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Negotiating the faultlines

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Recent developments in #MeToo show that new methods of justice delivery cannot eschew the old tenets of ethics

When a movement is based on the premise that a woman must be believed simply because she is a woman, it carries the seeds of self-destruction. As a series of tweets unravelled over the last few weeks, it became evident that not all women had been entirely honest when jumping on the #MeToo bandwagon. Worryingly, at least one had played a leading role in the ‘amplifying’ of complaints. ‘Amplifiers’ were those who had called for accusations, collected and broadcast them. It turns out that some of them did not verify the narratives they received; and one amplifier’s own story has been challenged now.

It’s disturbing to find that one woman deleted her part of an online chat to make it seem like a one-sided solicitation, and that another concealed what might be a history of consensual sexting with the accused. Of the many whose accounts are being disputed, at least two have apologised.

Fallout of the movement

None of this is surprising to those who observed the direction the storm was taking last year. Within days it had become a free-for-all mud fest where asking for substantiation soon became a crime against feminism. But the latest developments again make it clear that the fiercest, newest methods of justice delivery cannot eschew the oldest tenets of ethics. Accusations must be proven before judgment is pronounced.

#MeToo, unfortunately, took all charges at face value. It was alarming at the time to see the ferocity with which more and more denouncements were demanded, putting immense pressure on women to take part or be cast out of Feminism 4.0. It looks now as if many young women felt forced to submit questionable narratives just to participate in a heady moment in history.

The fallout of the movement wasn’t light: men lost reputations, careers, friends and incomes. When it happened to powerful men who had preyed on women for years, it felt justified. But it also affected young men like the one at the centre of the new revelations. He confesses that he contemplated suicide at one point. He talks of his debts, of ostracism, of the impossibility of getting a job. If the charges against him are false, it is impossible to dismiss him as collateral damage.

The least that responsible leaders could have done last year was to ask for detailed accounts, get background, establish context. Even if naming and shaming was hit upon as the only method that would work, it could have been reserved for cases where channels of justice and mediation had already been tried. Some diligence could have ensured that only genuine cases went public. And it’s not as if we don’t have a phenomenally large number of those.

Instead, too many episodes in #MeToo seemed mystifying even then. They came from women with agency, who could have refused to send a nude photo, halted a chat that became explicit, repelled an unwanted embrace. In many cases, the men had no power over the women; often they hadn’t even met. The worst you could say was that the men were creeps or womanisers, but neither creepiness nor philandering is a crime. Sexting, for instance, is a big part of the modern relationship landscape. To participate in consensual sexting and then say you are traumatised by an intimate photograph sounds disingenuous.

Rewriting rules of engagement

There is no denying that #MeToo rewrote the rules of engagement. It forced men to take the idea of consent seriously. It pushed organisations to sit up and take notice of sexual harassment. It ensured that due process mechanisms were set up in institutions. Besides taking this agenda further, we could perhaps now explore how boundaries can be drawn and respected in far more explicit ways by all genders in new-age sexual relationships. The digital age needs different mores.

We are at a point in history when more numbers of women are educated, empowered and independent than ever before. Many liberated, self-reliant young women now live alone in metropolises, working hard, partying hard, living life on their own terms. Yet, #MeToo was flooded with women from just this demographic. This might, one suspects, be an indicator of a deeper social malaise or the symptoms of a struggle to cope with singledom and sexual liberation. Is the free-sex concept putting a different kind of pressure upon women? If so, it needs some serious study.

More urgently, the women need understanding and a helping hand. It takes tremendous courage to retract false statements, knowing how readily misogynists will pounce upon it, but one hopes more women will do so. A clean-up can only help strengthen the movement, while giving all sides a measure of personal peace.

vaishna.r@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 5:46:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/negotiating-the-faultlines/article30090143.ece

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