If you seek to work with people who are coming from a place that
doesn’t match yours, realize that you either have to tell a story that matches
what they’re able to hear (tell your jokes in Italian), or work hard to change
what they believe and what they want (possible, but really difficult).
TRIGGER WARNING: My post this week contains reference to campus-based
sexual violence, so please know that before you read further.
This week’s prompt raised a lot of intense and valuable
conversation in our Tuesday group, to whom I am grateful for their openness and
insights. We talked at the feeling level about our reactions to the prompt, given
our experiences in a range of contexts where power, significant differences in
power, was a core issue, and where power was exerted to humiliate, condemn,
malign, or otherwise harm another person or group. In this context, I find
going to empathy EXTREMELY challenging. While I agree that empathy does not
mean agreement, it does mean understanding, or as Brene Brown would suggest, it means accessing that place in ourselves
where we know the feelings the other person may be experiencing. But are
there limits to empathy? As a beginning student in the practice of NVC (non-violent
communication), I would imagine Marshall Rosenberg would have said that empathy
is the bridge that fuels connection and makes change possible.
And yet… I shared with my group the example of a situation involving
a gang rape on the campus where I was the women’s center director. Part of my
job included accompanying students to the hospital for rape kits. In this
particular instance, the student survivor, raped at an on-campus party by
multiple people who actually carried her down a hallway while she screamed for
help to the inactive bystanders whom they passed, came forward for help because
her best friend was at another college and insisted she get medical attention.
While we were at the hospital for the exam, she was already receiving text
messages from the perpetrators, fellow student athletes, threatening her that
she better not tell anyone what they had done to her. I was appalled, enraged,
and filled with despair. Our motto was “Men and women for others”, yet when it
really, really matter, no one helped
her, to say nothing of the students who committed this crime.
So, I began reading everything I could find on responses to
campus-based sexual violence. I met with experts. I came up with a plan, based
on emerging evidence about best practices. The VP of my division gave me the
green light to write a federal grant application to get funding for a bystander
intervention program. It took me six weeks, working my regular job plus every
night and all weekend each weekend until the deadline loomed. I had 12 of the
13 needed signatures, which I had gathered through many relational meetings,
curriculum demonstrations, and organizing of students. The 13th, the
University president, refused to sign. The project seemed dead. How would we
move forward with prevention efforts without funding or institutional support?
My VP (poster boy for Catholic higher education, favored “child”
of the University president, later disappeared from the university due to his
participation as a client in a sex trafficking ring, but this all transpired
before the local police came to campus to find him) washed his hands of the incident.
He didn’t care what I did, so long as I didn’t involve him. I asked for a meeting
with the EVP of the University. I pleaded my case. I tried to get him to see
things from my point of view, from the point of view from the students who were
being sexually violated in our own residence halls. During the meeting, he looked
at his watch and stifled a yawn.
Less than a decade before, literally a stone’s throw from
the campus, Cardinal Bernard Law was found responsible for hiding the sexual abuse
crisis in Boston, throughout the diocese, and, as the story was exposed, throughout
the U.S. He was rewarded by the Church for his shell game of moving priests who
were sex offenders (mostly sexually abusing children from poor families led by
single mothers) with a post in Italy as the archpriest of the Papal Liberian
Basilica of St. Mary Major.
It occurred to me that my superiors at Boston College
envisioned their own rewards for silence on this issue of campus sexual
I admit, I could not see their points of view. I did not
have empathy. I had rage. It was rage that propelled me forward, looking for
anyone I could find who could help me know what to do. A colleague of mine who
had grown up in higher ed (her father was a dean, a provost, etc.) and had honed
her own skills at Harvard, an institution infamously indifferent to the needs
of marginalized persons, explained: I would have to go back to them and let them
know that not only were they violating federal laws (Clery, Title IX, and
VAWA), but a student would be likely to sue very soon, and the story would be
on the news at 5.
And so I went back to the VP and got another meeting with
the EVP. It was brief. I told him, “We’re going to be sued over this kind of
incident [referencing the gang rape] and it will be on the cover of The Boston
Globe”. I left, feeling utterly defeated. And then several weeks later, I
received a terse email from my VP, letting me know that in the new fiscal year,
we would be given an internal grant for $100,000 to develop the bystander
education program. This was a sum equivalent to the VAWA grant. Ten times more
than any annual budget my office had had in its 37-year history on campus.
By this time, I had decided to go back to school for my PhD
and knew I would not be on campus for the new fiscal year. And I wanted to be
excited, but instead I despaired. We got the money, but only because they were
fearful of keeping their jobs and maintaining the image of the institution. Is
this a version of telling a story they were able to hear? They didn’t care
about sexual violence on campus, they didn’t care about our campus culture, or
even the culture of our athletic teams. They only cared about damaging stories
that could appear in the local newspaper. Perhaps that was the end of my innocence,
or the beginning of wisdom, or some insight about how the world and people
work. But it felt like defeat.
To this day, I cannot muster empathy for these men and I do
not understand their point of view. I can recognize that they had needs for
power in their world, control. They used strategies of image maintenance to
protect the reputation of their brand and to maintain their power. They had a
lot of power. They also had no empathy for victims of sexual violence in our
community, even as their brand was built on fuzzy warm ideas about belonging
and service and cura personalis (care
of the person) and even social justice. I am at a loss because I fundamentally
do not understand this world view, just like I do not understand separating
children from their families and keeping them in cages (one of the critical issues
raised by a member of our Tuesday group); or punishing people who have the
courage to be clear about their gender identities even when those do not match
identities assigned at birth; or knowing children are mowed down by people with
guns – police or others- and still refusing to close loopholes in gun laws
instead of prioritizing the safety of the most vulnerable members of our society.
All of these issues, the story I shared, the ones we
discussed in our Tuesday group, and more, leave me wondering – where does
empathy end and power analysis begin?
Paul Piff’s research suggests that after a certain point in the process of wealth acquisition, human beings lose our capacity to think with empathy. Our brains are literally hijacked by greed, and it is very difficult for us to make decisions for the common good. I think we are seeing this now with #45 and many of his decisions, as well as those of his political allies and their supporters. What is the role of empathy in this context? It is not appropriate to diagnose a person I have not actually seen in a clinical setting, but if I were to make an educated guess, I think it is likely that #45 and even those “poster boys” for the Catholic Church’s finest “family” men, would be considered to meet a threshold for narcissistic personality disorder. People who have this type of disorder often belittle others to make themselves feel superior, exaggerate their accomplishments, easily feel slighted and are quick to act with vengeance, expect special favors, and display a pathological lack of empathy for others. Does it matter if I understand them? Does it matter if I experience empathy toward them? If I am not willing to give in to their demands, accept the walls they have constructed, or agree to their worldview, is a relationship or a relational way of doing business, even feasible? This is not a rhetorical question. I don’t have an answer. I am curious about your experiences with people who lack empathy and who hold great power. Has empathy served as a bridge? Or has it been used to pervert the change you seeking to make? Or both? Or neither?
Reflection Script. Thank you for the empathy and support in each of the comments people shared on my post this week. I am grateful.
Juan Francisco wisely asked, “if you were to run into the
same situation today where you work, how would you approach it differently?
Assuming the years, writing and studying since those days have made you wiser,
what would you do to stop that from happening again?”
I think this is a good beginning question. What would I do
differently? I don’t think it is likely I could have done much about the senior
administrators’ lack of empathy or interest, because the structure is so
hierarchical there, as in many institutions, it would have been difficult to
get much access to these leaders without a very specific purpose/crisis. And
while my colleagues who knew what was happening were outraged, they were also
afraid to say much. They didn’t know how. Sexual assault was a taboo subject. Openly
questioning institutional authority was even more taboo.
However, as Carrie pointed out, even though it is not my/our
jobs, I wonder if things would have been different if I could have imagined
each of these men as confused children? That may have helped me to see them
differently, and to hold that lens as I investigated Felipe’s questions about
their own cultural waters and thought about how to change it.
Perhaps, then I could have used my NVC skills, while still
being clear, especially with myself, about Magelette and Yessica’s wisdom about
doing the work and the power analysis as part of the work.
I imagine saying to the EVP, “I see you yawning and looking
at your watch. Are you feeling bored? Uncomfortable?” I could take some needs
guesses, “Do you need some fresh air? Some movement? Shall we walk together?”
He would have been so flummoxed by my directness (not part of the lace curtain
Irish culture), I’m not sure what he would have said! LOL!!! He probably would
have brushed off my questions as too intimate, inappropriate, or uncomfortable.
The end result would probably be the same: I raised legitimate concerns about
potential lawsuits and unwanted media attention, so he would have found the
funds for the prevention education program, knowing he fulfilled his promise to
the University president to keep the school off of the cover of the Globe due to negative press.
When I was preparing to leave the University, my favorite
Jesuit, Fr. Jack, told me, “You’ll feel anger. Maybe not right away, but about
six months from now, it will hit you”. I had not told him the story about the
student who had been sexually assaulted by several other students in one of our
residence halls, but he seemed to understand something about the place: enough people
were invested in the status quo, it was not about to change. For those of us
who could not tolerate it, leaving would bring relief and also a kind of
internal reckoning, required for recalibrating to live in the world anew.
And perhaps this goes to two things we’ve discussed: why
me/why us/WHY NOW? And Yessica’s question: If they are not capable of empathy,
what does this mean for the rest of us? In the past year, that same University
has had to contend with waves of protests about race-based bias incidents, multiple
student suicides, and a federal lawsuit related to its handling of Title IX
cases. The concerns I and others have raised in the past are recurring ones.
And though it may be cold comfort, I can’t help but think that empathy or not,
those guys who run the place will have to contend with history. I wonder if
they are thinking about what it means to be a righteous gentile? Does Dr. King’s
wise warning, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward
justice”, rest heavy on their minds? Maybe even that does not matter, because
what we resist persists; perhaps this time, someone up there on The Heights will
finally think to inquire how things are for their own students? Or not. But eventually,
I have to hope, those old, rigid ways will dissolve in to the world’s unfolding.