#MeToo and its aftermath: Notes from the 'margins' of lists that name and shame

As we enter the month of December, the number of #MeToo accounts we encounter on social media have gradually decreased. It's been tough: seeing these posts on our timelines, not having the language or words to speak of our trauma, of discovering that those we trust have been accused of harassment, dealing with the breach of trust. Amid the naming (and shaming) of perpetrators, #MeTooIndia also gave rise to a resource team — a pool of lawyers, therapists, support groups.

But what did it cost to come to this? Or rather, who did it cost?

In India, a majority of #MeToo accounts have come from women who enjoy a privileged social position. There are consequences of this to the women who are not a part of this small circle. I won't dwell much on this aspect of #MeToo, which Christina Thomas Dhanaraj in her Firstpost column ‘MeToo and savarna feminism: Revolutions cannot start with the privileged, feminist future must be equal for all’, adeptly captures — of how most feminist discourse in India is led by savarna women and their complicity in discrimination against Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women.

Initially, #MeToo was a platform for forming solidarities and building a community for the survivor; playing the therapeutic role that the very act of speaking out about one's trauma can have, especially when the people they trust with their accounts, empathise and provide active support. The trouble starts with the naming of perpetrators, forming of local lists and the (un)said expectations that such an act comes with.

This I say without dismissing the List of Sexual Harassers in Academia (LoSHA). The very need of that extra-legal list arose because of the inadequacy of legal mechanisms and due processes to deal with the levels of power the accused — upper caste, male, renowned professors, occupying progressive spaces with substantial socio-cultural and economic capital — held over the survivors. In the best of feminist imaginations, it is very difficult to have had a pedagogic engagement with most of the names on LoSHA, given the power dynamics that were tilted against the complainant. Perhaps, without this movement, there would be no recognition of the immense reformative work needed to better our institutions.

MeToo. Image © Namaah K for Firstpost

#MeToo. Image © Namaah K for Firstpost

However, the naming and local list-making of harassers that began in the aftermath, as a part of the #MeToo, is alarming. What does naming of people who may not have as much disparity in power with the survivor entail? Given that the expectation is that the survivor's account is believed entirely and the way of expressing support is isolating and ostracising the named harasser, how do we see the social boycott of harassers as a mechanism to deal with harassment? What does that do on insisting a reformative, engaging and sensitising way of dealing with the accused instead of punitive measures, wherever there is a possibility ?

The principle of ostracism is not only problematic because of its aspirations but because once assumed to be a legitimate ideal, it fails to practically treat savarna and DBA men consistently because of the former’s privileged location in many cases. In such circumstances, this becomes a more aggravated weapon in effect toward Dalit Bahujan Adivasi men.

If harassers from a privileged social location are called out and isolated, they can just change their physical location from the said institution, circles, city groups and exercise their power where there is more disparity — in this case, on marginalised woman (given that most of the accounts of harassment that have emerged are heterosexual in nature). They now know which women have the platform, words and voice to call them out; so all they have to do is find the ones who may not have these or whose voices could be ignored/silenced. So unless there is an island where all the accused harassers are being shipped off to, it is an unrealistic expectation to socially boycott them.

If harassers from marginalised backgrounds are called out and isolated, where do they go? What are the implications of the social boycott of those who carry the historical burden of exactly that? For all of us who decided that Hang-the-Rapist was not our feminist politics, are we comfortable with sentencing someone to a social death? And this is said with caution given that the survivor may not engage with the accused; but wherever there is a possibility of a more reformative way to deal with sexual harassment, we do so when the accused is someone we know in the proximity to engage in a hope that they do not become recidivists.

When I talk about the ostracism of marginalised men, I don't mean that when women — especially Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women — call them out, their voices be silenced or threatened under the name of an obstacle to “the community” or “the larger politics”. Many of us have lost count of how many times our feminist politics has been dismissed/mocked/used to viciously target us. In her article Building Bridges: Articulating Dalit and African American Women's Solidarity under Private Patriarchy, Shailaja Paik succinctly states that “by failing to prise open the constitutive role of patriarchy in shaping and maintaining caste, many intellectuals have lost the opportunity to comprehend the wider structural logic that sustains casteist and racist societies. For most of them, caste and race seemed to be primary challenges, and gender, class, or sub-caste differences figured tangentially at best [which for t]hese leaders… split the community and threaten organisation and solidarity.”

As #MeToo settled in, there have been accounts of harassment within the queer community. Procedurally, if we are to believe the survivor, what when both the people involved put out their
accounts of harassment? Since we believed the person who put out their narrative first, what when the alleged harasser shares their narrative and claims to be harassed (given that heterosexual norms of man as the perpetrator and the woman as the survivor do not work here)? What if the second one was the survivor? Since we already believed the first narrative and isolated the accused, does the survivor not deserve our solidarity and support just because they were late?

#MeToo has got conversations around sexual harassment to the "dinner table". Especially given
the media coverage that high profile Bollywood cases received, the conversation travelled from Facebook to our screens, to our homes. But there are so many conversations remaining.

In informal conversations when #MeToo was at its peak, and these aspects of how it can not only exclude but essentially turn against Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women and men were brought up, it was met with a “let the survivors decide the consequences” by almost all the savarna women who held the torch of gender justice. These survivors who were to decide the consequences also majorly being savarna. The anger women (including savarna women) have is legitimate; but their articulation based on it may not necessarily be so. From the University space, I am talking about savarna feminists who have been allies of the anti-caste movement. Somehow, in becoming feminists, they de-caste themselves. Sexual harassment becomes the premise over which caste hierarchies are overlooked (and overstepped) as if their and their sisters’ trauma makes invisible the caste structures that are also embedded in sexual harassment and the way it is dealt with. To argue radicalism can be convenient; to maintain it in our intimate lives is the true test of one’s politics.

In popular media, feminism has received support but it has yet to become critical of its own location; caste is still a matter of amnesia for many. Our analyses cannot simplistically rely upon rules of thumb of believing the first narrative without taking into account other axes of power. This could instead be the moment where the rest of us undertake the laborious but essential task of the transformative process of working with the accused/known harasser. Because the last time I checked, social boycott, segregation and social death did not help anything but the sustenance of the caste system and racial discrimination. And no aspiring feminist movement should make way for that path.

Power does not operate in a linear way. Structures of oppression cut across each other. In many cases, our response to these events is difficult because of the complexity involved. Questions
surrounding these cannot be shut down until after the movement is over. These are not irrelevant conversations because the many lives the movement affects will have immediate effects. For
many whose fate already lies in indeterminacy such as Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis and queers, politics that renders them dispensable statistics is not much hope.

The writer studies Sociology at JNU, Delhi

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Updated Date: Dec 04, 2018 09:25:04 IST

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