshi has been found not guilty.
And the internet has basically exploded.
Not innocent, but not guilty. Not because he absolutely didn’t choke, punch, or force sexual contact, but because there was not enough proof to convince a judge beyond a reasonable doubt that he absolutely did; a complicated dilemma complicated further by the fact that the accused himself didn’t have to testify, wasn’t subjected to the brutal treatment of being ripped to shreds by a highly trained attorney; which meant that the women accusing him were the ones on trial. Complicated further by the fact that the women accusing him, by necessity the only witnesses, lied under oath, changed their stories, sent thousands of text messages to each other planning how they would take this celebrity down, how they would ruin him. And they have. Not guilty, but in the eyes of the public, anything but innocent.
There have been two entirely predictable responses to this event. Funny, how these things always happen in polarity: it’s either THIS or it’s evil! Say each side. Making sides of an issue that should be about justice and the protection of innocence, making enemies of those who are fighting for the exact same thing that you are: to make this awful situation better, to do something, anything, about this clawing, gnawing fear and anger within, the state of trauma that affects more and more of us as the battle lines of the gender wars encroach on more and more of our lives. (Note: Gender Wars is shorthand for all of the ways that any and all of us suffer due to our gender, from male conscription to lack of maternity leave, and everything in between.)
Two sides, making enemies of each other, each choosing a stance that necessarily paints the other as evil, backwards, and complicit in the violence being done to all of us. Needlessly. Which is why I’ve been working on outlining a middle way, something I’m calling Empathy Politics, a stance of healing instead of anger. But first —
Respectfully Hearing The Positions of Two Sides who despite what you may have been told are really not enemies, not opposite, but actually two parts of one greater struggle towards healing and justice in sexual assault.
The two sides are these: The Feminist, Protect Women Victims Side, which says that we must believe all victims no matter what, that her truth is enough evidence to be The Truth, should be enough for a conviction, should be enough, period. If a woman — and only women are victims, in this narrative; or if male victims or victims of women are noted it is as an afterthought, despite data showing that men raped by women account for up to 40% of sexual assault — says that she has been raped, or hurt, or assaulted, she must be believed. Anything else, the war cry goes, is slander against justice, it is Rape Culture, it is anti woman and anti progress and anti everything good.
There are many good reasons for this stand point, and I absolutely understand it and believe that what it is trying to accomplish is good and vital. Anyone who has worked with victims of assault can tell you how incredibly complicated a victims reactions can be. Anyone who’s been traumatized knows the tricks memory can play, especially years after the fact. In the case of the Ghomeshi accusers, while it may not make Logical Sense to have sent the now infamous sexy emails, flowers or bikini photos, it does make Traumatized Sense, the sense of a person who is in a state of Appease, beyond fight or flight or freeze but caused by the same cocktail of hormones, triggered by the same state of terror and powerlessness (it’s interesting! Look it up!). What looks irrational or like the actions of someone who engaged in consensual sex, or who was not hit or choked, can often be a victim grappling with the terrifying reality of being a victim, trying to figure it out, trying to get their power back. It can be that state of Appease, a natural reaction to fear, like fight or flight: something that cannot be chosen or chosen against, a state that the body enters into of its own volition, that makes us try and please this person who is so, irrationally frightening, who has, inexplicably, hurt us.
These victims, the accusers are faced with the impossibility of Burden of Proof: in our judicial system, the accused is protected, is innocent until proven guilty… while the accuser is guilty, guilty until or unless proven innocent, ripped to shreds with no protection, their moral character, their behavior, their everything on trial for all to see, with a trained eye looking for any error or badness. This is not the case solely with assault trials: if you are injured and sue the insurance company of the other driver in the car accident, prepare to treated as if you are a degenerate criminal. Every aspect of your life, every decision, every action in your history will be looked at, in detail, by a powerful, rich company bent on giving you less money than you deserve. You are guilty. You are lying. You’re not REALLY injured, and if you are, it’s either all in your head (and therefore much less expensive to treat), or you simply are not trying hard enough to get better. They will watch you, spy on you, hack your emails, and subject you to invasive tests of your psyche, of your body, of your very spirit, if they can. They will rip you to shreds, and examine the pieces, and make you feel as if you are crazy. Why would ANYONE subject themselves to that? Why would any victim choose to come forward, knowing that’s what they face? Their word is their only evidence… and what is their word?
When the crime is assault, especially sexual, in which it is often a friend or lover or date that commits the crime, in which there are rarely witnesses, in which a victim may have chosen to be alone with the person, may even have intended to have sex with them eventually… what proof can there be? Truly: how can you ever prove that you were raped, objectively?
You often can’t. Especially if you forgot a key detail when giving your police report or testimony. Especially if you cheated on a major test once, years ago, and were caught; or grew to hate the person that attacked you and spoke with others about it, or weren’t a perfect person in some other way that a defense attorney can find and take advantage of. An accuser’s testimony is usually not enough, especially if it is inconsistent, which we have seen is not just common but a part of the territory of having been assaulted. So how can there ever be proof beyond a reasonable doubt?
Thus, to empower victims, in a worldview that holds all women as victims either present or possible, that sees the world as fundamentally anti-woman, as intentionally set up to exclude us from justice, to women who feel utterly powerless: the stance of WE MUST BELIEVE THEM, WHATEVER THEY SAY. We must celebrate their bravery and courage and punish those they say have hurt them, regardless of evidence or lack thereof. Her statement is evidence enough. Because there is no other way to protect ourselves. Because there is no way for most victims to ever provide enough evidence to destroy reasonable doubt. They therefore hear any critical response to their position as attacks, as people telling them that their suffering is unimportant, undeserving of care, of justice. As saying that attackers should get away with it, that victims shouldn’t have recourse. They see themselves as society would see them: sluts or harpies, untrustworthy and unprotected, worthless, wounded, prey, imperfect. And that’s not ok.
The other side has seen incredibly popular stories of rape crumble as the accused admits that they were lying, that they made it all up, that they just wanted to hurt this man or protect themselves from scrutiny. They have seen the lives of innocent men destroyed by false accusations. They have experienced their own lives and power damaged and sometimes demolished by often seemingly gleeful acts of emasculation, by individual women on a personal level and by society in general; divorce, and Creep Culture, and male isolation, and male expendability, and the view that all men are rapists until or unless we teach them not to be. These are men who feel utterly powerless, and they see Jian Ghomeshi vindicated by the justice system, but still destroyed. They see the thousands of text messages of collusion to bring him down as proof that the accusations are false, and they believe the judge is right; that this man is innocent. They interpret the situation so: that the evidence has been fairly, and carefully weighed, and that he has been found innocent in the eyes of the court, an objective body… and still, his life is ruined. His popularity and career destroyed. His social reputation destroyed. RUINED.
And they think: this could be me. Just as the ‘other side’ looks at victims who are not believed, women who are deeply wounded and unsafe, who have no recourse but a court that will rip them apart, and think ‘this could be me, and it must be stopped before it is me, or my daughter, or my sister, or my friend’… these men think the same thing: that they could be falsely accused, by women colluding against them for personal gain or out of personal vendetta, and they know that it could be them. That someone could accuse them and the world would believe the accuser, even if all the evidence pointed to their innocence. No matter if they were innocent, and caring and committed to being wonderful people, no matter their efforts and their desires.
They see that their lives could be ruined by this: their careers destroyed, and in our culture a man with no career is still seen as hardly a man at all, as a failure, a stunted masculinity (which has already been called Toxic and Fragile, already been attacked, again, almost gleefully by #killallmen and #Idrinkmaletears). They see themselves as they feel society and especially women would see them: as pathetic, and cruel, and broken; as deserving of no fair trial, no evidence, no leniency, no compassion. As monsters. They’ll lose their children, their wives, their already fragile and crumbling social circles. They will be alone, and as statistics of male suicide show, this loneliness will likely kill them. They cry that this is a matter of life and death for us! If you can ruin our lives with a word then we will die! And that’s not ok.
To each other, each side replies: That is not important. There are more women who are attacked than men who are falsely accused so those men don’t matter, or, there are enough women who lie that we can’t believe any of them and fuck the conundrum that burden of proof represents. Part of what each side is saying is: My suffering is greater than yours. In order for my suffering to be important, yours has to be less important.
These men see the tweets and posts and OpEds by what I will short-hand call the ‘feminist side’, saying “I believe survivors, and anyone who questions a woman’s word is probably a rapist themselves, anyone who demands any proof other than a woman’s word is part of rape culture,” and they see it happening already: that the simple act of saying “Woah, wait a minute… there cannot be NO burden of proof, there cannot be mob justice, because that’s not justice at all” is enough for some of these women to call them rapists (not a far leap of logic when you view all men as rapists waiting to happen). Some prominent feminists called this week for any man accused to be put on a life long sex offenders list. To question their very humanity, their goodness, their morality, and if that isn’t emasculation, what is?
And the women see tweets and posts questioning victim’s testimony and perpetuating the impossible conundrum that is the burden of proof in sexual assault and they see it happening too: that their experience is erased if it isn’t somehow Objective Fact, that they don’t matter and they will never have justice.
Beyond the question of how we expect men and masculine people to stand in their strength and provide their best for themselves and society, when that strength is constantly cut out from under them, and the question of how women are supposed to function as healthy and happy people when they believe they are constantly in danger and that justice will never protect them, which I will address in a later post, is the anger and vitriol of both sides. What we’ll call the MRA side sees the pleas to believe women as a plea to believe them regardless of fact or absence thereof, as a plea to crucify any man that any woman hates enough to accuse. And the feminist side sees their questioning of this as proof that men do not care for the plight of women, proof that women are victims, victims of men; that most men collude with the forces of evil to keep women as victims.
Empathy, Kindness, Love do not have to be earned. In fact, they can’t be. These are things that we all deserve, and that are necessary for real progress.
Before you, Feminist / MRA person, exclaim that The Other Side is much worse than you and their points really aren’t that important because your points are so much MORE important that theirs pale in comparison, and they truly do say horrible and awful things that are inexcusable, they say It Didn’t Happen Without Proof / I Drink Male Tears, they are basically nazis, and besides, the person you quoted who said I Drink Male Tears / It Didn’t Happen Without Proof isn’t a REAL Feminist / MRA…
Remember that the other side is saying exactly the same thing, names reversed. That’s the problem here.
Basically it is a giant clusterfuck of anger and accusing the other side of absolute evil, and it is getting us fucking nowhere and it has to fucking STOP.
There is another way. It is Empathy Politics. Empathy Politics says: They are like me, they are working towards justice. They are hurting and this changes how they see the world, just as my hurt changes how I see it. They are afraid, and this changes how they see me. But they are like me, and like me they deserve respect, deserve compassion, deserve kindness. Like me, they are devoted to a better world. How can we help each other?
Empathy Politics says that there doesn’t have to be two sides to every fucking issue today! I mean come on! There is no black and white here, both ‘sides’ have really important points, vital points; such that choosing one to the exclusion of the other NECESSARILY OVERSIMPLIFIES THIS ISSUE, dangerously oversimplifies it, such that no progress can ever be made. Let that sink in.
Because if we focus only on female victims to the exclusion of everyone else affected by this issue, then those we have ignored must respond defensively, from anger and pain and powerlessness, instead of cooperation and healing and devotion to their sisters; empathy and love. Just as they, predictably, are doing now. And if we focus only on male falsely accused to the exclusion of everyone else affected by this issue, then those we have ignored must respond defensively, from anger and pain and powerlessness, instead of cooperation and healing and devotion to their brothers; empathy and love. Just as they, predictably, are doing now.
These aren’t two sides, fighting against each other. These are two complimentary parts of one whole. The only way that whole can change is if all are acknowledged.
When we believe that empathy, kindness, care etc are in short supply, that there isn’t enough to go around so I have to make sure I get some and that means preventing you from getting some, we end up with necessarily divisive, exclusionary, antagonistic positions. It may seem politically forward to be angry; it’s often presented that way. Rosa Parks and Gandhi weren’t Kind! Kindness is a privilege, only the privileged get to benefit from kindness, kindness is a sneaky way of silencing the oppressed, etc. Phew! Note: we are talking about empathy and kindness as in Loving Kindness, as in Heart Centered, as in For The Good of Myself and of ALL. Not Nice. Not simpering, pandering, self depricating, lack of boundaries, denying my own needs, keeping the peace and the status quo. Kindness can be mean and hard and painful, like amputation. But it is always healing.
A big part of both ‘sides’ position is the implicit belief that if the other side is acknowledged, if for example the suffering of falsely accused men is allowed to be heard, then somehow the suffering of assaulted women will be less valid, less important, less deserving of care and attention. Empathy Politics says that there is not a lack of compassion, there does not have to be a scarcity of kindness.
These aren’t things in short supply! There is no scarcity here! We can hear and care for the suffering of all, we can provide kindness and compassion to all, and never run out. All suffering is important.
AND ONLY IN THIS WAY can there be healing. You know? That thing where you’re no longer triggered into PTSD episodes whenever someone mentions a back alley, or no longer go into a blind red rage whenever you read about falsely accused. Where you no longer live in fear and anger and pain. Where you have healed those wounds, moved beyond them. Where you are whole again.
It is my belief that we can only get to that together.
And that’s what Empathy Politics is all about. I’m not Feminist, I’m not MRA. I’m Empathetic. That is a political position, an utterly radical one. It is a position of real progress, of real change. Sustainable, as in lasting longer than an election cycle. Wholistic, as in addressing the entire issue, it’s roots and branches, not ignoring key parts of it. Empathy Politics is a politics of radical kindness.
Like Loving Kindness Meditation, practicing this position of radical empathy is a very profoundly challenging exercise. It requires abandoning the comfortable limits of But I am RIGHT!, of an identity built on that righteousness, in favor of expanding the limits of the heart. Of living a deep and abiding love for yourself and others, of meeting the anger and then surpassing it, of seeing the artificial binaries of Fact vs Feelz and then expanding yourself to contain them both… and realizing that, even then, there is more to you. Discovering that you are so much more than you thought you were, that you are love, that you are limitless. In this way, Empathy Politics is a spiritual practice.
Empathy Politics is also a tool for self care. Radical self care, radical self love, a very powerful thing indeed. It recognizes that the political is necessarily personal and that everything personal is necessarily physiological and emotional and spiritual. So that Empathy Politics, as a tool for self care, sees the intersection of broad brushstroke words like masculinity and femininity and Men’s Rights and Feminism, and us, our bodies, our minds, our spirits. It is a politics of wellness for all on an individual level, as these broad things collide within us: it is care for the casualties that happen when these broad forces collide on our bodies, and with our bodies, and with our spirits, and with our hearts. These things hurt us. Empathy Politics can help us heal. It is an inside-out intersectionality, one of deep and abiding love for the self, and then for all others. It is a heart centered mode of being, of existing in a society as fragmented as ours in a way that can be healthy, that can support happiness.
It is a way to be happy in this fragmented world, to make happiness for others, as much as we can.
We all deserve that.
This is my first foray into describing this wild idea known as Empathy Politics, something I’ve been noodling on for a while. It is still very nascent and undeveloped. I thought that exploring a heated issue would make it easier to explain this idea, and I hope to explore Empathy Politics through other issues, too. As it is still developing a lot, I would truly appreciate any insights, comments, criticisms, questions, etc that you have. Please comment or get in touch with me via Facebook! I think that this is a really interesting and potentially powerful idea, and I want it to develop and become strong and thorough, and I need help to do that. Shares and insights will be very deeply appreciated.
From the heart,