Empathy and PTSD in Rape Culture: Maybe a veteran would understand (better than Trump)

August 3, 2016

Sometimes I wonder when my thoughts about the world won’t have something to do with Donald J. Trump. I’m hoping by the second week of November. But his shameless attack on U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan’s family after their emotional appearance at the Democratic National Congress last week actually inspired me to have a hopeful thought. Seeing Clown Prince Trump claim he’s sacrificed as much as this grieving Gold Star family sent what few military families were still on the Trump Train jumping from the caboose. Trump tried to recover by waving around a Purple Heart that wasn’t his and claiming that he’s wished he’d gone to the Vietnam War (instead of taking all those rich kid deferments).

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Trump’s Islamophobic comments aside, the important part of this narrative was Khizr Khan’s passionate assertion that the the Republican nominee was devoid of empathy: empathy for veterans, empathy for the families of troops killed in combat, and empathy for the Vietnam Veteran whose Purple Heart he gladly took and showed off at a campaign rally.  “This person is totally incapable of empathy”, Khan told CNN. “I want his family to counsel him. Teach him some empathy. He will be a better person, but he is a black soul.”

Trump (and his authoritarian followers) aren’t the only people who need a lesson in  empathy. The lack of empathy knows no creed or color. But, unless you are a sociopath, there is hope that it can be learned. I’ve written about it in this blog and I teach it and I’m trying to maintain it when I talk about Trump supporters (which is getting increasingly difficult after the billionaire’s daily assault on core American values).

Here’s where this glimmer of hope from the Trump-Khan “feud” links to rape culture. And here’s where feminists can find unlikely allies. Every man has some female he loves, right? A mother, sister, daughter, wife, girlfriend, gaming store clerk. One would assume that they don’t want that female to be sexually assaulted. So if that dude learns that there is a good chance that she will be or already has been (a one in six chance by the most famous study on the topic), he might feel something: anger, maybe guilt that he doesn’t worry about being raped, hopefully concern for the (potential) victim he cares about, and MAYBE concern for other women he doesn’t even know. Empathy.

Ferber

I wrote about this power in a chapter I published in the 2004 book, Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism. An emotional connection to a female can allow even the most committed right-wing hate-monger to build empathy towards others, including the people they are supposed to hate. So many hate group members left that world because a female impressed upon them how they are the victims of hate every single day as potential targets of sexual violence.

There’s a second link. I think most men, even the war-loving Trumpists that want to “bomb the shit” out of somebody, understand the complexity of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When my dad was in high school he had a teacher who was a “shell-shocked” veteran from World War II. The not-empathetic 1950s kids (you know, when America was “great”) would make the sound of bombs falling to see the poor guy dive for shelter. What a hoot. Now we all have an idea of the ongoing hell many of our troops suffer when they return from war. We might not agree with the war, but we are all in agreement that those people served in conditions that the rest of us could never imagine and we owe it to them to take care of them and be mindful of the triggers of PTSD. Gone are the days of joking about vets who “go all Vietnam” when they get home. Maybe that was a contribution of President Reagan, maybe it was the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, or maybe it was the result of thousands and thousands of vets demanding their stories be heard.

PTSD def

Well, I’ve got some important news for you. Those thousands and thousands of women who have suffered from sexual violence can also suffer from PTSD. This includes a lot of women you know, maybe more than you could ever guess. You think there are a lot of reminders of war in the daily life of a vet? Ask a rape survivor about the daily reminders of sexual violence in America. It doesn’t have to a news report, or a rape scene in Game of Thrones, or a Robin Thicke song. It could just be in a setting or the sound of a man’s voice. I am looking out my window right now and across the bay is Cancun. That word alone surely brings back some nightmarish memories for many women (as I wrote about last year).

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I’ve known so many women who have suffered sexual assaults, many when they were very young. Those scars last lifetimes and are heartbreaking. I’ve had female students in my criminology classes burst into tears when I talk about rape statistics. I now give a “trigger warning” before I even bring up the subject. You wouldn’t dream of telling a war vet to “just get over it,” so don’t expect a rape survivor to be on some magical recovery path that the guy who did two tours in Afghanistan isn’t on either. Like war vets, rape victims have a much higher rate of suicide. Both need our open hands, not dismissal.

And there are surely others who suffer from some variation of PTSD, including police officers, abused children, and the millions of Americans who have been incarcerated. These are all people we care about. So if you are a conservative who cares about veterans and police, you can totally care about returning inmates and women living in a culture that has normalized rape. And if you are a liberal, the converse is true! Empathy is a powerful thing! It can even turn Mr. Rambo Republican into a feminist. Let’s care about others besides ourselves. Really care.

The only question left is – Is it possible for Donald J. Trump to learn empathy or is he a sociopath. America’s soul hangs in the balance.

PTSD