Women who come forward as victims of rape are often challenged, and aggressively so. They are questioned, their stories undermined, and they are regularly accused of fibbing or even fabricating their stories.
Transgender individuals who talk about the overwhelming feeling that they were born in the wrong body and their daily struggle to reconcile their minds with their physicality are disparaged. While some people struggle to empathize with this story of life-long alienation from self, they do it anyway, and work to understand their fellow human. Many people, however, do not push themselves to understand and instead choose to deny these stories altogether.
Racial and ethnic minorities who express pain or resentment for their arbitrarily-assigned status in society are told to "get over it" or, in the case of blacks, that "slavery ended centuries ago." Their experience of oppression in the modern world is denied, for we have decided to engage in a society-wide conceit that this, here and now, is a post-racial world.
Kathleen Hanna, a musician and feminist activist who started the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s, talks about this in the documentary "The Punk Singer," made about her life:
Hanna's comments reveal something obvious, but important to state explicitly: We believe in things we can see happening to ourselves. Women, Hanna is implicitly arguing, believe her stories of sexual abuse because they have been the victims of sexual abuse or know someone who is or can imagine it happening to them. Though many men are, in fact, sexually abused, this is not the predominant narrative of masculinity. Instead, they identify with the men accused of sexual abuse and defend them, because they themselves are scared of being falsely accused. As a result, they are more likely to deny the stories of women who have been victimized.
The same is true of racially-charged interactions with the police. White people trust the police. Their interactions with the police are genial, they feel protected by police presence. This daily sense of security makes it hard for a white person to believe that a police could kill an unarmed black man who posed no real threat. Black people, on the other hand, who regularly experience tension with the police and see a cop car as something to be on guard against, easily sympathize with the parents of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. They fear the same terrible end for their own children.
This is why activists are often portrayed as angry -- it is frustrating to find that many people simply do not believe you, that society denies you your lived reality. It is even more frustrating that the denial of these stories is often framed as a by-product of rationalism or enlightened thought.
We are taught from an earlier age to be "critical thinkers" and to be skeptical of the things around us. But people who dismiss the realities of people not like them are not revealing themselves to be critical thinkers, but rather to be incapable of thinking outside of themselves and their own situation.
When we cannot empathize with the "other," we are not proving ourselves to be smart, but inhuman.
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