As conversations about male entitlement and abuse arise in a never-ending loop—due to the never-ending loop of male entitlement and abuse—one theoretically helpful comment also resurfaces often. "What if she were your daughter or wife?" anti-harassment crusaders say, gesturing at the poor mistreated woman of the week. "Don't you have a mother? Would you treat her like this?"
In a way, it makes sense. Our society is governed by men who have never felt the looming presence of the patriarchy, much less its claws. As we beg them to consider the pain of people with experiences fundamentally unlike theirs, we try to make it as easy as possible for them to understand. We rely on shortcuts to empathy.
But this is not true empathy at all, because empathy is not "what if this happened to someone I love?" It's "what if this happened to me?"
Asking lawmakers and businessmen to superimpose a victim's experiences onto their closest female companions is asking them to sympathize, not to empathize. It's still detached. It requires only that they watch from the outside and offer condolences, not that they personally feel the fear and fury of the women around them. As far as sympathy goes, it's a watered-down version, ideal for spoonfeeding.
But even that is hard for these men to swallow. They still deny the problem exists. They cannot manage to stretch their sympathy-lite to the closest reaches of their inner circles, much less to complete strangers.
Which is unfortunate, because that sympathy would not be enough anyway. Telling a man to consider his female relatives before he dismisses the pain of an unfamiliar woman is reinforcing the same toxic structures that caused her pain in the first place.
It reduces women to prop figures in the background of a man's life once again. Even subtly, even unintentionally, it says that women are not equal to men.
It says that our feelings and reactions aren't comprehensible unless they are first filtered through a man's worldview, because it is not enough to say that we are human and we are suffering; we must also explain why that suffering should matter to them. We must always translate our experiences into language men can understand—with footnotes and citations—but they are not even required to listen.
This argument says our entitlement to compassion and justice must be earned through proximity to men. Even though we should qualify simply by being people, we must instead be people with functions in a man's life.
But if you only care about another human being's pain because you might be close enough to watch it, you are a bad person. If you are still trying to wring decency out of people like that, your efforts are better spent elsewhere.
Besides, when it comes to systemic discrimination and harassment, hypotheticals don't exist. Asking a Congressman "what if it were your daughter or wife or sister or mother" is not even relevant. It is his daughter and his wife and his sister and his mother. It is all of us.
All of our stomachs are in knots at the news. All he has to do is take a tiny corner of that burden upon himself and lighten its load on our shoulders.
But he won't.
Because to him, we are daughters and wives and sisters and mothers and no more. And we are expected to pat him on the back for that alone because at least it's a step above being case studies and statistics and no more.
Women are people. Our pain is valid because we experience it, not because of a man witnesses it.