Society

Listen to the women’s stories, because politics destroys sympathy

Feeling sympathy has no political use, and our partisanship can make us callous toward that which we should find abhorrent

One of the worst effects of political passion is that it destroys sympathy. Feeling sympathy has no political use. The partisans train themselves to fight for their man without care for the other side and all the people in the middle. They train themselves not to see and not to listen. I know this because I’ve been the partisan.

Vexing for me has been the way so many conservative religious men excuse or ignore Donald Trump’s hot mic comments, and others of the same sort. Some are real friends and some internet friends, and many of the rest allies. I’m also vexed with the way Hillary Clinton’s supporters so blithely reject the unborn child, but don’t have the same personal connections.

The vexing excuses

These men gave up, because their politics requires they give it up, the sympathy to see how such remarks affect others. The men I’m thinking of aren’t normally so callous. But politics.

They know rape is bad, but that’s as much as they’ll admit. Every form of sexual abuse, even being “handsy” and making suggestive remarks, has a place on the spectrum with rape at the other end. Each violates the woman’s integrity and dignity and each includes the threat of further violations. Each objectifies the victim, de-humanizes her, and thereby makes her vulnerable.

Many men would be surprised at how many women they know have such stories and how angry they are about it. Christian men might be surprised at how often these stories involve Christian men.

I want to tell such men: If you can’t understand how this experience affects women in general, try to imagine a man talking like that about your wife or your daughters. How would you feel if you walked into a room and found an older man being “handsy” with your 22-year-old daughter or making flirtatious remarks to your wife about her body?

What would you say or do then? That’s what you’re not saying or doing when you say the hot mic remarks are just the way guys talk, or declare “He who is without sin, cast the first stone,” or demand Christians forgive the speaker though he hasn’t repented, or change the subject to the political issue you think is at stake, or try to divert attention by pointing to the other side’s problems, or in one of several other ways rationalize away such talk. You are not caring for the least of these as Jesus tells you to.

Did she die?

They are not caring for the least of these because they are not looking at them, because they have chosen not to sympathize. Stories may help, because they make incarnate the suffering of the least of these. This is one, a searing article by Leticia Adams, Did I Die? Let Me Count the Ways. On Twitter she argued with a Catholic talk show host she knew, who had said the hot mic words disgusted him but that they were not as bad as abortion.

I quickly replied that living with the trauma of being raped isn’t exactly sunshine and roses. We went back and forth and I explained that I was raped at the age of five. Then the reply came that shook me to my soul. Someone replied to my tweet saying I was raped at five years old with “but did you die?”

Adams writes:

I can’t explain what that reply did to me but I ended up having a panic attack in a Whataburger parking lot and begging to come home. I needed to lay in my bed, look at the picture of Jesus on the cross and lay with my dog and pray for the flashbacks to go away.

She continues: “Did I die? Yes, I did. I have died a thousand deaths because of my sexual abuse. I lost the little girl that I was the moment that I realized what that man did to me.” Then:

I have died when I can’t relive the great times in my childhood because his face is in them. I died the minute a man in his mid twenties realized that I was a good target and had his way with me on the bed of his truck when I was 14. I died when a star football player took me behind his house and raped me because he could since everyone would think that I wanted it because I was easy. … I died when my husband tries to console me and I am inconsolable from nightmares. I died when I watched the life leave the body of the man who took me from my abuser and nobody was left to protect me anymore.

You don’t have to look far on the Catholic web to find many other stories like Adams’. Here, for example, is an equally searing response to Adams by Maria Pezzulo titled No, I Didn’t Die.

“So little we can do to help another, but just listen, sympathize, reassure,” Dorothy Day wrote in her diary late in her life. It is vexing how politics hardens us, and more vexing how the men I’m writing about let their political passions harden their hearts. In a few weeks the election will be over, but the women they know will have the same stories to tell. Perhaps then, the men will listen.

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David Mills

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.