Why I Refuse to Substitute Moralistic Outrage for Demands for Justice

I am sure most of us are part of some forms of privilege and are all waiting for #MeToo campaigns that will humanise us all.

It is a veritable tsunami of fallacious arguments on Facebook in the wake of #MeToo. The world of Facebook turns upon the constant exchange of logical fallacies, but never have I seen them pressed into service by either side with such ferocity, and this is particularly characteristic of the accused, and not so much the complainant, as of her supporters. Besides ad hominem which seem to be the standard opening gambit especially by the accused, the fallacies of composition and division abound. So, if the complainant has complained, then it is inferred that her entire life is one of constant complaining. If the accused has been accused, then their entire contribution is dismissed as tainted by that wrongdoing. If supporters of the complainant deploy the fallacy of origin, the supporters of the accused find either the moralistic fallacy (the assumption that if certain rules/restrictions etc. are in the place, nothing contrary is likely to happen) or the naturalistic fallacy (insisting that certain things do exist in the world and therefore they ought to be) handy.

I suppose this looks like a problem only if one still thinks that some sorts of alliances and solidarities need to be preserved at the present moment. If we were not living through times in which the right wing viciously threatens to undermine all liveable social and ecological existence itself, then I would have experienced the purge of these errant men as a great mela of joy and empowerment. If it feels mixed even though slightly tipped towards joy, it is only because I do worry about the need for alliances at this moment. Also, because I take seriously the critiques from less-privileged voices.

How does one intervene in such an atmosphere of anti-dialogue?  There can be no doubt that the #MeToo is a major force of social democratisation in the new middle-class workspaces; it reveals the manner in which legislation favouring  gender democratisation can unleash powerful expectations and aspirations which can upset patriarchy even when the mechanisms set up fail us. Of course such a purge cannot be but painful, albeit differently, to all parties. Given the power imbalance between men and women in these workspaces, surely the onus of righting this does not fall primarily on women. If we, especially on the left, are serious about our commitment to democracy, we should expect the erring men to be equally shouldering the burden of such transformation by willingly subjecting themselves to critical inspection by the less-privileged.

But my question is – why are we so unable to turn this into an opportunity to democratise these spaces through a process we can actually control (so that the backlash is avoided, that is)? Why is it that it should deteriorate into an exchange that our (I am speaking of people of all genders broadly on the left of the political spectrum) enemies so unkindly dub ‘gender war’? Rage is a valuable political resource and not easily generated among women; should we really use so much of it against women who may hold on to slightly differing shades of opinions among us? Like the courage to speak against patriarchy which can be built up only with time and life-experience, learning too takes time and patience. Is it wise to let anti-dialogue torpedo that?

Also read: ‘Indeed Lies Do Not Have Legs’: Ghazala Wahab Replies to M.J. Akbar

The worst casualties of this confrontation are no doubt those who would like to take time to listen, think and respond. Slowness is instantly reduced by suspicion from either side into a stake in the preservation of patriarchy by one side, and the ‘fear of feminists’ by the other. I have the worst memories of the first #MeToo, initiated by Raya Sarkar. One is used to being called names by patriarchal authorities, so the barrage of abuse by incensed men hanging on to male privilege did not shake me. But when those who claimed to speak for survivors began to hurl equally worse things, it was truly unnerving. A certain ‘Samar Anarya’, staunchly on the side of #MeToo, for instance, calling me a ‘minnow’, a ‘minion’ of ‘senior feminists’ – just because I happen to work in and write from a regional location. I couldn’t fathom how someone who picks on people calling them small fry can be respectful to junior women colleagues. Later, it turned out that he had a score to settle with some of the ‘senior feminists’ at JNU who had called him out there.

That some mischievous elements might wriggle in to take advantage does not mean that the complaints are invalid or the complainants did not deserve voice – far from it. But it does show that if we seek to resolve issues in an atmosphere of anti-dialogue, then we are probably shooting ourselves in the foot and that it is probably not the best course of action. Then what may be the best way to make sure that the survivors get justice and that this is done in a way which will minimise patriarchal backlash? In other words, how to harness the destructive potential of the #MeToo to the ends of social democratisation effectively? I do feel that if we – people of all genders – do not do this, we will be tossed violently between cycles of survivor recounting and violent backlashes – even as the political right downs all their internal differences to ensure the end of the left.

A demonstrator takes part in a #MeToo protest march for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California US November 12, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

A demonstrator takes part in a #MeToo protest march for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California US November 12, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

I want to think of this in the wake of the #MeToo sweeping over us right now, in which many powerful men who I thought I knew well have been implicated. It does not come to me as a surprise that none of these men have ever crossed the line that I drew, even in my most vulnerable days when I was a young single mother and new academic struggling in both words with little resources and connections, and no real family worth the name. But I perhaps came across as a woman who did not hesitate to speak out and take social risks. Indeed, that I very publicly exited not one but two marriages probably signalled that clearly, as the fact that I did very brutally boot out some male ‘intellectuals’ who tried to get fresh with me those days, and did not regret losing the advantages I would have harnessed had I put up with it.

This actually reveals two things: one, we must not take seriously the claim by men who are often serial offenders, that they just made a ‘chance mistake’ with a young woman. Because it seems clear to me that these men do calculate quite rationally on who to make the ‘chance mistake’ with. Secondly, the young woman loath to sacrifice her career ambitions may be the easy target simply because both her endurance and her protest can be dismissed by attributing them to ‘ female ambitiousness’ which patriarchy treats as unacceptable! In other words, there may be no such thing as a ‘chance mistake’ especially by serial offenders. If we need to resolve this in ways that expand our social democracy, men should stop being so defensive, stop insisting that there is no potential for such expansion in these complaints.

However, I refuse to substitute moralistic outrage for demands for justice. This I do because none of us who are privileged women can claim that we lead totally blameless lives, even if we do not intentionally harm anyone. I am sure most of us are part of some forms of privilege and are all waiting for #MeToo campaigns that will humanise us all. For example, what if there were a #MeToo campaign by domestic workers and drivers we employ?  I am waiting for that, actually, and if I see it before I die, I will truly feel fulfilled as someone who has struggled for democracy all her life. Instead of feeling worried, maybe one should open oneself towards such scrutiny: how else would one achieve greater refinement as a human being? Secondly, the hypocrisy around gender equality is only one among the many forms of hypocrisy that affect us neo-middle class folk. Often, we women participate actively in the other hypocrisies.

In Kerala, for example, all of us on the left are convinced of the need to contain ecological damage and for ecologically-aware lifestyles. Yet too many of us live totally otherwise, feeling no need to cover it up – most probably because we either know that this will not incite social shaming, or because nature really has no voice of its own to call us out! This of course does not mean that the complainants’s voices are thereby invalid, only that we cannot occupy a moral high ground – not towards other women who may differ somewhat from us and even towards the accused. In fact there is no need at all to perch on a moral high horse to demand justice. Therefore I would like to suggest that the men who have been outed by #MeToo should stop being defensive and the rest of us should stop being moralistic and demand fair, appropriate and proportionate (and this is not be read as small and minor!) punishment for their offenses.

Also read: Cheat Sheet to the Handbook of Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace

This is perhaps what Ambedkar discusses when he reflects on the Buddhist value of maithri – the gesture one makes to the enemy which is different from the meaning usually attributed to it, common friendship. The spaces of maithri are animated by the shared sense of finitude, but one in which criticism and actually penalty itself, are fully possible – as perceptively pointed out by Aishwary Kumar in his reading of Ambedkar’s Buddha and His Dhamma. However, for such spaces to take shape, the accused men and their supporters need to give up defensiveness and embrace vulnerability and the survivors and their friends need to demand justice in ways that may not unravel into yet another (patriarchal) bid for mastery (which is what moralising usually is). Ambedkar proposed maithri as a means to a political relationship that is also an ethical one, based on a shared faith focused unwaveringly on justice for the fully other.

So, practicing maithri, I would tell these male friends – and anyone accused of abuse of power – this:

You have to start by publicly admitting guilt wherever it is due, by admitting that it is no surprise that you don’t remember (if you don’t) because privilege tends to erase acts of power too quickly. If you have indeed been wrongfully accused, please defend yourself in credible ways (and not just say that you don’t remember).

But also be ready to say that a public apology is only the beginning of the unlearning of toxic masculinity and that you realise that staying open to criticism is key, as well as an open discussion on how to make amends (in the event of inappropriate behaviour that may not be outright criminal) in more concrete terms. That is, when women reveal that they have been thrown off their careers because of your misbehaviour, please be ready to talk with them in terms and spaces comfortable to them and be ready to offer help that they may demand.

Please also be sure to condemn and exit openly this awful homosocial culture that is so characteristic of intellectual life here. I know that many of you have known that, and it was a tacit horizon in our interactions. Please encourage such self-inspection among your peers as well so that this culture is well and truly dismantled.

And most importantly, if you have indeed caused criminal harm that should be punished in a court of law, you should cooperate fully and without causing any more distress to the survivor. I cannot be your friend at all unless you are willing to turn vulnerable by admitting to guilt, bearing its full consequence, making amendments as far as possible, and emerging as a fuller, new person.

That said, I am still your friend if you truly admit to crime and/or offensive behaviour and are repentant, and friendship must always be critical; I do not set myself up as blameless; I do not believe that any kind of expletive can be thrown at you; I believe that you have a right to defend yourself without turning defensive. I think that you need to do this, because we cannot afford to distrust each other endlessly, especially in these particularly harsh times.

This, then, is not a catastrophe perhaps but a unique chance to renew ourselves as human beings. In the end, we all could emerge as better and richer humans, if only we refuse to be defensive or moralistic.

Devika J. teaches and researches in Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum.