The Problem with Idiosyncratic Empathy
For the first four years at OJPC, I spent much of my time traveling from prison to prison and sitting with people, a majority of them men, who had been convicted of crimes, and often crimes of violence, and often crimes of sexual violence. Despite what they did, it was my mission to ensure that they still received basic human rights in their process of reckoning.
I am also a survivor of crime. My first struggle with deep depression came my first year away from home. My second came later in school. My third, and most crushing, came when I was 23. Around the same time, memories of a caretaker I had surfaced, took over my body in inexplicable ways. I’ve been coming to terms with the fact of early childhood sexual abuse since, trying various healing modalities, moving from diagnosis to diagnosis, and ultimately accepting the form of PTSD I experience (and been diagnosed with) and working to heal.
All this is to say, the Stanford case is appalling, simple, and also complicated. I hurt with the many unprivileged defendants who need the kind of empathy that Brock Turner received but never get it. And I hurt with the survivor/victim who got nothing from the justice system in terms of healing, empathy, or accountability for the person who raped her (which is reflective of most survivors/victims … which is reflective of my experience). It hurts. It all hurts.
The problem of empathy within the justice system, as shown by this case, has best been discussed here. As the author put it,
Empathy is a blessing. But empathy’s not even-handed. It’s idiosyncratic. Judges empathize with defendants who share their life experiences – and only a narrow and privileged slice of America shares the life experiences of a judge. That’s one reason that justice in America looks the way it does.”
I do feel the very short term of incarceration is rooted in racism, sexism, and privilege, which skew and distort our ability to empathize with others. Given what I have personally seen in prisons, courtrooms, homes of the family members of the incarcerated, and in the faces of ignored victims, over the last 6 years, anyone who refuses to recognize that is in denial.
But as we know, and as this case illustrates, the problem is deeper. The justice system actually addresses very few of the sexual victimizations that happen in our culture. Having judges with more expanded empathy would improve our court system, but that alone will not help prevent sexual violence towards women. A longer sentence for Brock Turner may have been more “fair” in the sense that he would have been treated the same as so many other defendants who do not come from a background of privilege. But that likely would not address the root cause of the problem, or do anything to prevent these assaults in the future. And from what I’ve seen, a push for harsher judicial and sentencing practices will likely end up being applied only to those who lack privilege, and still not address the prevalence of sexual victimization.
What does it mean if all oppression is linked? How do we show up day by day if we carry this understanding with us? One thing I carry with me from my time at OJPC is the importance of never writing anyone off. Too often, the justice system, and people living their day-to-day lives, like Brock Turner, fail to empathize with others – especially those that somehow sit outside their concept of “us/me” and do not trigger any empathy or respect for their humanity – with disastrous results.
It seems simple, but it has to be said here again (especially to my fellow men): we need a culture that respects women. Respect women. Listen. The victim stated she understood why leniency may be warranted in the case of a first offense, and while she did want Brock to spend time behind bars, she didn’t want him to “rot away in prison.” More importantly though, she told the probation officer that what she truly wanted “was for Brock to get it, to understand and admit his wrongdoing….” Listen to the social media conversations where only a small, small minority of women can say have been able to live a life free of sexual assault. Listen, as one of our summer interns said, “We are not objects to take from what one wants.”
There is a raft of things that need to change: laws, policies, practices. But fundamentally, each of us needs to expand our concept of who is human and who deserves our respect. I may come from a unique place growing up across color lines, but I do believe that human beings can expand their empathy, their ability to not write people off, through daily practice. Part of our work is creating a culture, within ourselves and as a society, where no one can be discarded or used just because of who they are.
Disclaimer: I am a man. A black man, with a white mother. It is a certain kind of failing for me to be writing this. There are limits to what I can understand and speak to, and words right now, especially from men, are not enough. It’s a very privileged and convenient thing to be the one writing this, and one must acknowledge the danger and avoid believing they are somehow enlightened or the effects of their own privilege don’t exist. But, OJPC has a perspective to share, and unfortunately, I became the most efficient way to speak.