When we accuse someone of “acting with impunity,” we mean that person is exempt from any punishment or harm that might follow from his or her action. Our daily news is rifled with examples of individuals who have long thought they qualified for this label, beginning with the president. I’ve been thinking hard about how some of the men now being accused of behaving in sexually inappropriate ways toward women have wound up believing they warrant this impunity. Lots of words are being written about the power imbalances that often exist in work environments, making it easy for abusers to impel their victims to stay silent since professional careers are often in the picture. Almost every day, some social medium lets us hear another woman tell us her silence stems from not wanting to lose her job or a chance to progress in her chosen field.
Surely this inequity is part of the dilemma facing many women and I don’t want to minimize how destructive it has been and can be. But my focus has turned to the men who say and do the things that necessitate some woman’s keeping silent and being haunted. I ask myself “how can he do this sort of thing?” when often the “he” is someone who has contributed positively in other arenas outside daily contact with the women in his world. I’m thinking now, not of the president or Roy Moore, but of people like Charlie Rose or Al Franken or John Conyers. The word that keeps coming to me is EMPATHY.
My trusty unabridged Webster’s dictionary tells me empathy means “the projection of one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him [sic] better.” My own version of this is “taking time to think what X might feel like to someone other than me.” Again, our current world is full of glaring examples of people lacking empathy, again beginning with the president. And I flash to the incredibly tone-deaf Dove soap ad or to men who accuse women of not having a sense of humor when we object to being demeaned by word or deed or how a black mother feels when her son is shot by some flustered policeman. If I do not imagine how you might feel about a given situation, then I feel no compulsion to alter that situation. Think back to the debate in the South Carolina legislature over whether to remove the confederate flag from the capitol grounds. White legislators who insisted it was part of their “history” obviously were not thinking for a second of how passing by that flag might feel to one of their black colleagues. Then think back to what U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham said on national television when asked his position on the matter. Paraphrasing, he said “George–the name of a black legislator at the time–tells me–Graham and ‘George’ are friends of many years, it seems–that it is very hard for him to go to work every morning because he has to walk under the flag that reminds him of slavery days when people like him were in chains. He says it hurts his heart. Well, if it hurts George’s heart, it hurts my heart so I am changing my position on the matter. We need to take the flag down and put it in a museum where it becomes part of history.” That statement tells me Lindsay Graham was experiencing powerful empathy, so he could no longer “act with impunity.”
So my challenge these days is to take a breath before labeling someone’s views beyond the pale. Rather, I want to listen to people whose views on a wide panoply of topics differ from mine. Ideally, they will return the favor so that they no longer ascribe terrible categories and labels to me and my values. The goal of this listening is not to agree with each other but merely to acknowledge that we inhabit different skin and cannot know the full story of what has brought us to our present positions.