It is unfortunate that the current protest and discussion on sexual harassment in institutional spaces has got locked into a debate between ‘naming and shaming’ and ‘due process’. And if it remains there with borders strictly drawn it will be a huge missed opportunity for the next required push to minimise the toxicity of masculities infused institutions. Yes, it is true that anonymous lists are dangerous and not the best way to counter sexual harassment in institutional settings. I have up close seen and been part of garnering support for a complainant that was soon proven to be false. And I know that if the list was available when we were fighting for this young woman the accused would have immediately been added. And I am thankful that the list wasn’t available and social media was not even a distant dream. If our action can and has the potential of harming even one individual then caution has to be the operative word. But then I also know of many who should feature on that list but aren’t as yet.
The question that is bothering me is whether my discomfort with this naming exercise would be as strong and as acute and as urgent if those being named were not from largely my side of the fence?
The fact is that it is too late to debate process vs. anonymous accusations. The deed has been done and from all accounts the list will expand. It serves no purpose to post facto discuss what should have been or what could be. All of us have always known the stink pit that all institutions are as far as masculinities and sexual harassment are concerned. The problem that we are facing today is that our dear friends and acquaintances occupy the list and it may at a later date also come out that some should not have been on that list. The question that is bothering me is whether my discomfort with this naming exercise would be as strong and as acute and as urgent if those being named were not from largely my side of the fence? My hunch is that most of us would be baying for blood with scant respect for process or principles. The problem of survival on social media is that unless you have an opinion and unless you formulate your thoughts even as you type in quick time you may as well be consigned to the dustbin of anonymity because out there is an opinion taking life and it needs either our immediate support or urgent countering. Social media is a peculiar animal it makes us think and it makes us act as if we have lost the ability to think, as if there is no tomorrow.
So, coming back to the question of who occupy the list and if they were from the other camp. I can speak for myself, it would have given me immense pleasure to see the other camp squirming, running to save their lives and in a mess. I may have squeaked about the dangers of mob lynching but in my heart of hearts enjoyed the spectacle of disarray in the camp. But that is not the case under current circumstances. I am actually worried about the reputation of my friends who feature on the list, I am thinking of the consequences. I can imagine the irreparable damage this may cause in case some of those on the list are actually not guilty of the accusations. It does seem unfair. Unfortunately we think of principles and ethics mostly under two circumstances. One when we need the principles to support our stand and two, when we face emergency situations. We splinter principles and ethics into little tarts that have to always and under all circumstances taste delicious and satisfy our taste buds. The problem though with principles is that they are bittersweet, difficult to digest and cause constipation. We mostly display double standards when it comes to principles and ethics. The principle should be that mob lynching under all circumstances should not be encouraged on social media. But we encourage it when the enemy is clearly identified. Non-violence is our abiding principle when we face violence but not when others face it or when it is from those we identify this side of the fence because of our understanding of historical oppression and continuing injustice they face. That is precisely where principles and ethics become weak grounds to argue against the list being prepared and circulated. The fact is most of us have abetted and strengthened the idea that principles apply weakly to our speech and actions.
There are several theories going around about why the list is only of people who broadly occupy the left/liberal spectrum. Is this a conspiracy against the left? Is this the final onslaught to get rid of academics who are a thorn to the current regime? Have read with amazement the self importance that we give ourselves. The fact of the matter is that the lists are coming out of institutions that have provided the capital to their students to effectively occupy and create a discourse that will find space, voice and traction. The ability to create a large pool of social media supporters, feed information to the mainstream media, polemic speech, an international reach are all gifts that students from most educational institutions in India cannot even dream of achieving. And some if not major credit goes to women and men who have taught these students, nurtured them, introduced them to knowledge sources in ways that most students in India cannot even imagine. It is ironical that it is these students who today are the most vocal about institutionalized sexual harassment. A system that provided them with the ability to challenge inequality and injustice stands challenged. So, it is a positive. We should be proud of the fact that a new generation of young people are taking on the system. Some may point out that it is not the system that is being challenged but individuals and that is so because due process is not being followed. That is true and not true. Yes, significant progress against institutionalized sexual harassment has been made only through individual and collective struggles at various points of time in the last three decades. I remember as a student in the 80s meeting this exceptional woman who had fought a bitter struggle at Air India and she was a heroine. I also remember being part of a struggle to support a group of young women students who took on the toxic masculinity of St. Stephens College in Delhi against all odds. And then there was the case of Bhanwari Devi, the woman who doggedly fought all social institutions of power to finally extract the famous Vishakha judgement. And there are countless other brave battles fought by women who refused to be cowed down. They are all brave women who at great personal risk took on institutions and systems that were vicious, apathetic, unjust and misogynist. And it is these struggles that in bits and pieces made it possible for an acknowledgement that our institutions are unsafe for women and the need for systems to be put in place that would allow women to work/study with dignity. And it needs to be recognized that the importance of these struggles lie in their public nature, in their non anonymity, in their association with other groups, collectives and struggles.
The ugliness of this challenge is our collective ugliness and not of just those who at the moment are anonymous.
It also needs to be recognized that the problem is that institutions continue to be breeding grounds for a toxic masculinity because the nature and architecture of institutions draw their inspiration from a masculinity inspired view of the world. Institutionalised hierarchies are integral to all institutions, private, state run or non governmental. And all hierarchies need to be maintained either through officially recorded and implemented rules and regulations or through unofficial means. Masculinity occupies the entire spectrum. It comes dressed as the official police and it also comes undressed as the unofficial thug. It can change roles or it can remain fixed to its spectrum position but the two are conjoined twins, inseparable and born together. It is the rogue part that shows promise of being tamed or contained or sensitized but unfortunately it is also connected to other institutions, systems that infuse it with nourishment and strength. The larger battle is of course to imagine and make possible, to use current jargon, new startups that do not follow the same architectural theories but the problem remains of dealing with those that exist and those that we occupy. The appeal for due process is a rational and sane advice to deal with the thug in the room but the problem is that the problem itself is much larger than what due process can handle, absorb and process. When we advice due process but fail to provide the process, create a bonding, extend our unconditional support and time our words will not carry the weight that they should. The fact is that no institution, no group, no feminist organization has the capacity or the capability of following even 30 cases of sexual harassment to its logical end. It is actually a frightening situation. In most cases these are long drawn out, draining individual battles that get no support from agencies or collectives outside. The collective that has formed around this list has to be seen as a support group, a bonding, strength that comes from stepping out and holding of hands, of sharing experiences, of speaking secrets, of letting a weight lift. We are failing to understand the process underway and we are failing to hold hands. This is ugly because we are facing the monster within and it is scary because the monster could be us.
This is an opportunity that shouldn’t slip by. It is rare for protests against sexual harassment to come together and become as challenging as the one at hand. The burden of anonymity that this rage carries is not necessarily the problem of only those who are involved in the process of naming but is also the burden that we as ethical objectors carry. The passage from anonymity to an empowered voice for justice is a collective responsibility that we may carry or fail at but what cannot be pushed aside is that at least some institutions today stand challenged as they have never been challenged in the past. The ugliness of this challenge is our collective ugliness and not of just those who at the moment are anonymous.