#MeToo is anarchic, and that’s a good thing
The fire hose of #MeToo includes allegations that don't fit into clear-cut definitions. But we have no clear-cut understanding of male overreach either
Two of the male journalists named last week in the #MeToo accusations also texted me in circumstances similar to those revealed in public allegations of their sexual misconduct. One sent me romantic messages the night after a party. The other, having found me on a dating app on which I didn’t return his interest, looked me up on Facebook. I responded to his flirting with what I hoped was non-committal friendliness.
The tolling of the #MeToo bell over the last week has had all kinds of reverberations. Allegations have ranged from violent rape to sleazy texting. Many people on the sidelines of this conversation seem confused by the sheer range of the offences described in the stories. NDTV’s Nidhi Razdan, in a widely-retweeted post, said: “Hello people. Some jerk you met on a date or some creep in the office who tried to get too close, doesn’t qualify as sexual harassment..."
Neither of my interactions with the two accused journalists counted as harassment. But I bring them up to underscore, rather than minimize, the pattern of their conduct. The screenshots of their texts circulated on social media this week disconcerted me. The registers are the same: pleading late-night texts in one case; an over-familiar, pushy tone in the other. The language is the same. And well before the accusations began to air this week, I had heard multiple stories about similar behaviour from other women, each of whose boundaries both men had violated.
To me, their unwelcome messages indicate the range of interactions in which men assert themselves over women. There is a spectrum of patriarchally sanctioned misbehaviour that shades from outright abuse into overtures that many recipients would classify as minor irritations. Sceptics are right to point out that the fire hose of #MeToo stories includes allegations that fit into no clear-cut definition of wrongdoing. But more important is the fact that we have no clear-cut understanding of the consequences of male overreach either.
In the year since The New York Times uncovered the crimes of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement has shaken up public life in many countries in unexpected ways. Anarchy is not a flaw in the movement; it is its nature. Think of the “bad date" story about comedian Aziz Ansari, in which a young woman described how Ansari ignored her lack of enthusiastic consent to insist on sexual intercourse. The story was a “humiliation", the writer Caitlin Flanagan argued in The Atlantic: “3,000 words of revenge porn" from a woman too “weak" to just say no to a famous guy.
In other words, said Ansari’s defenders, not only was the alleged crime not a crime, the punishment did not fit the non-crime. A wide range of critics, including some of India’s best-known feminist thinkers, made the same argument late last year when a law student named Raya Sarkar published an astonishing document called the “List of Sexual Harassers in Academia". The #LoSha, as it came to be popularly known, collated the names of a large number of men in Indian academia and South Asian studies against whom women had anonymously alleged abuse, harassment and rape.
Irresponsible, critics protested, ignoring arguments that the list was a final act of exasperation. The LoSha’s supporters saw it as the recourse of powerless, often marginalized, young women who had been ignored or denied justice. In contrast, many feminists and senior academics protested that the accusations were meaningless, even dangerous, in the absence of due process.
But almost no universities allowed their due process mechanisms to live up to these claims. Most of the men on the list have faced no inquiry, no consequences, and if they have been falsely accused—as some claimed they were—no justice. The LoSha has disappeared from view, but its stories still rankle. The influential cultural critic and Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) adjunct faculty Sadanand Menon, named in the list, was the subject of fresh accusations from former students this week. Not only had Menon been defended from the initial allegations by a number of public figures; ACJ, claiming it had no jurisdiction to investigate their colleague because it fell outside the purview of their internal complaints committee, undermined the accusations, calling them “ill-informed" and “vague."
Arguably, this second wave of #MeToo allegations offers a more robust infrastructure of public verification: there are screenshots of misconduct and many accusers have given up anonymity. There remains widespread concern that their guerilla nature trivializes a serious problem. This is nonsense. None of the stories to emerge in India or around the world have actually belittled justiciable sexual misconduct. Even on chaotic Twitter, the conversation has largely ignored allegations cast by seeming sock-puppets, or fake accounts; accused men claiming to have been wrongfully targeted have used the space for rebuttals and demands for inquiries. Barriers to legal redress for sexual crimes and misdemeanours remain high for other reasons; that is why most of us readily acknowledge that the judicial process can be traumatic for accusers and witnesses, and that “process is punishment," in various kinds of criminal proceedings.
#MeToo isn’t cut and dried, and can’t be. It was never simply about finding legal recourse; from the beginning, it has concerned itself with exposing a social faultline. The Weinstein story itself was our first clue about this. In breaking a story about rape that wasn’t centered on a lawsuit or police charges—previously considered mandatory for a responsible publication to report on sexual assault—it shifted the whole conversation from the realm of legality to that of cultural responsibility. Patriarchal norms that made it easy to victimise women thrived because of our permissiveness, our silence, our collective reinforcement. Now the dismantlers of those norms were speaking; their quantum of accusations would turn the power of collective reinforcement back on their abusers.
#MeToo is an aggregative movement: it draws power from detecting patterns in the behaviour of abusers. Individual men may bear the brunt of answering for their transgressions, many of which have been totally normalized by the culture (“It’s bad that he did it, but doesn’t everyone?"), but the point is to lay bare the social conditions that render these misdemeanours trivial, even acceptable, even though they hurt and degrade their victims.
For all the furore, some may say, we are no closer to finding a solution to these problems. That’s fine. #MeToo wasn’t a quest for new solutions; it was the outcome of our terrible record of implementing the available solutions. It’s not hard to see why: any solutions, both old and new, will require very hard work. The truth is that for all its relative egalitarianism, the white-collar workplace has always subjugated women. In Cubed: A Secret History Of The Workplace, Nikil Saval’s history of offices and office culture published in 2014, he quotes an American secretarial guidebook from 1919 that advises, “She must learn not to see that his glance is too fervid, not to feel that hand that rests on hers or the arm that slips around the back of the chair."
Sexual harassment isn’t a deviation from the inequalities of pay and position that women have always battled in the workplace: it is an indispensable instrument of that inequality. Feminism will bureaucratize the workplace, some have argued: it will institute a new kind of puritanism and segregate men and women further. In many industries, they say, its effects will end a culture of creative and personal freedom.
No creative or personal freedom is worth the suffering and the belittling of those who serve it. The “senior-junior" culture of our workplaces, our white-collar apprentice system and our guru-shishya tradition have all been warped by patriarchal power. If formalizing workplace culture will end the spirit of oppression that characterizes our professional relationships, let’s do it. We will discover other kinds of creativity and warmth once we are free of the grinding patriarchy in which we now operate.