Decoding #MeToo For Those Who Are Still Conflicted And Confused About It

by R Jagannathan - Oct 16, 2018 10:46 AM +05:30 IST
Decoding #MeToo For Those Who Are Still Conflicted And Confused About ItWhy the real #MeToo hasn’t even surfaced.
  • If something you did years back without knowing you may have done wrong comes back to bite you today, it is not a bad idea to apologise.

    It would be the manly thing to do.

For many high-profile men outed by the #MeToo campaign, this should be a time for contrition, humility and introspection. Not belligerence.

Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar has probably erred on his score. He has every right to seek legal remedies (as he already has) against some of the women who have alleged various acts of sexual misconduct by him in the distant past, but it would have been better if he had done so after resigning his post and fighting his battle for vindication as a private citizen. By staying on, he is essentially validating the #MeToo campaign, which is substantially about men using positions of power to demand sexual favours – or acquiescence – from women who may not be in a position to deny them. Or feel that the ecosystem is hostile.

But even if we keep aside high-profile cases where men have seen reputational damage through the #MeToo campaign after it suddenly erupted into national consciousness, many men, including many who have not been part of any sexual predation, are confused about what is happening.

How is it that something that happened a decade or two ago is suddenly very important to the women coming out with their stories now? How is it that women who were victimised, even raped, then went on to remain in the same jobs involving the same victimisers for years after the alleged event? What is non-consensual in sexual flirtations or even physical contact when everything on the surface seems consensual? How did a job interview held inside the confines of a hotel room become a case of acute discomfort for the woman involved – and hence a case of inappropriate behaviour by the editor concerned, when nothing else happened? What if no discomfort or harassment was even intended?

There are no simple answers to these questions, for there can be many nuances in how men and women read certain cues they give out inadvertently or non-cues that they misread as cues.

Perhaps the first thing to understand about the epidemic of #MeToo allegations is a simple one. It is about women telling their stories with a powerful message embedded in them: male behaviour has to change from what it has been in the past. It may be more about what should happen in future rather than what happened in the past. What was accepted then cannot be accepted in future.

A Gandhi in the last century may have been unaware that he was using his position of power to try out his celibacy experiments with nude young women, but today we would think of that as exploitation. Maybe, Gandhi wasn’t aware of what he was doing, but today he would need to be aware. Ditto for the men accused of inappropriate behaviour even when there was no rape or molestation involved. Women are telling us how they want to be treated, or not treated, and that is a good thing.

Second, #MeToo is not about having the ability to prove something in a court of law. Sometimes, no separate proof will exist about sexual misconduct, and it could be one person’s word against another. But if we assume that women in a patriarchal society get no particular advantage in speaking out against harassment – they will be ostracised and marked out as trouble-makers – one has to also presume that their feelings about certain incidents in their lives are valid. They are valid even if no evil intent can be ascribed to the person who made them feel insecure or harassed. Men must thus develop a special antenna to check the impact they are having on women, especially when they are in positions of power and can deliver favours to the latter.

Third, it does not matter if wrong conduct is not reported immediately. In the case of the intern who alleged that a former Supreme Court justice had harassed her, the story surfaced in 2013, long after the judge had retired. This could be because going to the police and filing a complaint against a powerful judge was not an easy option earlier. Women will tell their stories when it appears safer to do so. So, the delay in mentioning it earlier cannot always be held against them though one cannot rule out cases of opportunistic women using a convenient time to get back at people they dislike.

Fourth, the real #MeToo hasn’t even surfaced. The current bout of the campaign involves relatively empowered urban women, but the real cases of abuse and harassment happen within the close confines of family and close relationships. So, if you come across this kind of abuse in your relationships, don’t wait for the women to talk about it. Do something about it, and it does not mean using Twitter to talk about it.

Fifth, what constitutes harassment can vary from individual to individual. A college friend may not mind, or may even enjoy, sexual innuendoes or jokes, but a conservative colleague at the office may see it as harassment. So, mind it.

And, yes, if something you did years back without knowing you may have done wrong comes back to bite you today, it is not a bad idea to apologise. It would be the manly thing to do.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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