Let me be the first to admit that I don’t really have a good understanding of the latest Twitter-based scandal involving a man accused of sexual harassment, audio recordings in which an advocate purportedly tries to conceal evidence, and one of the more social media-visible participants of the #MeToo movement in India. I came to hear of it through a dramatic pronouncement by a heterosexual male friend, whose “all of metoo is false” text message I responded to with a slew of eyeroll emojis. It is simply not possible to discredit an entire, complex, global, multi-pronged movement because of a potentially false allegation. But people are certainly trying to, which is a kind of telescoping of the larger context. The context is cultural, not individual.
Similar to my disinterest in the intricacies and daily-shifting loyalties in this case, others who are unable to keep up with the tide and who don’t have grounding in social justice ethics or praxis are liable to slip between the cracks ideologically. We do not live in times in which we think for ourselves, and a great deal of the vocabulary and framing now available to us is new to common parlance, and requires a certain degree of privilege to understand and employ. The demand that we quickly form opinions, without deep engagement, means that some people default into the easiest stance – which in this case is that the entire anti-sexual harassment movement is a mess.
We would do well to acknowledge that it is messy, though. A few days after sending me that message, the same friend seemed to have a mini-crisis. It began with him saying he’d been lusting over someone but was afraid of flirting due to “cancel culture”, then a segue into whether mental health issues should be accepted as blanket absolutions, and finally an admission of feeling conflicted about having to mediate harassment-related issues in a workplace. All these issues had collapsed on themselves, and led to a confusion which was most expediently cut through with dismissal.
This is a very common phenomenon. It’s critical to address why many men and women do not feel like the language or actions of this vital movement speak to them or for them. The reasons will be manifold. Personal apathy is only the tip of the iceberg.
We are being dishonest if we claim that we had this level of empowerment even four or five years ago, or if we claim that we truly know what we are doing now. Performative activism that doesn’t contain practical elements, long-term vision or self-reflexivity is challenging for even die-hard feminists to navigate through and counter. It is even harder for those who find certain concepts (which we may smugly think of as “just decent behaviour”) to be new. Rather than shame, how can we build learning resources, hold meaningful space, and improve access to both – while also discussing restitution and justice? Can we not fixate on famous cases, and focus on improving the culture at large? I have more questions than solutions because that’s where we still are – and because the answers should also be manifold, diverse and anything but individual.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 28th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.