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March 22, 2013 / Amy Bradney-George

Empathy goes all ways

Please note this post deals with topics that people may find distressing.

I don’t usually write about topical issues. I tend to steer clear of volatile and emotionally fraught topics, particularly when I’m not an expert/someone qualified to talk about a particular issue, but the latest controversy involving John Laws is something I really feel like I need to discuss.

Firstly, I’d like to stress that the old school, conservative shock jock is not on my Favourite Persons List by any means, and has actually made my Horrible Persons list a few times. I mostly ignore it when he makes the news. But yesterday he copped a lot of flack for the way he handled a call.

In this case, a woman phoned up and recounted on air her story of a childhood of sexual, verbal and psychological abuse. It started when she was six years old and went on until she was 16 and left home. It took her years before she started to cope with it and, as she said to him towards the end of the conversation, she still has days where it gets her down and it’s hard to deal with it.

What caused the backlash against Laws though, were his questions through the conversation. Before getting to them, I want to include the actual audio, because it was a live-to-air conversation, and I’d encourage anyone interested to listen to get a better idea of the context.

Around 2:30 into the audio above Laws asks: “Was it in any way your fault”, and “You weren’t provocative?”, to which she responds “I was a little girl, so I don’t think so John.”

It was these questions that riled up the media. There’s a fairly comprehensive post on Mamamia that does a good job of defending her and criticising him. The argument writer Jamila Rizvi puts forward is valid, but I feel like it’s misdirected. Let me explain further.

When I first read Laws’ questions and comments, I was outraged.When I listened to the audio, however, I was mollified. His tone of voice doesn’t imply accusation at all. He sounds concerned. He also sounds like he has no idea how to respond to her story.

So rather than assume Laws is some kind of narrow-minded, victim-blaming misogynist, can we please calm down for a minute and consider this from his perspective?

He gets a call, out of the blue, about a serious and traumatic issue, and has to somehow handle it live on air. Laws doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy you’d want to have a heart-to-heart with, especially not an emotional one. His interests tend to be more of the political nature. To me, it would be like breaking down in front of one of my friends who I know doesn’t deal with emotions very well: awkward for everyone (especially them).

From my perspective, Laws asked those questions because he had no idea what to do. If you listen to the way he is responding to her, it sounds awkward, like he is trying to keep control but has no idea how to do so.

The first thing I thought after I heard the conversation was “good on her for sharing her experiences”. The second was “poor Laws had no idea how to handle that”. Some people don’t do trauma well, and I’m not justifying that at all. I wish everyone would develop their sense of empathy further.

I remember once when I was going through a very tough time, I opened up to a close friend about what I was going through. After I’d finished sharing my experiences, as I dried my eyes, this friend gently patted me on the shoulder and asked if I’d considered seeing a psychologist. It was awful; all I’d wanted was a friend to listen to my story and give me a hug, and instead I got a question that seemed to suggest I was beyond my friend’s help.

When I brought this up with my friend, the explanation was: “I don’t do emotions well, so even though I want to help, all I can do is ask a question like that”. So I explained why I’d wanted to talk, and we both went away with a better understanding and more empathy for each other.

While there is no doubt Laws lacks empathy in this situation, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t empathise with him. He was put on the spot, and probably thought she should have been talking to a counsellor rather than a guy known for controversial radio discussions.

I remember times when I’ve said the wrong thing or asked horrible questions without realising it because I didn’t know how to deal with a situation. I felt awful afterwards, but it taught me the importance of putting myself in someone else’s shoes. In this case, I put myself in both the caller’s shoes and the host’s shoes. And the lesson I learnt is that empathy goes both ways. It relates to everyone, not just the people we like.

So rather than criticise Laws for his blunt (and, yes, potentially horrific) questions, I would just like to say that I hope the awkwardness I heard in his voice inspires him to become more empathetic.

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