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#MeTooIndia has just begun
The entire week has been overwhelming and emotionally draining. At one point, nothing made sense. Along with film, TV, literature and advertising, the movement hit the news media industry—including the Hindustan Times, my employer.
On Monday, the national political editor of the Hindustan Times—and my immediate boss—stepped down from his post, following accusations by a former colleague that he had sent her “inappropriate” messages, screenshots of which she had shared on Twitter. NDTV called it #MeTooIndia’s “first casualty in the Indian media”.
Reactions varied. Here are three versions I heard:
Colleague #1 said the action was harsh: What is the big deal in expressing interest? Are we taking a moral stance on adultery? The guy tried, pushed a bit, it didn’t work out— end of story. There is a line between sexual harassment and flirting. Moreover, the said incident happened after the girl had left the Hindustan Times. So how is this workplace harassment?
Colleague #2 was on the other extreme: this person believes that the guy had an easy escape. The punishment should have been harsher. Just stepping down from a managerial role is not enough. The action was inappropriate and should not have happened.
Colleague #3 was more subtle, arguing that the case falls in a grey area: If the girl says she got uncomfortable, it is because she felt uncomfortable. Who are we to decide how she should feel? If the action seems unjustified to us, consider it collateral damage. Women’s voices have been suppressed for so long: so let the floodgates remain open and the dams be broken. Some nuance will obviously be lost in the process; false accusations will be hurled. But that’s the cost we have to pay for the larger good.
Then, on Tuesday, a second incident: An anonymous Twitter account levelled allegations of sexual misconduct against the Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times. Unlike the previous case where screenshots were shared and the identity of the person was known, there was not enough information in this case.
HT’s Editor-in-Chief tweeted:
Kunal Pradhan @_kunal_pradhanI have been mentioned in a series of tweets by an anonymous account that was created yesterday, detailing a fake conversation with a fictitious person. We have contacted Twitter, reporting abuse and harassment, and I have filed a complaint with the cyber cell of Delhi Police.
But just to close the loop, we will assess all claims stringently and fairly if the accusers come forward — and not merely from the statutory perspective but from that of creating a safe and productive newsroom for everyone.
This is not to say that anonymous complaints don’t matter and be rejected upfront. In fact, there have been a large number of anonymous testimonies in the movement. But they have come through gatekeepers—at least someone knows who that person is; someone can at least confirm that the complainant is real. That was not the case here.
These two instances illustrate the tension and the debate surrounding the #MeTooIndia movement.
In the first case, there is no doubt that the said incident happened. Messages were exchanged. The debate is whether that constitutes sexual harassment.
In the second case, the issue is if at all the incident ever occurred happened. Is it a real story or made up? How do you confirm the authenticity of an anonymous testimony?
These are not easy questions. While I am still conflicted, and confused, and overwhelmed by everything that’s going on, I am clear about one thing: #MeTooIndia was required. It had to happen. It is not perfect: there have been excesses, there will be more. But the horror stories we are now getting to know are symptomatic of how misogyny has been normalised and patriarchy internalised in our society. That system had to be called out.
Here is what happened this week: The number of men who have been named in the ongoing #MeToo movement is increasing every hour. The list has prominent names, including MJ Akbar, currently a Minister of State in the Central Government and a former Editor; Alok Nath, the veteran “sanskaari” actor; Sajid Khan, Bollywood director; Kailash Kher, singer; senior editors and journalists at major newspapers. Some stories are horrific and downright disgusting.
How come these stories were buried for so long?
It has been the failure of these very systems that has catalyzed this latest development in India’s #MeToo movement. Women are increasingly fed up at not being listened to. Assault victims in India are routinely discouraged from filing complaints by police — particularly if their abuser is a powerful or well-respected man. Legal cases often drag on for years (it is estimated that there are more than 30 million cases pending in Indian courts), and when women do make it to court they are routinely disbelieved by judges who have a narrow understanding of consent. While the law governing sexual harassment at work was passed five years ago, many major organizations and universities still have no official processes for investigating sexual assault. (BuzzFeed News)
A reading list
To understand the various shades of the #MeToo movement, I am sharing a curated list of articles. Most were published late last year or early this year, when the movement was at its peak in the West.
Rebecca Traister wrote this piece two weeks after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, arguing that “the conversation we should be having, alongside the one about individual trespasses, is about mechanisms far larger than any one perpetrator.”
But what we keep missing, as we talk and reveal and expose, is that this conversation cannot be just about personal revelation or speaking up or being heard or even just about the banal ubiquity of abuse; it must also address the reasons why we replay this scene, over and over again. Part of what we have to come to grips with is that this is not a story simply of individual misconduct but of systemic inequity, a story of nuts-and-bolts infrastructure of gender injustice that has permitted generations — centuries — of this behavior, and that has worked again and again to beat back any resistance to it.
This piece is not specifically about #MeToo. It’s about online movements and what comes of it. Jessi Hempel, argues that #MeToo is a “too-perfect meme”.
It harnesses social media’s mechanisms to drive users (that’s you and me) into escalating states of outrage while exhausting us to the point where we cannot meaningfully act.
Hempel quotes research of Yale professor Molly Crockett. There are two key points here:
First: Overflow of outrage makes us numb to tragedies
People share more outrageous things on social media platforms.
Outrage is central to the design of most social media platforms—for very good reason. It’s an emotion that inspires sharing, which causes all of us to spend more time engaged with the platform. And that translates directly to revenue for the companies.
This leads to an overflow of outrage. As a result, “we become numb to tragedies because we’re unable to process the emotions they engender at the speed with which they arise.”
Second: What will come of these posts and this moment?
Crockett posits that we may discover that dense expressions of moral outrage may lead to less meaningful involvement in social causes through volunteering or donations. “People are less likely to spend money on punishing unfairness when they are given the opportunity to express their outrage via written messages instead,” she writes.
Story #3: Publicly, We Say #MeToo. Privately, We Have Misgivings. (New York Times)
Daphne Merkin, a novelist, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, where she says that while many feminists are publicly declaring themselves in support of the #MeToo cause, privately, they are “rolling their eyes,” having had it with “the reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage that has accompanied this cause from its inception.”
The fact that such unwelcome advances persist, and often in the office, is, yes, evidence of sexism and the abusive power of the patriarchy. But I don’t believe that scattershot, life-destroying denunciations are the way to upend it. In our current climate, to be accused is to be convicted. Due process is nowhere to be found.
And what exactly are men being accused of? What is the difference between harassment and assault and “inappropriate conduct”? There is a disturbing lack of clarity about the terms being thrown around and a lack of distinction regarding what the spectrum of objectionable behavior really is. Shouldn’t sexual harassment, for instance, imply a degree of hostility? Is kissing someone in affection, however inappropriately, or showing someone a photo of a nude male torso necessarily predatory behavior?
Story #4: It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of #MeToo (New York Magazine)
Andrew Sullivan, a conservative commentator, builds the case further, arguing that it is problematic that the chorus of minor offenses (“creepy DMs or texts especially when drunk,” “weird lunch dates,”) is on the same list as brutal rapes, physical assaults, brazen threats, unspeakable cruelty, violence, and misogyny.
He equates the #MeToo movement with McCarthyism, a political ploy that wields accusations and shame without significant evidence.
The act of anonymously disseminating serious allegations about people’s sex lives as a means to destroy their careers and livelihoods has long gone by a simple name. It’s called McCarthyism, and the people behind the list engaged in it. Sure, they believed they were doing good — but the McCarthyites, in a similar panic about communism, did as well. They believe they are fighting an insidious, ubiquitous evil — the patriarchy — just as the extreme anti-Communists in the 1950s believed that commies were everywhere and so foul they didn’t deserve a presumption of innocence, or simple human decency. They demand public confessions of the guilty and public support for their cause … or they will cast suspicion on you as well.
But I’ll tell you what’s also brave at the moment: to resist this McCarthyism, to admit complexity, to make distinctions between offenses, to mark a clear boundary between people’s sexual conduct in a workplace and outside of it, to defend due process, to defend sex itself, and privacy, and to rely on careful reporting to expose professional malfeasance. In this nihilist moment when Bannonites and left-feminists want simply to burn it all down, it’s especially vital to keep a fire brigade in good order.
Slate’s Christina Cauterucci responds to criticism levelled against the movement.
The Gessen and Merkin school of thought also lacks any meaningful blueprint for how institutions might stop a Matt Lauer or a Harvey Weinstein while allowing other forms of sometimes-consensual, sometimes-nonconsensual sexual advances to continue. Of course there’s a distinction between rape and groping, and between groping and a lewd remark. But in the context of workplace harassment, when administrators tolerate low-level offenses, people are sometimes empowered to push the boundaries even further, priming witnesses to ignore high-level stuff when it happens. People worrying that #MeToo is a “sex panic” believe the problem lies in a few bad actors and their stomach-churning offenses. If the magnitude of the movement has demonstrated anything, it’s that there’s an entire spectrum of sex-based abuse of power that lets those bad actors flourish. It’s not ancillary to the problem. It’s the root of it.
Has #MeToo gone too far?
In one of her recent pieces on the #MeToo moment, Gessen argued that the rash of punishments for accused harassers suffers from “misplaced scale,” by which comparatively minor sexual offenses are deemed uniquely vile. There is a problem of misplaced scale here, I’d agree, but I see it elsewhere. For what little progress #MeToo has made, especially for working-class women, on a problem whose extraordinary dimensions we have yet to grasp, there seems to be an incredible volume of work arguing that it’s gone too far.
Story #6: The Rising Pressure of the #MeToo Backlash (New Yorker)
This is a lovely first-person piece. Look out for the odd conversation that Jia Tolentino, the writer, had with her doctor, who talks about #MeToo going too far.
Then, of course, I wondered if this was the frustration that men feel when they are asked to personally answer for women’s inequality, when their inappropriate or coercive behavior is placed on the spectrum that ends in violent rape. But men benefit from gender inequality in a way that women do not from perceived feminist overreach. The extremes of male sexual misconduct typically serve to make lesser acts—such as secretly removing a condom, or removing plastic guards in the midst of shooting a sex scene, as James Franco allegedly did, though his attorney contends the accusation is “not accurate”—seem, in the grand scheme of things, really not that bad. From the beginning, there’s been a reflexive cry: we shouldn’t lump all male misbehavior together. There has been little insistence on parsing and making room for the gradations of women’s resistance. When women push back on sexual misconduct, the viability of the entire movement seems to hinge on each act.
In this recent piece, Supriya Nair agrees that the fire hose of #MeToo includes allegations that don’t fit into clear-cut definitions. But, she says, we have no clear-cut understanding of male overreach either.
Arguably, this second wave of #MeToo allegations offers a more robust infrastructure of public verification: there are screenshots of misconduct and many accusers have given up anonymity. There remains widespread concern that their guerilla nature trivializes a serious problem. This is nonsense. None of the stories to emerge in India or around the world have actually belittled justiciable sexual misconduct. Even on chaotic Twitter, the conversation has largely ignored allegations cast by seeming sock-puppets, or fake accounts; accused men claiming to have been wrongfully targeted have used the space for rebuttals and demands for inquiries. Barriers to legal redress for sexual crimes and misdemeanours remain high for other reasons; that is why most of us readily acknowledge that the judicial process can be traumatic for accusers and witnesses, and that “process is punishment,” in various kinds of criminal proceedings.
#MeToo is an aggregative movement: it draws power from detecting patterns in the behaviour of abusers. Individual men may bear the brunt of answering for their transgressions, many of which have been totally normalized by the culture (“It’s bad that he did it, but doesn’t everyone?”), but the point is to lay bare the social conditions that render these misdemeanours trivial, even acceptable, even though they hurt and degrade their victims.
This is a great piece. Moira Donegan argues that the #MeToo debate revealed a split between two competing visions of feminism – social and individualist.
A closer look at the arguments being made by these two camps reveals a deeper, more serious intellectual rift. What’s really at play is that feminism has come to contain two distinct understandings of sexism, and two wildly different, often incompatible ideas of how that problem should be solved. One approach is individualist, hard-headed, grounded in ideals of pragmatism, realism and self-sufficiency. The other is expansive, communal, idealistic and premised on the ideals of mutual interest and solidarity. The clash between these two kinds of feminism has been starkly exposed by #MeToo, but the crisis is the result of shifts in feminist thought that have been decades in the making.
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