#Metoo campaign: Is it the weapon of the weak?
Harvey Weinstein’s infamous serial abuse of women actresses in Hollywood has indeed changed the world. It has prompted women, all over, to come out and speak about sexual harassment openly, making the #MeToo campaign go insanely viral. A follow-up poll by ABC News Washington Post found that sexual harassment in the US was a full-blown epidemic with 54 per cent women responding that they have faced such harassment, 30 per cent facing harassment at work and 25 per cent facing harassment from men who had power over the careers.
In a country like the US, where awareness about sexual harassment as well as laws and institutional policies that deter it is prevalent, such staggering high numbers of harassment instances are indeed eye-opening. As a follow-up to the events, Raya Sarkar, a student of law at UC Davis, who hails from India, has curated a list that identifies academics in India’s leading educational institutions and Indian origin academics in the West, who have supposedly sexually harassed their students.
The list is alive and growing, and it has already identified 70 professors, many of whom have had significant academic accomplishments.
Kafila feminists have followed the same vanguardism that makes leftists unpopular amongst likeminded non-left progressives, who would otherwise broadly agree on issues.
As an observer, who has followed the debate with some degree of seriousness, I have little new to add about sexual harassment that has not already been discussed so far. I would rather prefer to discuss the debate. I ardently believe that sexual harassment in academia is a burning issue that needs to be addressed right away.
People in academia have historically been at the forefront of many progressive socio-cultural movements, however, unfortunately, they have not done enough to clean their own homes and make the academic institutions a safe-space from harassment. Many faculty members routinely exploit their position of authority, power and hierarchy vis-à-vis that of their students, to harass the latter in many ways.
Means such as nepotism and favouritism, unfair & punitive grading and taking adverse coercive action that damage future career prospects of their student are commonplace misdeeds in academia. Sexual harassment is an extreme manifestation of such exploitation that is targeted, mostly, at the female students. However, rather than attempting to look at sexual harassment through a lens that isolates it from the other forms of harassments in the classroom, we should look at bullying and harassment by faculty members more holistically to tackle this social evil.
Sexual harassment by faculty members has little to do with primordial desires, but more to do with the fact that a faculty member demands and expects submission from his students, and is an expression of a power play. If there is an appropriate use of the Savarna-Dalit allegory, the faculty-student relationship would be it. Students learn to withstand and tolerate such harassment as there are few efficient institutional and legal mechanisms to challenge it.
While it is heartening that some progressive institutions in India are putting in place procedures that discourage & prevent sexual harassment, one can only hope that others will soon follow suit. Further college and universities should look at the issue of harassment more holistically, while not losing focus on the sexual abuse aspect.
How do we distinguish between folks who have made undue advances & sexual assaults from those who may have just made some casual unwelcome sexist remarks?
Raya’s list is not a novel idea. Recently, a few women in New York City, who work in Media & Communications, had curated such a list for sexual harassment in the world of media, but they had to take it down. That list and Raya's share similar methodological deficiencies. Raya's list has four major flaws. First, it doesn’t bucket the names of offending faculty members in two categories – one against whom formal complaints have already been lodged and the second for whom there is none.
This is an important distinction to make, and contrary to popular belief, it doesn't weaken the seriousness of the list, rather strengthens it as more authentic and believable. Second, Raya has also made a serious mistake of attempting to become the sole curator or gatekeeper for such a list; one has to completely rely on her judgement that she got it right.
A collective earns more public trust than an individual in such sensitive matters, she should have enlisted a wider group of folks to curate and maintain that list. Third, the nature of the offence of the accused is not mentioned. While the victim’s identity should be private, the incident needn’t be. How do we distinguish between folks who have made undue advances & sexual assaults from those who may have just made some casual unwelcome sexist remarks?
In the realms of theory, both amount to harassment, but from a matter of practicality, the two are not the same. Unless we can completely rid ourselves of patriarchy, there will always be some bias against women, but one cannot adopt a “boil the ocean” approach to treating all forms of offensive behaviour as equal. Some of these offences deserve jail time; others may just deserve a rebuke.
The course of common law, which Raya is surely very familiar with, makes a solid distinction between felony offences, misdemeanours, and infractions. Unfortunately, her list does not make any distinctions. Some of Raya’s supporters have claimed that the accountability lies with the named offenders, they need to own up and should come clean.
An argument such as the above, cannot be more juvenile, as no one can come clean without knowing the charges or accusations against him! Fourth, as a student of law, Raya could have made her list more effective as evidence material towards prosecuting the offenders in future. Unfortunately, the way it has been architected, the list cannot stand scrutiny in any court of law.
However, while Raya's list can be criticised for its shortcomings, her attempt should not be discouraged and dismissed like the Kafila feminists have done. Unlike what they have, somewhat unfairly, claimed Raya’s attempt doesn’t delegitimise or undermine any of their sustained efforts to reform institutions and put in more formal grievance redressal mechanisms in academic institutions. As a parallel, the very popular RatemyProfessors.com, a web portal that allows students to rate their professors online anonymously, doesn’t undermine the formal course evaluation mechanisms put in place by the universities in the US.
Through whisper campaigns & slander, female students, in India's universities have warned other students & parents about possible sexual predators, and such awareness mechanisms have been a very effective form of defense.
The cleavage amongst the two camps in the realm of feminism reminds me of the seemingly eternal debates within the radical and progressive political actors - the leftists that are inspired by Marx & Lenin versus the libertarian socialists (anarchists) inspired by Kropotkin, Proudhon and Bakunin.
Central to the debate is the role of vanguards in movements and the question of hegemony. The Marxist Leninist leftists always feel the need of a vanguard force that would need to spark and shape political activity.
On the other hand, the libertarian socialists prefer spontaneous & sporadic insurrections and aim to destroy these institutional mechanisms quickly and forever, to lay the groundwork for a new world order. The anarchists dislike the vanguardism and deterministic politics of the left and their inability to identify hegemony outside of class relationships. The leftists tend to ignore the hegemony that also exists, for example, within the communist party itself.
The above hegemony is somewhat evident in the manner the Kafila feminists have been dismissive of Raya Sarkar’s attempt. In the subsequent posts by Nivedita Menon in Kafila, Kavita Krishnan in The Wire, these prominent individuals have outlined the deterministic pathways of combating patriarchy, as they have practised in the past. By doing that, they have followed the same vanguardism that makes leftists unpopular amongst likeminded non-left progressives, who would otherwise broadly agree on issues.
Resistance need not be a revolution or a rebellion. In fact, such decisive events are very infrequent. However, the human spirit doesn’t ever cease to resist. People show their contempt and resistance against the existing hegemonic power structures through everyday forms of resistance, as James Scott has shown in his path-breaking work, “Weapons of the Weak”.
But, since such resistance mechanisms do not appear in any movement entrepreneur’s playbook, the Kafila feminists dislike it.
Scott has studied the less visible, everyday forms of resistance, such as foot-dragging, evasion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander and sabotage and many more techniques employed by peasants against landlords and governments.
The Kafila feminists feel that women students haven’t been resisting sexual harassments in academia enough. In fact, they haven’t been looking. Through whisper campaigns & slander, female students, in India's universities have warned other students & parents about possible sexual predators, and such awareness mechanisms have been a very effective form of defense.
An informal survey of students in any academic campus will tell you, that they know the questionable characters, they have been “handed down” this knowledge through seniors, batch mates and the student community in general. Raya’s list should be seen as an extension of that collective effort. She has collated such whispers and slanders and put it up in the public domain for everybody to see. But, since such resistance mechanisms do not appear in any movement entrepreneur’s playbook, the Kafila feminists dislike it. They needn't.
This great divide amongst activists did not start recently, nor is it going to end anytime soon. One just hopes well-meaning people like Raya and her supporters and the prominent personalities in Kafila can disagree without being disagreeable.