The last thing women in India need is for the perfect storm of the #MeToo movement to become a storm in a teacup
The #MeToo movement has become pop culture. Sounds too frivolous? No, because pop culture is serious too. Caitlin Moran writes, “Pop is the cultural bellwether of social change. Because of its immediacy, reach, and power — no two-year turnover, like movies; no three-year writing process, like the novel; no 10-year campaigning process, like politics — any thought or feeling that begins to foment in the collective unconscious can be number one in the charts two months later. And as soon as a pop idea gets out there, it immediately triggers action and reaction in other artists, whose responses are equally rapid — leading to an almost quantum overnight shift in the landscape.”
And that is exactly what has happened with the social change the #MeToo whirlwind has blown in: an overnight shift in the landscape. Men are more cautious now. I have no problem with that. They should be. Women have come out with accusations about incidents from more than 20 years ago. I have no problem with that, either. The climate then was not conducive to any complaint being taken seriously. Women were mocked, shut down or even fired. Every organisation today has taken cognisance of any complaint. One timorous giant step by a woman accuser became a bigger step for all kind. One gifting a baton of courage to the other, as the marathon gathered momentum.
But — there’s a huge “but” here. The #MeToo hurricane is not a gentle zephyr breeze. As hurricanes do, it takes down many indiscriminately. A journalist’s job is not only to report the facts. She must also lift the facts to expose the impact, the invisible and the intangible. Yes, journalists must speak truth to power but power rests on many heads, not only the government and politicians. In this era, Twitter is more powerful today than any government or politician. Sometimes good, sometimes noxious. When Twitter becomes a predator of reputations without proof, there is an urgency for journalists to investigate these cases instead of retweeting blindly. Every anonymous accusing tweet must be examined and we as journalists must rise to this challenge.
Rebecca Solnit wrote, “The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those ‘dominant narratives’ or ‘paradigms’ or ‘memes’ or ‘metaphors we live by’ or ‘frameworks’. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces.
Such is the power of those forces that a man can wake up one morning and discover he has been accused of sexual harassment by an anonymous accuser via a tweet. She works in a news organisation and went to interview him. After that, she says he called her four times to invite her out and she refused. She says he then called her to invite her on a trip he was going on and she refused again. She says he then called her editor and questioned her ability as a reporter.
Now, he says he does not recall who this is. Soon after, he receives three emails, each one firing him from three different projects he was working on. One email says, “It has pained us to learn about the recent allegations against you. Our position on this, however, is very clear — zero tolerance.” She adds, “Personally, I have had respectful interactions with you, but that is not enough. It is simply not okay that harassment and intimidation take place in selective situations and spheres, especially when power dynamics are unequal. I wish you better days ahead”.
He has been instantly pronounced guilty. The language used in the email seems to be coming from a learned morphic resonance that has currency today, almost by rote.
Another man has been accused by his assistants of inappropriate sexual advances. Again, these accusations are made by anonymous women. He too has been in a position where he had to step away from an important project. His livelihood is in jeopardy, his family in turmoil.
Here it is appropriate to point out The New York Times held back their story on Harvey Weinstein for a whole year — checking facts, getting verifications, interviewing witnesses — before they published the story on October 5, 2017. Ronan Farrow worked 10 months on his story—getting corroborations and fact-checking—before he published it in The New Yorker on October 23, 2017. These stories had strong enough basis for investigators to use in filing charges against Weinstein.
In India, the #MeToo activity is following a different path. Anonymous tweets are enough for men to lose their jobs and livelihood. We cannot be sure of the motivation behind these tweet accusations. I would presume all to be true but could it be from revenge or a relationship that ended badly? There is a wide difference between a sexual predator misusing his position of power and the pursuit of a romantic relationship. This has become muddled. There is the reality that these anonymous accusations could be true.
If so, then these men must face the consequences. We must believe the women accusers but we also must wait for an investigation before condemning a man. Until there is a thorough investigation, even a journalistic one, there is a nagging danger that a man could be wrongly accused, lose his family, career and remain tainted for life. Simply, is that justice?
Additionally, we women find it difficult to stand up for an accused man even when we find the facts are contradictory. There is the natural inclination of women to support each other. I believe the women but my believing the women is irrelevant to the facts. There is the obvious view — that why would any woman expose herself to all the unpleasant attention in coming out with accusations unless it is true? But we know now there have been a few false accusations made.
Every movement for change, even a humanistic, worthy one, has to trample the status quo. In the exhilarating, heady crushing of past norms, there is often a need for an essential moment of pause. French composer Claude Debussy said, “Music is the silence between two notes”.
So, while we sing the notes of calling out real predators who abused positions of power, we could also ensure that a powerful movement does not allow itself to be used by predators of a different kind. The last thing women in India need is for the perfect storm of the #MeToo movement to become a storm in a teacup. So, women will rise with a new power. But as we remind our politicians, we must remind ourselves too, that power must include accountability and responsibility.