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The psychology of #MeToo

The wave of #MeToo rose, cleansed and waned. More important, it planted a kernel in man-woman relationships, a kernel of fear, guilt and shame that has transmutated the dynamics of the relationships forever. The MeToo Revolution has been much more than a global phenomenon of female solidarity against their sexual predators. The pain and outrage that women had undergone at the hands of men for millennia have been channelled, packaged and marketed for the first time in history. The world has witnessed gender wars in history, but none changed the demographics of the man-woman spectrum in a way this one has done. We know about female revolutions for suffrage, rights over body (abortion) and life (sati), struggles for equal representation in politics and equal pay for equal work, but none of them imprisoned the man in his own gender. None of them made man deeply and existentially a victim of his own biological urges. MeToo has successfully charted out the social dynamics of a near-perfect utopian world where the man is existentially ashamed of his lustful animality. It is a world that even the feminists and post-feminists had never envisioned in their most hopeful dreams.

It all started with a story of a bold woman’s painful experience of sexual harassment that she decided to share with the world. It was a story of disgust and bottled anguish which was written about, read, shared across media platforms, debated, critiqued and reflected over. To the shock of millions worldwide, some of the most sordid parts of this story were the ones which resonated with women across continents, age groups, social classes and cultures. The spectrum of women affected by the story was so large and wide that the story exploded into a revolution whose momentum and intensity was frightening. It had not been expected by the men or the women themselves that the decade-old stories of rape and sexual assault would take the shape of dark clouds of shame covering the whole world. The tipping point had been reached long back but only needed the perfectly timed world of the Web. The fury and rage which women had been holding back for decades, for fear of being socially shamed, now fuelled the engine of this harrowing journal of women across the world. The single story of shame became a worldwide revolution of existential nausea. A nausea so profound that none could remedy it. When the multiple stories of sexual abuse metamorphosed into a revolution of angst and nausea, there was no holding back, and it was the Web that made the stories detonate into a worldwide revolution.

However, like every revolution in the world, this revolution also has a complex psychology to it. The seed of revolutions generally lies in an intense, collective desire to subvert the status quo; the need to shake things up and usher in a brave, new order. While political coups and revolutions generally grow out of people’s desire to overthrow the monarchy or dictatorships, the feminist revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s had an overwhelming impetus to challenge the phallic establishment. The MeToo movement, like all revolutions, was never a conscious birth. The results of a revolution are never laid down as the objectives in a planned strategy. There is no planning and no strategy to a revolution. Revolutions simply and suddenly happen, and no one, not even the revolutionaries themselves, can chart the course or forecast the results of their revolt. A revolution soon acquires a morphology, trajectory and destiny of its own, independent of the ones who started it, to the extent that even its objectives and results might be completely at variance from what it was intended to achieve.

The juggernaut of the MeToo was perhaps never intended to assume a magnitude of such proportions in the first place; neither was it laid out as a strategy of making the men suffer the vices of their own gender. What the MeToo Revolution has been most successful in is neither the female solidarity nor the willingness of women to share their story across social media platforms. The kernel or the zeitgeist of the MeToo Revolution lies in the supplanting of the guilt, shame and fear which a woman used to feel at suffering sexual overtures or harassment by men. Women have been the victims of this feeling of shame and fear at being sexually harassed since ever. They have lived with the fear of their social reputation being tarnished by the taint of sexual harassment. In the post-MeToo era, this guilt, shame and fear have been displaced and transplanted on to their perpetrators. It is now the perpetrator who feels the shame and guilt at his name being exposed to the world as a sexual predator, and a constant fear of his social image being tainted by the power of the movement. The biggest takeaway of the revolution has been this displacement of fear, shame and guilt from women on to men, or whosoever the perpetrator is.

There is also an artistic side to the movement, which has gone largely unnoticed in the cacophony and fervour of its more compelling motives. Sexually predatory behaviour is psychologically established as one being a result of the desire to conquer or overpower the weaker sex with moves ranging from domestic violence, friendships disguised as acts of closeness to gain sexual favours or blackmailing or stalking women in a bid to molest them physically. The politics at play here is one that makes the man keep his dominance intact upon the woman and reinforces his self-harboured beliefs of being more powerful than the woman.

The fact that the largest percentage of men exposed as sexual predators in the movement was one of the rich and powerful men, in no way proves that sexually predatory behaviour rises with a rise in the social rank and power of men. The sexual power which a man wields forcefully over a woman is entirely independent of any social barometer of class, education, occupational rank, social status or ethnicity of the man. Sexual power is the most dangerous form of power which a man is capable of enforcing upon a woman and haunts her all her life. However, the MeToo revolution has completely swung over the scales of sexual politics over to the woman’s side. The woman now is armed with the power to cast a cautiously examining eye over the men with whom she comes into contact. This subtle move gives a woman unlimited power over a man and haunts him as carrying the potential of being a probable, sexual predator.

The art of the revolution lies in the fact that a woman no longer needs open force in fighting off sexual predators. The power which a woman now wields is understated and subtle, yet devastating in its consequences for a man. The armoury and weapons of sexual politics lie in the glances and smiles rather than in overt manifestations. A single story shared by a woman could psychologically annihilate a man. This power is very similar to what the French philosopher Michel Foucault talks of in terms of the ‘Panopticon’, the seventeenth century European prison with an inbuilt surveillance mechanism, in his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975). The model for the circular prison first devised by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham was one that could drive fear and shame deep into the hearts of its prisoners. Even if no watch-guard kept a vigil on the prisoners, the architecture of the prison entailed that the prisoners, who could never see the guard, internalised their discipline and kept a vigil on their own selves. Self-disciplining was one of the most significant attributes of the ‘Panopticon’.

Foucault might have critiqued this self-disciplining by the prison inmates as a dangerous social trend, but the similarity that the psychological nuances of the MeToo movement bears to the Foucauldian idea is uncanny. The psychological tremors of the movement have been so strong that they have shaken up the rotting, patriarchal structures of our society. Man must discipline himself now and he has no choice but to do so.

The waters of the MeToo movement wave might have receded, but the shifting scales of sexual politics have changed the man-woman dynamic forever. This is one of the few revolutions which simply needed a few stories to create a psychological and epistemological shift in the way sexual politics is addressed in our society. Being the fulcrum of sexual politics, it was always the man’s disciplinary gaze that pinned down the woman. She shrank and cringed under his powerful and penetrating gaze. In the post-MeToo era, the centre of sexual politics has changed. It is now the woman’s gaze that disciplines a man and his potential predatory behaviour. She pins him down and judges him with her close examination of his touch, the level and nature of his touch, his vocabulary, his gestures, his proximity and so on. The power of scrutiny and assessment now lie with the woman.

However, with every newfound dynamic of power comes the immense responsibility to use it carefully. Any movement contains the potential danger of becoming a grand narrative and becoming too essentialist in its objectives and struggles. This must be avoided at all costs. There is always a minority section of people of the other gender/s who are excluded from the ambit of a grand narrative or movement. The movement must not progress at the cost of sweeping universalisms. It must remind itself of the dangers of falling prey to dogmatic worldviews.

Where men have always largely been seen as the perpetrators of sexual discrimination and violence, there will always be cases of aberration where the man becomes the victim of sexual misconduct or politics. These cases must also be taken under the purview of the movement.

Consequently, the movement must be ethical and humanitarian in its scope and objectives rather than a display of vulgar chauvinism or a settling of scores. Violence against one’s body must be understood as a universal act of discrimination. It must be treated as violence against humanity rather than as violence against any one gender.

The movement might have begun with gendered motives, but it should not be restricted to a gendered battle alone. The humanitarian intervention which has been sparked off by the MeToo movement must not denigrate into a vindictive power play.

prakritirenjen@gmail.com


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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 8:23:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-psychology-of-metoo/article26898778.ece

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