The #MeToo movement is noble in its intention to expose what the world agrees to be one of the worst social crimes – sexual harassment or abuse. It is essential to eradicate this evil from society in both regulated and unregulated fields, in public as well as private spaces. Decades before the hashtag began to trend, committed people, including I, have been fighting this in several ways with mixed results. But #MeToo has given genuine crusaders a far more powerful voice in recent times.
I am the last person to condone harassment and abuse, having myself been a victim of sexual abuse in my teens by a man almost 50 years older than I was.
I was determined to take this disturbing fact to my grave but perhaps it is imperative to share it now — not to solicit pity, but to establish perspective. I did not reveal my trauma to anyone then (indeed, my family will be reading this for the first time). But my intent was not really to protect the abuser; it was more to protect my father and guru, as I was convinced that he would have punished him severely and ended up losing his peace for years. After a few instances, I eventually developed strategies to avoid my abuser and succeeded. I don’t feel it necessary to name or shame him now, but suffice to say that he was a Professor of Engineering near Jolarpet, who stayed with us during his visits to Chennai and helped me with XI & XII grade Math. The brilliant values of Carnatic music helped me immensely in overcoming the overwhelming impact of this and saved me from joining the small percentage of abuse victims who subsequently turn abusers themselves.
The brilliant values of Carnatic music helped me immensely in overcoming the overwhelming impact of this and saved me from joining the small percentage of abuse victims who subsequently turn abusers themselves.
The brilliant values of Carnatic music helped me immensely in overcoming the overwhelming impact of this and saved me from joining the small percentage of abuse victims who subsequently turn abusers themselves. A few of my own compositions around this period may be the only documentation suggestive of my frame of mind at that point in time.
However, I had been horrified by sexual abuse way before, when I inadvertently discovered that a member of my extended family had been abused by our gardener. I was eight or nine and she was less than half my age. I did not know what it was then but I recall feeling terribly revulsed by the very imagery. But neither of us ever discussed it with the other until a couple of years ago when she told me that she had fortunately put it behind her to lead a normal life today.
These two incidents (and a couple of others involving more harassment than abuse) shaped my intuitive philosophy from very early on – that it is absolutely wrong to force anything on anyone including physical, emotional or even intellectual views, no matter how liberal one’s outlook was. In simplistic terms, nothing that is not mutual and natural is right between two individuals. In other words, anything one-way is absolutely unacceptable. And therein lies the crux of harassment and its ramifications. Of course there are many nuanced perspectives and circumstances within this which are constantly being debated in several countries.
Music industry scenario
Sexual harassment in classical and popular fields has been as rampant as in any other field but has come under the scanner in the last few days. Carnatic music may be divine to most but its practitioners are as human as professionals in any other arena. Harassment has to be tackled with integrity and sensitivity.
Pedigree of panels
The last 2-3 days have seen a few artistes setting up panels to put systems in place to clean up the field. While the initiative is commendable, its credibility would only be directly proportional to the pedigree of its panelists. Panels composed of members who themselves live in glass houses would be a social farce. The obvious questions are (a) does being a part of the panel automatically bestow a clean chit to each member? (b) who is to be entrusted with the responsibility of whetting their track records?
Further, even the best panels are not above the laws of its land and cannot act against the interests of anyone without due diligence, based on hearsay and personal prejudices. Orchestrated online campaigns and/or live meetings initiated to defame people of international repute even before any process begins will eventually end up eroding trust in such bodies.
It is imperative that everyone is fair to:
- Victims of sexual abuse: Most people (myself included) have not wanted to share their experiences for years. However, many have found the courage and confidence in recent times to come out with their stories, thanks to constant social reiteration that they, the survivors, are not to blame. I have always encouraged people in my own circles to confide in their close family members when facing abuse on the streets or harassment elsewhere. However, it is equally important that other ‘victims’ are taken into serious consideration.
- Victims of sexual ‘accuse’: While there is a large percentage of valid accusations, there is a growing list of invalid ones too, perhaps an expected but unfair collateral damage. Many leading lights have been irresponsibly listed, named, shamed or worse – framed – with little substantiation by people who indulge in #MeTooMisuse under protection of anonymity or under the guise of socio-political activism.
- Victims of sexual ‘seduce’: What is patriarchal about the term “seductress”? Seductresses (or seducers) & opportunists are as much a reality as harassers or abusers. Anyone that tries to seduce another with a motive of self-enhancement must be treated the same way as a sexual harasser (though not as a sexual abuser). I’ve known of both serial harassers and serial seducers. In a world where equality is the goal, why should someone who has been artfully seduced be ridiculed as weak, and be denied the same sensitivity that a woman/man who is sexually harassed enjoy? The difference between harassment and seduction is that the latter is so artful that most people are not even aware that they are victims, whereas in the former there is a clear mental discomfort felt by the victim in most cases.
In short, no clean-up is right without taking wrongful #SexualAccuse and #SexualSeduce into consideration.
Hunting with hashtags
Every citizen of the world needs to ask himself or herself questions like:
(a) “What if I or my close family/friend was vilified with malice?”
The last few days have shown that accusers intent on #MetooMisuse merely need to text or email a couple of lines naming someone to well-meaning facilitators or those posing as social-activists and incite people with hashtags like #Timeisup and #Triggerwarnings!
(b) If this were to happen to me, would it be easy for me to prove that I did not harass anyone, especially if the allegations are made after several decades?
After all the cyber-lynching, even if one eventually did get cleared of all charges, imagine the toll it would have taken on the person or his/her family. Who will be held accountable for the anguish that they would have gone through?
(c) Do I know for myself (or have I heard directly from a victim or close family member) if an accused person has committed any harassment? If not, do I have a right to prejudge or malign them?
Everyone should endeavour to maintain neutrality at least until more evidence emerges. One has to remember that a facilitator of wrongful #SexualAccuse is no less complicit than an enabler of sexual abuse. The public trial on social media in the last few days is merely a forerunner to the incalculable damage #MetooMisuse can wreak on society. If fair processes are not in place, thousands of people can whimsically be accused by thousands of others, more so in a climate where the rules of evidence are so relaxed that it is unbelievably easy to destroy anyone they begrudge in a matter of minutes.
Emergence of fairer laws
I am as much on the side of abused survivors as I am on the side of those wrongfully accused and completely against social media trials where a person is convicted and sentenced in minutes! Laws are yet nascent with respect to sexual harassment in many parts of the world but getting better all the time. An even better news is the emergence of protection for wrongfully accused people such as Paul Nungesser in the Columbia University case in USA in 2017.
Further, scenarios proposed by some proponents of #MeToo that are contrary to every sense of fairness to both sides like presumption of guilt until proof of innocence is being hotly contested in many circles. Anyone who says, “Yes, there could be 2-10% of innocent people who may be victimised” implies that those who are innocent yet lose credibility are mere statistical data-points. It is imperative that fair processes be established in unregulated arenas like music and entertainment industry like we have in work-spaces.
Fair due process inclusions
- Timeline: A specific timeline by which time victims of abuse/harassment should be encouraged to file (in many workplaces, it is 6 months). Needless to say, it would be increasingly difficult to prove cases one way or the other as time passes.
- Partial vs full evidence: If scant or even no evidence is required to cyber-convict anyone accused by those bent on #MetooMisuse, the credibility of the genuinely abused will be equally compromised. So anyone who comes up with partial evidence (such as one or two text/chat messages) must be obliged to produce the complete picture in order to make a case against anyone.
- Investigate the credibility of all concerned: Questions are being raised as to why only the complainant ought to be taken at face value in the name of showing sensitivity to the victim? Why should only an accused be investigated? How can any issue be judged fairly this way? To draw from our own Ramayana, there is a substantial difference between a Sita accusing Ravana vs a Shoorpanakha pointing fingers at Rama and Lakshmana.
It would be a complete inversion of values if credible people are persecuted with negligible to no evidence.
It would be a complete inversion of values if credible people are persecuted with negligible to no evidence. Likewise, the credibility of those fighting proxy battles online with established prejudice against one of the parties must be thoroughly vetted. Social activism does not grant anyone immunity from investigation or the right to act with impunity.
- Genuine grievances vs flimsy fabrications: Any person with basic intellect would be able to perceive the difference between essential truth and trumped up charges. If there is loss of objectivity, a number of innocent people will be vilified and victimised every day.
- Character assassination: While a few posters do behave fairly, a sizeable number of posts and tweets reveal acute judgmentalism no matter how distanced they are from the accuser or the accused. And the moment people better placed post favourably about an accused person, they are intimidated and tagged as “enablers” and supporters of criminals. How can the opinions of people who know nothing about a person first-hand supercede that of people who know him or her closely?
One of the worst fall outs in the last 2-3 days of the #MeTooMisuse is the hostile emails that are being sent to a few prominent organisers who have done yeoman service to the preservation of the art and projection of thousands of talents for decades in many parts of the world. Cries clamouring to boycott luminaries based on only rumours and gossip in nasty tones are completely contrary to culture, no matter the extent of conviction in content the sender(s) may have.
Reputed organizations should brainstorm together and show zero tolerance to blackmails and threats, or report them to appropriate authorities. Organisations must demand substantiation to any accusation and hear the other side out as well, before deciding their courses of action. They must definitely not set a precedent of submitting to illegal threats. That may encourage groups intent on taking the law into their own hands to act with even greater impunity.
To summarise, sexual harassment is a complex issue with several sides to it. The lack of fairness to one side in favour of another would be as bad as the core issue itself, and will eventually undermine societal values and structures in no time.
It is imperative that governments recognise every facet of the problem to create foolproof legislation to ensure that those abusing hashtags like #MeToo contrary to its basic spirit and those facilitating will be called out so that the rights of real victims of abuse as well as those wrongfully accused are protected equitably.
(A message from the author: “Though listed with no substantiation in the ongoing #MeToo campaign on social media a few days ago, I categorically state I have never sexually harassed anyone and strongly condemn such acts”)