In the mid-eighteenth century, the moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith was one of a number of writers who considered sympathy to be the emotional adhesive through which society cohered. He described it as an act of imagination by which individual subjects might recreate, in themselves, the emotions experienced by others. For Smith, sympathy was partly a spontaneous manifestation of a belief in shared humanity, and partly an emotion that produced, and was produced by, certain rational assumptions about its most deserving recipients. (We might take issue with some of Smith’s criteria for deserving recipients.) Sympathy denoted the possibility of sharing all emotions, positive and negative, but pity and compassion – literally, co-suffering – were particularly important. They functioned therapeutically. In the back-and-forth exchange of feeling between sufferer and sympathiser, the former’s initially violent, potentially isolating emotion is diluted and regulated into something more easily comprehensible, manageable, surmountable and social. Smith referred to this mutual exchange as ‘the healing consolation of sympathy.’
Smith acknowledged that, for the sympathiser, the act of compassion has drawbacks. ‘Grief is painful,’ he wrote, ‘and the mind, even when it is our own misfortune, naturally resists and recoils from it. …Our aversion to grief…constantly prevents us from sympathizing with it in others.’ But Smith was adamant that this narcissistic urge to self-protection must be overcome. Sympathy provides ample compensation for the temporary disruption of the sympathiser’s emotional equilibrium, through the corresponding pleasure that results from sharing in others’ joy; through compensatory knowledge that in the event of one’s own distress, ready sympathisers will not be shy in coming forward; and in the practical, moral and emotional benefits of living socially. Without sympathy, Smith felt, ‘the harmony of society’ is a pipe-dream.
Smith acknowledged that the variability and uniqueness of experiences through which individuals’ emotional temperaments were formed, meant that sympathetic exchanges were necessarily imperfect. I can never know exactly how your grief is constituted or felt, and neither of us can ever know whether the sympathetic sorrow that I feel in return bears any relation to your initial grief. But Smith emphasised that our shared humanity provides sufficient grounds for assuming that at least some elements of our emotional experience are common and communal. Furthermore, he argued that, as the functioning of society depended on sympathy, it was an attempt and an ideal worth upholding. Smith’s contemporary, David Hume, pointed out that the very constitution of emotional experience provided grounds for belief in a shared element. He described how feelings are comprised of (a) consciousness of a physiological element that Hume called ‘the path of impressions’ (eg. blushing, racing heart), which was arguably a common biological phenomena, and (b) ‘the path of ideas’, constituted of personal memory, and individual and social ideas that cluster around particular feelings. The psychoanalyst and sociologist Erich Fromm has pointed to the prominence of language in ‘the path of ideas’: that is to say, different cultures privilege different emotions by providing a label for those experiences. For example, the Czech word litost, ‘a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery’, has no easy equivalent in English. It is theoretically possible to recognise the existence of emotions for which we lack a vocabulary, but it is very difficult to prioritise their presence in our day-to-day subjectivity. Individual feelings are therefore able to be shared to a certain extent, because a significant element of our experience of those feelings – the linguistic toolkit with which we narrate our emotional experience to ourselves and others – is itself communal within cultures that share a language.
We are currently living through a nadir of sympathy. This is particularly visible in the treatment of rape victims. We wrangle with the precise circumstances under which we are prepared to mete out tiny portions of pity. We contort ourselves carping and qualifying the definition of ‘rape’. A 2013 survey showed one third of 1000 women failed to identify an assault as ‘rape’ if a victim did not fight back, a quarter failed to if the victim was drunk, and almost two-thirds if the victim did not or was not able to say ‘No’. In a 2010 survey, 71% of 712 women thought female victims were partly responsible for rape if they willingly got into bed with an assailant. A 2010 survey on behalf of rape crisis centre the Havens found that half of the male respondents, aged between 18 and 25, did not consider sex with a woman who had changed her mind to be ‘rape’.
Survivors of rape are suspected, disbelieved and blamed. In 1998, a survey revealed that 68% of female and 81% of male participants agreed with the statement that ‘women cry rape the next day when really they have second thoughts’. On all sides, voices pipe up dismissing, blaming, laughing. The CPS barrister who described a thirteen-year-old child as ‘predatory in all her actions’. The barrister in the Oxford child sex abuse case who dismissed the victims as ‘naughty girls’. The manufacturers, vendors & consumers of t-shirts emblazoned with ‘I’m feeling rapey’ or ‘No sometimes means yes’. The victim of the convicted rapist Ched Evans has suffered such harassment and abuse that she has been forced to change her name and move house five times.
Last week, on Friday 20 March, the Home Affairs Select Committee made a recommendation that those suspected of a sex offence should be protected by anonymity unless and until they are charged. Anonymity is not granted to those suspected of any other crime, and the recommendation flies in the face of evidence that rapists are very often serial offenders and that, in some recent, prominent cases, the open reporting of suspects’ names has prompted other victims to come forward and convictions to be secured. The recommendation is based on a completely erroneous placement of sympathy, arguing that the tiny minority of men who are wrongfully accused of rape are more worthy of sympathy than the staggering number of women who suffer rape or sexual assault each year and who are, overwhelmingly, failed by the criminal justice system. This also fails to take into account that, in the few convictions for false rape accusations, the women involved are often themselves sufferers of mental illness, addiction or childhood abuse, and arguably deserving of sympathy too. (I doubt very much whether this applies, in the same proportions, to male perpetrators of rape.)
The Ministry of Justice, Home Office and Office of National Statistics estimate that between 60,000 and 95,000 women are raped annually, and over 400,000 sexually assaulted. Of this estimated figure, only 15,670 cases of rape were reported to the police between 2010 and 2013, out of which 1070 were prosecuted. In comparison, only an average of two cases of false accusations per month were prosecuted over a period of 17 months between 2012 and 2013: around 35 prosecutions in total, compared to 1070 prosecutions of rape in the same period (and remember that this figure is estimated to be less than a fifth of the total number of rapes that occurred).
Just as Smith pointed out that the direction of our sympathetic response can and should be, at least partly, governed by rational concerns, it makes no sense here – where there are two directly conflicting claims to sympathy – to place our emotional support with the tiny minority of men whose reputations suffer from false rape accusations. To do so, is to withdraw support from the enormous number of women whose bodies and wellbeing are routinely violated by rapists. It is to claim that the risk of damage to a few men’s reputations is worse than the reality of physical and emotional harm to millions of women. The protection of suspected rapists through anonymity is directly opposed to the right of raped women to have their cases adequately investigated. In this case, there can be no other logical response than to place sympathy with the victims of rape. I urge you to sign this petition calling on the Home Affairs Select Committee to review their recommendation, and to write to your MP to the same effect.
Why do we, as a society, find it so hard to sympathise with raped women? I think that one element of our society’s failure to adequately deal with the crime of rape is related to a widespread fear of feeling negative emotion; a narcissistic self-protection that is increasingly culturally prioritised over the social duty of sympathy. It is easier to sympathise with a few male victims of false rape accusation than the very very many female victims of bodily violation, because to do the latter is to willingly give up a state of tranquil indifference in return for abject sorrow and anger. Sympathising with loss of reputation does not entail the same distressing vulnerability as sympathy with survivors of sexual violence.
A month ago, I wrote, for the first time, about the experience of being raped, and the personal healing I found in friendships with women. The response of many people who disagreed with my moderate request that women who experienced worth in women-only spaces be allowed to testify to that experience, was to dismiss the validity of every aspect of my article, to dismiss my humanity and my experience of rape. (Jon Ronson’s latest book on internet shaming points out that one of the effects of social media is that it becomes hard to remember that its users’ identities exceed their political positions: individuals are whole nuanced beings with feelings.) They hit where it could only have hurt the most. The blogger Zoe Stavri accused me of ‘thinking like a rapist’, and has consistently refused to apologise; the academic Sara Ahmed tweeted that she would ‘challenge every word’ of my account of being raped (she has since deleted the original tweet).
These responses were not unfamiliar. By far the majority of the few friends I had told over the decade prior to publishing my article, had responded inadequately. Silence; averted eyes; a swift change of conversation; once or twice preceded by an accusation: ‘You’ve really upset me by telling me this.’ From the person I thought of at the time as my best friend: ‘It is not my job to deal with this. Talk to someone else.’ Only one friend phoned in concerned response to a flippant text message; met with me, asked me gently, hugged me, cried with me. And it made all the difference.
To sympathise with a raped woman, to believe her, to encourage her to speak and to really listen, to cry with her, are essential to her rehabilitation in a society that has grossly injured her, and crucial first steps in the provision of adequate legal justice. She must not be made to feel that she now lives beyond the pale; that her experience was beyond the boundaries of empathy. This duty to sympathise applies to everyone who is willing to believe the enormous bank of statistical evidence that testifies to the sheer number of women raped and sexually assaulted each year. It particularly applies to anyone who considers themselves a feminist. To believe a rape victim – even if you disagree on other issues; to attempt to sympathise and support; to recognise in her pain some of the pain that the patriarchy inflicts worldwide on all women: this is the foundation stone of feminism. Without the recognition of our common humanity, without the recognition of shared hurt at the hands of men, without hope in solidarity and shared anger, there is no political movement.
Many people, especially women, have simply been too traumatised by violence and abuse to be able to do the work of sympathy, and genuinely benefit from protection from certain discussions, subjects or people who are likely to trigger traumatic emotional responses. These sufferers deserve all the compassion and emotional support that we can offer as individuals and as a society: adequate therapy, safe spaces, sympathetic responses. Fundamentally, the emotional acts of sympathising and being sympathised with constitute us as social beings, and therapy’s aim is to help damaged individuals reconstitute themselves as emotionally functioning social entities, able to play a full part in social relationships, able to both accept and provide sympathetic support. Only each individual subject can know whether they are truly capable of providing, as well as receiving, sympathy. But to fail to provide sympathy, when it is within your capacity, is the opposite of going above and beyond the call of duty. It is suberogatory; the emotional and political equivalent of tax-avoidance.
Adam Smith was wary of the misuse of the rhetoric of ‘safety’ to prioritise individuals’ emotional tranquillity over their duty as social beings to temporarily open themselves up to the personal distress that is an inevitable element of compassion. He wrote that sympathy fails when ‘the thought of their own safety, the thought that they themselves are not really the sufferers, continually intrudes itself upon’ individuals. Inevitably, sympathy involves temporarily giving up one’s own emotional tranquillity. It feels pretty shit, doesn’t it, to feel the truth that around 1 in 5 of your friends has been raped by a man (and how do we really absorb a fact if we don’t feel it?)? That, in fact, some of your male friends are likely to be rapists? That, if you’re a British woman, you have a 20% chance of being raped by a man? It’s not much fun, is it, when a friend on whom you used to rely to make you feel happy, can’t stop crying? Kinda brings you down, doesn’t it?
But it is only by believing and feeling deeply that rape and the threat of rape is common and wrong and extremely traumatic; it is only by sympathising with rape victims, who are overwhelmingly female, that we can truly comprehend the violence and damage done to women by patriarchy. Only by feeling it to be wrong, can we convert that distress into righteous and effective anger at men who rape and condone rape. Increasingly there are attempts to protect students from arguments, speakers, or facts that might pose a threat to their emotional tranquillity, regardless of their emotional resilience, their capacity to provide sympathy. Increasingly the discourse of ‘safe spaces’ is misused to maintain students in a coddled, ignorant state of intellectual infantilisation and emotional avoidance. But in doing so they prioritise their own wellbeing, their state of tranquil indifference, over the possibility of social change and over the support of people more in need of sympathy than themselves.
Sympathy, especially towards women, can be truly revolutionary: to believe women’s subjectivity is worthy of sympathetic response is to acknowledge women are fully human. It is to feel the enormity and devastation of violence towards women, and it is to feel that violence as wrong. It is to say ‘I believe you’ in response to testimonials of trauma. It is the emotional means by which movements of solidarity and social change are cohered.
The only alternative is an atomisation that leaves one sector of the population traumatised without hope of rehabilitation and the other in cold indifferent narcissism. ‘If you have either no fellow-feeling for the misfortunes I have met with, or none that bears any proportion to the grief which distracts me,…we can no longer converse upon these subjects,’ Smith wrote. ‘We become intolerable to one another. I can neither support your company, nor you mine. You are confounded at my violence and passion, and I am enraged at your cold insensibility and want of feeling.’ This is the breakdown of the very possibility of all conversation, mutual feeling or solidarity. Is this how we want to live?