No good excuse to deter #MeToo

So the MeToo wave has finally crashed our shores in India and we are starting to see many famous celebrities getting hit by this wave surfed by some brave women. News channels are discussing these celebrities, people are writing about celebrities are who are exposed, some are shocked, some don’t want to believe anything. But the point of view of everyone whether they support or hate the movement, the MeToo movement from when it picked up steam in Hollywood to its recent strong arrival in India is somehow still largely viewed as a phenomenon that affects celebrities and some of the critics of the movement describe it an as a movement that only gives voice to the urban elites.

And there lays a big problem of this perspective, where this is cast not as women’s genuine struggle against their assaulters but rather as celebrities squabbling amongst each other. The movement also often been characterized as a product of the social media associated with various hashtags.  While discussing this topic, we shouldn’t associate this with how famous a person is or how many followers they have.  A woman who comes out must first be acknowledged as a person who is expressing a grievance rather as a celebrity who is going after another celebrity.  Female celebrities have followers on social media and that platform makes it slightly easier to find support and encouragement to come out with their stories. (This is not to belittle the courage even a celebrity must need to come out, but just that its way tougher for non-celebrity women).  Female celebrities are more likely to have been assaulted by men who are more powerful within their domain and the woman’s social following is most often her source of strength to come out.  This is largely the reason why in the initial stages we see mostly celebrity names tumbling out especially on social media.  In due course by listening to these more famous women more often, one hopes that this courage is going to spread to less fortunate women and men as well. And more importantly the conversation should hopefully move from social media into households, schools, colleges and workplaces. Conversely, if even ‘urban elite’ women find only discouragement from the society when they come out, that’d would only diminish the chances that less privileged will ever come out with their stories.

As a man, reading all the stories also helps expand my consciousness about these problems. In fact, I would suggest my fellow men to read the tweets and messages posted the victims. The answers to all silly questions like ‘why didn’t you come out earlier?’ or ‘why didn’t you file a complaint’ are all already there.

The danger however in casting this as a celebrity problem is that apart from giving the perception that this only a problem in cinema or music fields, it also gives the powerful men opportunity to use the same celebrity status to push back against the movement. Almost uniformly all the men who have been accused have said the same thing, from the American President to a famous lyricist in India. “Oh.  You see I am really famous, that’s why I am being accused, so that it gives publicity to the accusers”. Such a response should be a red flag in itself.

Most men who have been accused have hardly suffered any lasting consequences; they are hardly even investigated, let alone punished. Their careers may take a temporary dip, but everyone knows they are going to be back at it. Meanwhile the women who come out are far more likely to have diminished chances in their life/career. Therefore to suggest that these women gain anything from coming out with their ordeal and the real victim is the poor powerful man seems largely suspect. This is why I am more inclined to believe the victim’s story more than the aggressor who holds power in that context, because the victims have more to lose (counter-intuitive as it may seem). And when there are corroborating accounts of several victims about the same aggressor, the probability that he is innocent drops for every victim that comes out.

Of course nothing can be certain here. Is it possible that women can lie about this? Sure, it is definitely possible.  Can every account of sexual assault be proven with iron clad evidence? Absolutely not. While a more violent crime like rape will leave traces, these kinds of assaults and misdemeanours are in a very ambiguous area legally speaking in that they could be punishable if proven, but an overwhelming majority of such assaults can never be proven. If a producer gropes an aspiring actress in the privacy of his office where nobody is watching and there are no CCTV footage, that incident can never be proved. Add to that if that producer follows up with threats and coercion, one can be sure that the story will never come out. If an average woman gets molested in an empty subway, it’s the same case, can’t ever be proved. In fact, this impunity is what encourages a molester. They are very confident that nothing can ever happen to them. No such impunity exists for a victim who is speaking out.

Now do I have a fool proof formula to distinguish genuine accusations from those that are not?  I don’t. But what are we as a society going to tell women (and men) who have suffered? Just stay put, not open their mouth and suffer in silence? Somehow that doesn’t seem right to me and I want women in my life to be able to talk to me if any such thing happened to them.  Nobody is going to jail because of mere allegations (and they shouldn’t, unless they have been investigated and tried in court of law). But, if these stories help other women to tread more carefully around these powerful men, then that is invaluable. If the noise around MeToo even slightly reduces the probability that the hypothetical film producer or that subway molester will indulge in such activity then that is good!

And again, I reiterate that we are NOT dealing with certainties here, we can never be sure if an alleged assault actually took place in most cases, but that or the fact that the accused is a celebrity  should never be used as an excuse to discourage the victims who want to speak out. We must encourage them to talk and listen to them at the very least.

I don’t know if there can be any immediate resolution to this problem. Is there a way forward in the long run to making some meaningful change in our society? It seems obvious that there are two different but interconnected layers of problem here. One is attitude of the powerful to exploit their position of power (power as in holding an upper hand in any given context) that manifests itself in different ways like the caste system, racism, religious and organizational hierarchy, rich exploiting poor, corporations exploiting workers or even the simple power distance between a manager and an subordinate.  The second layer of problem is continuing prevalence of sexism (ranging from casual to extreme) in the society.  Both are ancient problems whose roots go miles deep under our society. The first one is much more difficult problem to address and one against which progress has generally been steady but very slow. We must continue to push reform on that front. But, I am of the opinion that the second one is relatively more easily solvable.

With some self-reflection, when I look back at myself, I know how sexist my own attitude was as a teenage boy. As a teenager whose friends circle consisted mostly of other boys, there was so much sexist and in hindsight very dangerous misconceptions about girls that were so common, such as “girls don’t mind it, in fact they want it” and nonsense ideas like that. Such ideas were (and continue to be) reinforced by movies that depicted a hero inappropriately touching the heroine, who immediately approves of such behaviour, with positive reactions.  While ideally such ideas should never exist in the first place, most boys including me grew out of such stupidity when we started interacting more with girls, as friends, cousins, classmates and co-workers.  The sexist young boys in us learned to be empathetic and respectful of girls the more we interacted with them. Learning that girls have exactly the same kind of aspirations, motivations, egos and varied points of view about everything that makes us human was invaluable. It should have been obvious from the beginning ideally, but at least some of us learned and there may be a larger lesson for our society in that.  Boys and girls from a very young age should be allowed to mingle and interact freely and learn from one another in the important ages of development that may actually help them to be more empathetic of the other.  Yes. This is already happening in some sense especially in more cosmopolitan areas, but gender segregation in schools and colleges (even in co-ed institutions) is still a thing. Even co-ed institutions in India hardly make any effort to shape young minds to treat everybody equally. Most colleges, including the one where I studied, were singularly focused on academics and getting placements for their students rather than any kind of all-round development. Where are young boys going to learn to understand, empathize with and respect girls if not in a school or college? Of course, family plays a role, but young boys and girls encounter in each other outside of the safety of their homes mostly in schools or colleges , so that’s where the reform has to take place.

Boys, who don’t grow out of such sexist attitudes, are far more likely to become sexual assaulters when they get in to a position of power or to defend other such people or at least to get irritated when women come out with their stories. They may still have sisters and wives but probably so steeped in that they are no longer capable of empathizing with their points of view.

It’s still not too late at all, all my fellow men should probably take some time to read all MeToo stories and whether or not you believe all of them, it will help empathize with half the population of this society and definitely help learn a perspective that must be well considered if we are going to engineer a safe and secure society for everybody.

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