A review of #MeToo in the light of unexpected later happenings
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
A YEAR SEPARATES Aamir Khan’s divergent reactions to the MeToo movement. The first was soon after it took off towards the end of September 2018, gathering unexpected and immediate steam. On October 10th, 2018, announcing his decision to back out of a movie because the director had been accused of sexual harassment, he put this up on Twitter: ‘…without casting any aspersions on anyone involved in this case, and without coming to any conclusions about these specific allegations, we have decided to step away from this film. We do not want our action to reflect in any manner on the people involved in this case. We believe that this is an opportunity for the film industry to introspect and take concrete steps towards change. For far too long women have faced the brunt of sexual exploitation. It has to stop. In this regard we are committed to doing any and everything to make our film industry a safe and happy one to work in.’
By the September of 2019, he had however returned to the project. Revealing this during an interview with Hindustan Times, he explained why he changed his mind. After his decision, the director had been dropped not only from the movie but other projects and this unsettled Khan. “Subsequently, we heard that whatever steps he was taking to put together a film didn’t go through, because nobody wanted to work with him. That really troubled us because we felt that our action had inadvertently cost a person—who is yet to be tried in a court of law—to lose his livelihood. And for how long? Is it for one year? Or 10 years? We don’t know. What if he is innocent?” he said.
Khan still believed in the MeToo movement but not in his own actions at the time. His recanting took integrity. He was certain to draw opprobrium from the same forces that had made MeToo a coercive exhibition of morality. There were no great financial or career benefits in the offing by his reversal. By the terms of the movement, anyone named was undeserving of empathy. Khan’s was an act of empathy. The question that remains is what made him, a year ago, ignore the very sound principles of natural justice he underscored later. Why did he again discover due process, which the MeToo movement had so casually dismissed as an irrelevance when pitted against historical corrections? The accused had become human for Khan. With the moment of frenzy over, a man had become more than a label—‘sexual harasser’.
A couple of months after Khan’s announcement, an even more astonishing aftermath episode played out on Twitter. The MeToo movement had been triggered by a few high-profile cases before the floodgates opened. One such was of Utsav Chakraborty, a standup comedian associated with the popular group All India Bakchod (AIB). He was accused of sending unsolicited images of his penis to an online friend’s phone. She then began to make public accounts of other women accusing him of similarly sexually harassing them. One tweet directed at him by her said: ‘You give your number and slide into DMs of literal children. Like 17 year old girls? You’re a creep of another level.’ This now branded him a paedophile too.
Chakraborty bore the full brunt of ostracism and financial ruin. AIB, whose members said they had been aware of complaints against him, shut itself down in contrition and shame. The story should have ended there, with him disappearing into the night of social oblivion. Except that a few months ago, he started tweeting his defence. He had screenshots that showed he had been sexting with the girl who first accused him of having sent the ‘dick pix’. He had similar evidence against other accusations too. He also had a phone recording of the girl and her sister threatening him to not release the sexting images. That recording was put up on YouTube which corroborated him. Then something extraordinary happened. The very same crowd on Twitter that had condemned him began to rally for him. It was now his accuser who became their target. Online trolling made her close her Twitter account (reopened subsequently). She had been featured in Forbes along with two others as faces of the MeToo movement, and both put out statements that sought to distance themselves from her. Something even more extraordinary happened. The 17-year-old, who had been tagged as one of Chakraborty’s accusers, apologised. She tweeted, ‘I would like to reiterate that @Wootsaw [Chakraborty’s Twitter handle] did not do anything illegal, did not send me any lewd messages, nothing. I was sent his number and some prank texts by his friends from his account, and I have enough reason to believe it. I believe I tried my best to only state that it is odd or weird to receive random texts, and that my incidence carries no heft because neither can I prove it and nor was it serious. However, media hype, misreporting and exaggerations spun this into something horrific and wrong. However I will admit again that my language in these messages…sounds rude and callous. I take responsibility for that and apologize for this.’ Chakraborty thus became no longer a paedophile too. Many things make no sense in all this. Why was Chakraborty apologising at the time for deeds he had no reason to apologise for? Why did the comedy group he was part of own a responsibility that was never theirs and shut themselves down? Women who said he sexually harassed them believed it at the time. But then they believed that he did not. How can the same set of actions be interpreted so differently? If consent is so clear-cut, as the MeToo movement would argue, then how is a man who is consensually sexting with a woman to know that at some point consent has been withdrawn unilaterally?
Apologies were made but would never meet the requisite tone or words-it was never apologetic enough; it never showed enough contrition and it never would because nothing can meet a standard that does not exist
Chakraborty’s redemption is in part to the leaked phone conversation, where he is heard wailing about how his life had been destroyed and his utter befuddlement about the motive. Like Aamir Khan with the director, his patent anguish made him human. He was clever enough to emphasise it once the tide turned, tweeting images of his residence that showed dilapidated walls and questioning of nature of power that a man who lived like this could exercise. He was using shame and guilt, familiar weapons of MeToo, against everyone who had once preyed on him.
A WORD THAT GAINED currency during MeToo was ‘gaslighting’. The Oxford English Dictionary says it means, ‘To manipulate (a person) by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity.’ And its etymology is ‘the title of George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight (a remake of Thorold Dickinson’s 1940 version, in turn based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, first performed in 1938), in which a man psychologically manipulates his wife into believing that she is going insane.’ ‘Gaslighting’ is a word that Chakraborty’s original accuser continued to use against him even after serious questions had been raised about her version of events. The irony is that Chakraborty’s public apology for something that he did not do showed how he was the one who had been ‘gaslighted’, forced to buy into the idea that any defence is further evidence of guilt, the apology a desperate hope to rise out of his own ashes with some semblance of a future in society. In the MeToo environment that was a futile endeavour. It had started with online activists saying all they wanted was to throw light on oppression, but as scales of power shifted, it became about redress and apology. Apologies were made but would never meet the requisite tone or words—it was never apologetic enough; it never showed enough contrition and it never would because nothing can meet a standard that does not exist.
The tweet pinned on Chakraborty’s account, the thread in which he finally decided to speak because there was nothing more to lose, begins with a question—‘Why would so many women lie about one person?’ He himself has no clear answer to it, only possibilities that they had good intent or wanted to gather social currency, a form of online status and tribe membership (from the apology of the 17-year-old that seemed plausible). The idea that it is not possible for victims to lie was the cornerstone of the MeToo moment. It is an idea with a distant beginning that took seed in the 1990s in US academia. The word that this theory of oppression went by—intersectionality—might have been forgotten when it crawled across gradually to the rest of the world and India, but the idea remained the same: there are numerous categories of oppressors and oppressed, and understanding it makes it incumbent on everyone to upend and invert it. People in multiple minority categories, like Black transgenders, would be more oppressed than Black women who would be more oppressed than White women and so on. At the higher levels would be oppressors like White males. It reduces all of humanity into categories that have characteristics. It is then in the natural order of things to believe a woman who is consensually sexting and then accuses the male sexter of sexual harassment. As an oppressed person, she will decide the terms of consent and truth. But intersectionality is just a theory. It is not a mathematical law where 2+2 will always be 4. In social and political sciences, a theory is usually little more than an opinion and that, too, a temporary one, as communists found out over the course of the last two centuries. But the main problem of living by categories is that it does not account for exceptions. Even if oppressed are more honest than oppressors, not every oppressed person will be more honest than every oppressor.
Intersectionality is just a theory. In social and political sciences, a theory is usually little more than an opinion and that, too, a temporary one. It reduces all of humanity into categories without exceptions
All human beings lie or have the capacity, according to character and necessity. Little children, who have just learnt to speak, lie. Old men lie. People lie in their suicide notes. Men lie and so do women. And so do women victims.
Bari Weiss, an opinion editor with The New York Times, wrote a book titled How to Fight Anti-Semitism that was published last September. She sought to explore why the progressive Left were so rabidly against Israel and arrived at intersectionality as one of the reasons. She wrote, ‘The idea behind this theory of oppression is deeply appealing because it observes something that is obviously true. The legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw named it in 1989 to explain how people with multiple minority identities can be discriminated against in multiple ways.… If intersectionality simply functioned as a framework for understanding the world—why certain people (white men) can be doubly blessed while others (black women) can be doubly compromised—I’d be the first to suggest it. But in reality, intersectionality tends to function as a caste system, the reverse of the caste system that has dominated Western history until five minutes ago. If white, straight men have historically sat at the top of the hierarchy, now those with the most oppressions (black, transgender, disabled) are located at the top, and, furthermore, are granted a greater claim to truth and morality than those with more racial or gender or sexual or physical advantage. In this ladder, which leaves no room for appreciating how the powerful have long scapegoated and used the Jews, Jews are right at the bottom, just one rung above white, heterosexual males. Many Jews, after all, can present as white. Ergo: They cannot be victims.’
Her line—the oppressed are ‘granted a greater claim to truth and morality’—is insightful. It is what underpins the MeToo argument—that it is obligatory to believe the accuser. Even that wouldn’t be unfair. But the jump is short from belief to summary punitive action by institutions of society. That can have consequences. The case of Swaroop Raj, an IT professional in Genpact, is an illustration. He made sexual advances while dropping off a woman colleague after a party. She became uncomfortable and told a friend who was waiting at their home. They filed a complaint with the company who immediately suspended Raj without a hearing. His wife found him hanging in their apartment. He said he was innocent in the suicide note. When the police filed a complaint against the company for abetting suicide, an online magazine’s headline asked whether they had overreached in doing so. There was inordinate respect for due process and legal provisions when the rights of women were in question but no media outfit thought it was ‘overreach’ when he had been named, shamed and suspended. Even his death would not be enough to get him a share of empathy. She is human, he is not. It is only the political heart that brushes off human tragedies as necessary corollaries in the rebalancing of the scales of justice.
The MeToo movement was about public shaming, and that is a recent phenomenon unleashed by the birth, power and potency of social networking. In the Facebook, Twitter and Google era, public shaming’s natural next step is social ostracisation. This used to be a medieval phenomenon, when criminals were branded, or caste groups excised those who broke their laws into a life without society. Even today, when a khap panchayat orders ostracisation, we read about it with revilement. But the effects of online public shaming are appreciated with glee. Modern society was predicated on the idea of reform. Once punishment had been served and accepted, it was the criminal’s right to return to society. Social networking turned back the clock. If someone did a wrong and a large enough number agreed on it, then it could be transmitted across the earth and etched into posterity by Google. People deserved to be killed socially simply because it was possible to do so now and that there could be degrees in offences was inconsequential.
One of the cases the MeToo movement brought to the light was the CEO of a large hotel chain who manoeuvred a female employee into becoming his assistant, began to sexually harass her and when she resisted, sidelined her into a no-man’s-land in the organisation. He planned his predation, assaulted, hounded and then destroyed the career of his victim. And yet, when his case and that of Swaroop Raj’s goes up online they are in the same basket, to be meted the same punishment. In the court of Twitter, Raj’s single alleged transgression would suffer as much as the other. Is there any mystery then to his suicide?
When a khap panchayat orders ostracisation, we read about it with revilement. But the effects of online public shaming are appreciated with glee. Modern society was predicated on the idea of reform. Once punishment had been served and accepted, it was the criminal’s right to return to society. Social networking turned back the clock
In her book, So You Have Been Publicly Shamed, Jan Ronson talks extensively using numerous examples of people who were killed socially, often for attempts at humour that went wrong in an online world obsessed with political correctness and moral virtuosity. Most went into hiding and anonymity, hoping that search engines would eventually forget them. But there was an exception to this and it closely parallels Chakraborty’s response. Mike Daisey was an actor who had a mono act that was supposed to be about a real visit to an Apple factory in China and seeing horrific working conditions there. It was picked up by a popular radio programme and went viral. Soon, it was found to be largely made up by Daisey. He publicly apologised, but when he came to Twitter, there was a rabid angry online mob waiting for him. Except that Daisey did not cower and slink away. Ronson wrote in her book, ‘He was one man screaming at ten thousand people screaming at him. He berated and scolded and called his attackers hypocrites. At first all this made them even more incensed. But he didn’t budge. He was a tireless defender of himself. Eventually it became clear to his critics that their fury was useless. They drifted away, until it all just stopped.’
He refused to be a party to his own online lynching even if he was a liar. He told Ronson that it was futile to apologise as was being demanded of him. ‘’It feels like they want an apology, but it’s a lie… It’s a lie because they don’t want an apology. An apology is supposed to be a communion—a coming together. For someone to make an apology someone has to be listening. They listen and you speak and there’s an exchange. That’s why we have a thing about accepting apologies. There’s a power exchange that happens. But they don’t want an apology. What they want is my destruction. What they want is for me to die. They will never say this because it’s too histrionic. But they never want to hear from me again for the rest of my life, and while they’re never hearing from me they have the right to use me as a cultural reference point whenever it services their ends. That’s how it would work out best for them. They would like me to never speak again. I’d never had the opportunity to be the object of hate before. The hard part isn’t the hate. It’s the object,’ he told Ronson.
After being named in MeToo, writers were evicted from literary festivals, filmmakers found actors pulling out, professionals got fired. If an organisation decided to observe due process, coordinated campaigns shamed them into firing or suspending those named. That continues even now. It is in not becoming complicit in shame that was being thrust on him that Chakraborty got magically resuscitated into online respectability. If he had made the exact defence in 2018, there was zero probability of him being believed. The fading out of the movement is no great puzzle: people lost interest because most are on social media for entertainment and not activism. They will keep shifting from issue to issue but while they are stuck on one, they will behave as activists. MeToo is no longer the centre of the online moral universe and that makes it safer to challenge its extremism as Aamir Khan did. In his reply to Hindustan Times, he had added, “Laws of natural justice consider a person innocent until he/she is proven guilty. But until such time that the courts reach a conclusion, is it that he/she should not be allowed to work? Is he to just sit at home and not earn? And so, we were in this troubled state for many months. I couldn’t sleep at night because I used to constantly feel that my actions have inadvertently caused a person, about whose guilt I have absolutely no idea, to lose his right to work and earn a livelihood.” Do his words of guilt then mean a recognition that he had inadvertently become an oppressor himself? Perhaps, the lesson from some of these cases is that power does what it does wantonly depending on who gets to wield it, oppressed or oppressor.