#MeToo in India: Why it is unhelpful to frame harassment stories in the language of the courtroom

"Innocent until proven guilty."

In the wake of the #MeTooIndia movement, men are overwhelmingly concerned with this phrase, and others like it.

Witchhunt. Due process. Trial by social media. Hearsay. He-said-she-said. Insufficient evidence — you hear these and many other legal-sounding phrases everywhere. Every time allegations of sexual misconduct surface, there are those busy commenting online: "Let's not be in a rush to condemn...innocent until proven guilty, after all."

Where have they come from, all these armchair lawyers? What do they have in common? For one, they are mostly men. They are men who do not necessarily oppose the movement (many of them claim to support it). They are men who — by their own admission — want fairness. They do want justice for wounded women, they claim, but they do not want to railroad innocent men in the process. What could be more reasonable than that?

 #MeToo in India: Why it is unhelpful to frame harassment stories in the language of the courtroom

The vast majority of men named in #MeToo will never see a courtroom, and a trial 'by social media' is not a criminal trial. REUTERS

Here’s the problem: it’s nothing more than an impressive sleight of hand. It is the age-old conjurer's trick, you see. If you confuse the audience, make them look elsewhere, maybe they'll forget what they're supposed to be watching. To build up sympathy for the men accused of assault, you must conflate them with people in jail. Pepper your speech with as much technical jargon as you can. Confuse your audience by employing complicated legal concepts in an arena that does not require it. Shift the goalposts in an attempt to destroy the credibility of women speaking out.

What these men are conveniently ignoring is that the #MeToo movement is not a vehicle of the state. It is not a substitute for the courtroom, or for the trial process. (If anything, it has arisen out of the failures of the state and conventional justice mechanisms.) Men handwring and write alarmist pieces that characterise the movement as a raging fire (“MeToo Comes For Suhel Seth!”) but it is not an official mechanism of destruction. It was never meant to be such.

It is not meant to convict individual men: rather, it serves as a space for victims to tell their stories. It is meant to shine a light on the failures, the cracks in our deeply patriarchal society. It is meant to condemn the systems that allow an entire gender to be assaulted, harassed, persecuted.

When people bring up legal terminology in the context of #MeToo, they remind us that the burden of proof in a courtroom is high. (And necessarily so — it is a serious thing to impose a prison sentence on an individual.) If there is reasonable doubt that may exculpate a man, we will not convict him of assault or harassment. Within the four walls of the courtroom, this is a reasonable standard.

However, the vast majority of men named in #MeToo will never see a courtroom, and a trial 'by social media' is not a criminal trial. This is merely one person's accounting of wrongdoing. These call-outs are meant to serve as warning to other potential victims: Hey, look out for my old boss. He keeps the interns late after work and hits on them. Be careful around this acquaintance — he groped me one night. Stay away from So-and-So who tries to get women drunk and take advantage. It is, in one sense, an extension of the whisper network that has always been necessary to keep women safe in a hostile world.

This is why it is unhelpful to frame #MeToo stories in the language of the courtroom. More than unhelpful, it is actively dangerous: if women cannot take to social media to post their stories, where are they expected to go? Do they have the right to speak at all?

According to the armchair lawyers, the women ought to go to the police station as soon as they are violated. They ought to report the violation hrough 'the proper channels' (never mind that they are risking their own jobs and incurring trauma in the process). We are asking these women to place their trust in an obviously broken system. If the armchair lawyers had their way, women would be effectively silenced altogether.

‘Innocent until proven guilty’ loses all meaning outside a courtroom. For many of these cases, there will never be proof that convinces a skeptical man. These are encounters that take place behind closed doors; that do not have any third party to bear testimony of. Who can ‘prove’ an account of a woman being raped, on social media? And if nobody can, does it mean that the woman is lying?

Do not be fooled by the sleight of hand. After all, the most compelling argument for #MeToo not being a courtroom is this: no jail sentence has been meted out to the men accused of sexual assault. No, not even to the ones who have admitted their wrongdoing. Men like Louis CK never had to fear the shadow of the jail cell, despite committing felonies.

That is the grim answer that we must give to all the would-be lawyers who are so concerned with 'innocent until proven guilty.' Until we see real consequences for men who are guilty of sexual assault, we cannot use a legal standard of proof to exonerate everyone else.

Updated Date: Oct 20, 2018 15:20:55 IST