The hashtag coup

Published: November 23, 2017 - 13:18 Updated: November 23, 2017 - 15:42

Why the crowdsourced list of alleged sexual offenders circulated on the internet as part of the #Metoo movement should be viewed as a harmless space from which women hope to be heard


Making lists is very human. We routinely assembled odd objects in sets in school during the maths period. Then there are endless lists of things to buy, selections to be made for awards, things to remember, things to do, things to eat, lists of families, friends, people we love to hate. The catalogue of lists is endless and part of habit-forming cultural practice that evolved long ago.


Doris Lessing, a Nobel laureate with a huge corpus of work, has a story, One Off the Short List, about a short list inside the head of a powerful man who sees powerful women as possible conquests. His short list, which served as a bucket list, got shorter with every new conquest. This man takes the female protagonist out for dinner, invites himself into her apartment for a post-dinner drink and makes persistent sexual overtures. Weary and bored and wanting to get it over with, the woman asks him to go ahead. Retribution follows immediately as the man is unable to get it up. This is a comical and anti-climactic space. Nevertheless, he stays on overnight and gets her to drop him back to work so that all their co-workers will assume that he has made yet another successful conquest. The woman recognises this, but remains silent. What actually transpired remains with the woman, the narrator and the reader.


Lessing’s story highlights how male machismo and female response in the work space continue to be fuelled by specific patterns of behaviour. The male in the story is no longer an unexposed villain because the reader, the female character, and the author are in the know. However, he retains his stature in terms of how his peers and the working team view him. He continues to be projected as a powerful man, irresistible to women. The female protagonist doesn’t really care very much about what people think and remains outside the trajectory of the traumatised victim, although she is pressured to offer consent.


The story is significant because it draws attention to the “unreflecting masculinity”[i] that underlies fiction and dogs us in real life. On the personal front, the female protagonist comes out with flying colours. Caring very little for people’s perceptions, she is not the traumatised victim, but an older woman in control of her life. The male protagonist’s emasculation within a private space does not extend into the social world he inhabits. Although Lessing’s story dates to the 1970s, it remains a significant indicator for our times, in keeping with the traditions of literature. The story documents, examines the social and cultural space occupied and controlled by men. It draws attention to how women who seek access to a homosocial world constantly need to negotiate through fraught situations. In the real world, women remain vulnerable to sexual harassment and are most often not in control of their lives.


Rumours, whispers and gossip, the permanent undergrowth of academic citadels, were transformed into buntings. People who were authority figures found themselves in the dock. By wilfully suspending hierarchy, the list created anarchy. Metaphorically, anarchy is a powerful force, because its dismantling of familiar structures allows us to build anew. Unfortunately, the response from people in positions of power was to declare that the list was ill-omened and would push us all towards a catastrophic war, as it targeted veritable pillars of liberal thought and democratic traditions.


October 2017 witnessed a bloodless coup. Maybe in later history this will be inscribed as the Glorious (Women’s) Revolution because a net-sponsored hashtag – Metoo – originally circulated almost a decade ago, went viral all over the English-typing globe. This was followed up by a Himtoo hashtag, wherein women victims called out predatory men in positions of power. Personal narratives by women that drew attention to sexual harassment in the workplace began to dot net narratives. Sexual harassment, we discovered, was not the experience of faceless women. Powerful women, oft accused of sleeping their way to successful careers, were now speaking openly about sexual harassment in the workspace. Harvey Weinstein was the star villain, but soon after, other powerful male names were invoked.


Subsequently, a list was put up and circulated, naming Indian academics, some of them known globally, on the basis of accounts provided by several women who had apparently been victimised by these very men at innumerable academic campuses all over India.


The list became a bone of contention immediately. A phalanx of feminists put out a peremptory and terse appeal, shorter than the length of the space that listed their names. This was possibly the reason the appeal sounded like a fiat or a diktat. Rebuttals to this perfunctory reaction were followed by longer, singular responses that stressed the sanctity of due process and the utmost rigour exercised to provide justice and fair play by women’s groups in academia. It became apparent that the list put up on behalf of victimised women was the most terrible event that had befallen the women’s movement.


The refusal to withdraw the list became expressive of “vigilante activism”,  “kangaroo courts”, “trial by mob” and so on. Some further tilting at windmills identified net activism as an activity pursued by those unwilling to walk in the sun. (Lest we forget, in the tropics where we live, for the greater part of the year, too much of walking in the sun inevitably leads to sunstroke.)


Opposition to the list by unresponsive feminists marked it as the fount of the worst possible transgression, poised to wantonly swallow all the goodness in the world and subvert all existing order. The list was trolled by some of the people named in it, while a few others rejected what they termed as unsubstantiated allegations. One post approaching the list with an open mind was deleted shortly without explanation and the postee scuttled back into internet anonymity.


There were saner, more reflective voices that stepped away from the feminist fiat carrying their names, and repositioned themselves, displaying concern about the victims and engaging in dialogue.[ii] Others spoke of waiting and watching. Many others not on the list came forward, spoke of the need for accountability, introspection and exchange, recognising that the list voiced by actual victims of harassment raised issues that required discussion.

Now that a few weeks have lapsed and no signs of vigilante justice, no trial by kangaroo court and no signs of mobs on the rampage have been reported, this is a good time to stock take. A few institutions have spoken out, backing the teachers named by the list, pointing out that legal processes cannot be initiated merely on the basis of naming and shaming and in the absence of corroborative evidence.


The list has been in circulation on social media only in recent times. Long before it made its debut, harassment was deeply entrenched in the real world. Whenever it was actually reported, due process took over and great objectivity, impartiality, and nuanced study were part of the process of redressal. This has not really been contested anywhere. Yet, our due process and exegesis has often miscarried. An a priori acceptance that the system was slow and flawed, legal procedures notwithstanding, because the onus of proof remained with women, then as it does now, would have been in order. Again, redressals have been made in a world not particularly sensitive to women.


The reason justice is such an important idea is because it is not about revenge or retribution. Unfortunately, laws by themselves do not ensure deterrence. This is the grey area occupied by those choosing to commit crimes. In the context of the cultural capital enjoyed by powerful elite in the academics, the prima facie existence of rules and committees is not a guarantee that rules will be complied with, especially with regard to sexual behaviour.  Regulations or procedural handbooks on how to report sexual harassment or how to identify it, discussed by current posts, will always fall short. Unethical or unacceptable behaviour exists because evolving cultural codes are yet to clearly define human intent. How fervently I wish the going viral of instructive handbooks could immediately purge the academic world of the possibilities of sexual harassment.


The hostile response the list elicited took many of us by surprise. Unruly and disorderly women have existed in many cultures and identified as women who are out of control, women who shout, scream and are unreasonable on all counts. Extensive research on the history of patriarchal silencing of ‘hysterical’ women is now available in libraries and online. We know that ours is a deeply misogynist culture; one in which women continue to be second-class citizens in routine practice, although volumes of written material state unequivocally that women’s constitutional rights are safeguarded.


Bakhtin, less fashionable of late, put forward the idea of the carnival as the site of subversive energy that provides for transformation. He saw it as a place wherein things could be turned upside down, creating the possibility for a catharsis in a deeply hierarchical and divided society. For Bakhtin, the carnival provides a destabilising effect that could change or alter existing power coordinates. This process of inverting categories was undertaken by the list. It put together motley names, without context. It turned structured power on its head. Rumours, whispers and gossip, the permanent undergrowth of academic citadels, were transformed into buntings. People who were authority figures found themselves in the dock. By wilfully suspending hierarchy, the list created anarchy. Metaphorically, anarchy is a powerful force, because its dismantling of familiar structures allows us to build anew. Unfortunately, the response from people in positions of power was to declare that the list was ill-omened and would push us all towards a catastrophic war, as it targeted veritable pillars of liberal thought and democratic traditions.


The list did not unleash weapons of mass destruction, nor trigger any caste-riots. A list on social media, even if it claims to speak the truth, has no such potential.  In fact, another list that unwarrantedly attacked the feminists who appealed for the withdrawal of Raya Sarkar’s list, speedily met with an ignominious end.


Since we did not recall Bakhtin’s carnivalesque that draws in everyone, we could have at least worked on developing a sense of humour. Surely Sultana’s Dream cannot be the only space in the world where men ousted from power can be contained. A grotesque list, demolishing difference by wedding the sacred to the profane, when invested with make believe power can provide similar play.


The list cannot be seen as the scourge bringing about the end of women’s credibility. We must remember that shrill behaviour, seen as the causative factor behind the compilation and posting of the list, is something women are accused of by patriarchies. Words such as hysteria and hysterical have deep roots in a misogynist culture that views impassioned female utterance as inherently flawed. Since it is overwrought with feeling, it must therefore also be bereft of ideas.  


It is true that the list does not treat people equally. It uses the same brush to tar birds with differently sized feathers. After all, it is a product shaped and formed by the unequal, unjust and unfair world we live in. Why are we unable to deal with this distorted, troubling symbol, when we willingly accept the grim data of the real world and eagerly paper over its contradictions and lapses?  

A friend remarked that if people named on the list were to kill themselves, the responsibility for this hideous turn would lie with the compiler of the list. Outlook magazine carries an essay by someone named on the list who recounts how the trauma of false accusation left him gibbering to himself about not committing suicide.


One hopes and prays that he will steel himself, become calmer and stay strong, assisted by his friends, students, well-wishers and family members. Anonymous lists that name offenders from afar have very little real power. They work in the real world pretty much in the manner of giving actual form to amorphous gossip and whispers; rustling awhile like dead leaves. They may turn reputations to mold, or cause them to dry and crumble altogether, but lists, at their worst, in the manner of dead leaves, will be collected in heaps and packed away to make compost to enrich the soil of the future. Compost, real or metaphorical, involves a process of recycling and is created from all that which living bodies and minds discard.


The bitter truth that cannot be overlooked is that the anonymous accusers have little reputation or identity to speak of. Cowered and frightened, possibly by the hostility and violence involved in real experience, the list is the space from which they hope to be heard. Their individual traumas may have had little access to familial support, friendships, legal redress or privileged positions that could bolster self-worth.


Presumably, they speak in grief and anger about what could have been nightmarish experiences. Perhaps we could step down from the high moral ground of due process that is littered with moulting corpses of good intentions and discoloured self-help handbooks on rules. Our lot must not be to cringe, shudder or wither away, but to walk the talk and allow them a hearing.


Maybe bridges can be built, creating possibilities for dialogue, for introspection, for questions and clarifications that will help, not only to ratify our rule books but also to make the real world a far more equitable place for everyone. This could be the beginning of a due process in which everyone obtains fair dues. Until such time and such exchange, we will be reduced to re-inscribing the lakshman rekhas demarcating litigation systems for men and women. Meanwhile, outside of the academics, worlds continue to churn, boil and burn.


[i]  I borrow this phrase from R. Srivatsan’s guest post in Kafila titled   “Failings Foretold: Reflections on the Unreflective Masculinity in the Time of the List.” This reflective and sensitive piece that gives us a lot to think about should have had far wider circulation.

[ii]  Responses to the list from Geetha, PK Vijayan, Karen Gabriel, among others, were reassuring and illuminating. I am also deeply indebted to exchanges with Suroopa Mukherjee, Susan Visvanathan, Rajeswari Sunderrajan, Rituparna Sengupta, Aprameya Manthena and Anubhuti Sharma.

This story is from print issue of HardNews