I read the Stanford University rape survivor’s letter to Brock Turner over a period of three days, because I couldn’t handle the graphic detailing of the incident, and her emotional response to it. Her courage is exemplary, and I couldn’t be happier that she wrote it — for her own empowerment and for the rest of the world. We’re again talking — about the pervasiveness of rape across classes, countries and people. We’re re-evaluating our prejudices about who commits rape in the light of this incident, and the biggest takeaway has been that “nice guys” — those well-rounded, privileged and accomplished men — can and do rape.
Just before this, I read a quote on the internet that my generation, at least a section of it, possesses a sensitive variety of intelligence because we care deeply about feminism, ableism, racism and other causes. It also said, however, that what we lack are empathy and forgiveness because we fail to realize that people are educating themselves at different speeds and that ignorance is not a fatal flaw. Sure, people are products of what they’ve been told and what they have or haven’t read. It is only elitist to assume that everybody has access to what we do. Bigots aside, it made a lot of sense to me and I do believe that empathy is the cornerstone of intelligence.
But when an incident such as this comes along, I find it impossible to accept an empathetic view considering the brutality of the incident. There is no place for forgiveness here, neither through instinct nor as afterthought. The fact that an individual commits a crime and finds a whole network — systems, institutions, perspectives and people — to fight for his cause, only seems to reinforce the idea that this is a society diving towards doom. That even the best of people can reserve sympathy for the victim, but also believe in pardoning the crime of a rapist as a “mistake”, feeds into the foundation of patriarchal culture where justice is gender-contingent. But after protracted thought, I apprehended that the way we talk about patriarchal culture, as if it were a separate universe far from our own, as if we were not a part of it or perpetrators of it, needs some critical reflection. Rapists and assaulters are not produced on the fringes of society or outside of it, they’re created within its nucleus.
This incident can be looked at from a number of different angles — white privilege, campus and hook-up culture, consent, injustice... What encompasses many of these and more is entitlement, and that has a long history in the making.
What breeds entitlement? Pierre Bourdieu, a renowned social scientist, formulated something called a habitus, a structuring prism that produces individuals of specific dispositions in society. The habitus, which shapes or habituates us, is only partly conscious. Which means that most of our actions, beliefs and values can stem from how they’ve been relayed to us when we were very young — from what we’ve seen, observed, read and imbibed. In Bourdieu's own words, habitus is "the way society becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel and act in determinant ways."
Despite new knowledge accumulation that may prove much of what we’ve internalised to be untrue, we might still be holding onto what was deposited into us in the past. This would reflect in our less thought-out actions and words, with us barely realising it.
The question then: is there something terribly wrong with the socialisation of boys? And the messages that we send out to them culturally that increases the risk of such incidents and others? What are the forms of toxic masculinity that operate in schools and colleges? A masculinity that prizes securing a girl, often at any cost, sexual conquests, harassment of other men and women aka bullying, and other unhealthy pursuits of machismo. In my school, docile and quiet boys were teased as much as outspoken girls, and boys who weren’t good at sports were particularly looked down upon. The pressure on boys in school can be immense — to conform to all standards of excellence to please parents and the peer group. This is the flip side of being a boy in a patriarchal culture.
Beyond school, how are boys socialised at home? I remember having a conversation with a young mother who was happy that her three-year-old son helped with some domestic chores at home. But, when his dad was around they both indulged in mock heroic shooting and fights of some sort, she told me, adding rather happily, “Boys will be boys, no?” This, to me, conveyed a dangerous message. What was actually being passed on to young boys — hyper-masculine qualities — was being interpreted as inherent to them. It also suggested a resignation from appropriate parenting because of a passive acceptance of a supposed inner-masculinity finding its expression.
From my own experience, many of my friends and I grew up to believe as an 'objective' fact that men have a higher sex drive than women, that even if we were harassed or faced minor assaults from men, we must keep quiet, lest our reactions send their testosterone to raging levels, which we would be victims of. I am afraid that some of my friends still hold these notions dear, and honestly, I still don’t know if this is true. But I know it means that the only legitimate and safe response to verbal or physical violation is silence. I am still unlearning much of that “education”. And I am sure it is the case with many boys when they realise that attributes which society deemed “natural” to them are only given. That there are other ways to be men. But perhaps this comes much later in life, when residual effects of early internalisation of certain (non) ideas are still present.
Beyond home, school and peer group, there’s also the villainy of pop culture: remember Shah Rukh Khan in Darr, crooning a Tu Hai Meri Kiran? His character chases a woman despite her making it explicit that she was not romantically interested in him. Artistic license and freedom aside, how does such a depiction affect the psyche of boys who are already entrenched in a culture that encourages toxic masculinity? And does it also elicit undeserved sympathy in us because the character is being played by Shah Rukh Khan?
This sympathy is also what is at the root of accepting men who behave similarly in real life. Acts of suicide by men triggered by rejection from women, or holding onto a grudge against them for years because of the feeling that they have been 'wronged', are versions of the same internalised entitlement. The impulse is just channeled differently. To be clear, I do not want to reduce suicide to this impulse, but one of them could be the sense of entitlement that, when unrealisable, finds expression even in self-destructive ways.
As for girls, in the worst of cases, they’re raised or socialised to please men, to not incite their anger, to “endure,” and to “adjust” because, apparently, men are hormonally predisposed to aggression and violence. Do women, by conforming to these, become co-creators of a violent masculine culture?
Oppressors need as much deconstruction as victims, since they’re both embedded in the same culture. And if oppressors are largely products of a kind of society and socialisation, aren’t they victims too? Such a view might be impossible to adopt for now but perhaps it is one that will precipitate change because then, each of us becomes responsible for the kind of example we’re setting and the messages we’re passing on. For that, we need an extensive and critical look at less-admitted beliefs and prejudices that reside in us, even if they might offend the sanctity of uber-liberal discourse around us. And this evaluation must occur in everyday life, not just when an incident such as the rape by Brock Turner shakes us.