15 August 2020 07:04 AM



What Has Happened to #MeToo

No winners

Almost as quickly as it exploded onto the world stage, the Me Too movement has evaporated. Now that passions have ebbed and the frenzied witch hunt seems to have lost steam, it is quite clear that the seeds of its fading away lay in its origins. It is in the nature of things that a movement that relies entirely on sensation, character assassination, and public humiliation by a social media mob cannot possibly last, least of all bring about meaningful social change.

Marking a significant moment in its decline was the court verdict on April 11 in the trial of actor Geoffrey Rush in Australia. Rush won his defamation suit against a Sydney newspaper publisher over reports of inappropriate behavior towards Eryn Jean Norville, his co-star in "King Lear" in Sydney in 2015 and 2016. The reports portrayed Rush as a sexual predator and pervert.

Norville told the court that, while she was playing dead as Cordelia, Rush stroked his hand across the side of her right breast and on to her hip during a preview performance. Rush denied the allegations. The judge ruled that Norville’s evidence was neither "credible or reliable".

The ordeal has crushed Rush, who is 67. His lawyer told the media that ever since the allegations were made, Rush had been ‘virtually housebound, unable to eat or sleep and tortured by a 'terrible sense of dread'. He will probably never regain his confidence or his desire to work.

One of the most troubling aspects of the Me Too movement was the exuberant exultation, in some circles, in a man’s humiliation. Later generations will look back in dismay at the wild abandon with which careers and names were destroyed with nary a second thought.

This is not to say that all the men named in the movement are innocent. The point rather, is that, given the misguided approach, we will never even know because no due process was followed (Rush was lucky to get a trial because the allegation against him was recent).

Even if other accused men had wanted to clear their name, how could they possibly defend themselves against allegations based on what one woman had said on Twitter or Facebook? With no charges filed, no trial, no eye-witnesses, and no evidence on accusations dating back years or even decades?

Nor was any informal defence permitted by friends or colleagues of the accused. The moment they opened their mouths to express a view divergent from the line established by the moral absolutism of the movement’s proponents, they were shamed into silence.

Just because some women felt, maybe legitimately, angry over sexual violence and harassment does not mean that they may discard the principles and processes that have been devised by civilized society to evaluate a person’s guilt. Why should such women be held to a different and lower standard over their claims than the rest of us who, when we go in search of redress or justice - whether over a mugging, an unfair dismissal, cheating or burglary - are required to follow the rules laid down by society? Is mere self-righteousness by a group a sufficient condition for them to be believed automatically?

Mob lynching was repulsive from day one, not only because its intrinsic cruelty but because no good can come of such methods, beyond possibly empowering more women to speak out and making predators more afraid but the point here is these laudable goals could surely have been achieved through less malicious means. It’s rather like the BJP banging on about the number of taxpayers who are now in the net thanks to demonetization while ignoring the fact that the same goal could have been achieved by less destructive means.

The means shape the end. They cannot be separated. The means were random; some famous men were called out. But what happens after that? With no organization, no agenda, no ideology, no membership, no plan, the Me Too movement was by its very nature – glib, cheap, sensational - bound to be a collection of lurid headlines and schadenfreude, evoking parallels with the French Revolution when ladies came to watch the beheadings with their knitting to keep their hands busy until the heads rolled.

Look at any significant progress that has happened over race, women’s rights or gay rights and it is obvious that it takes arduous and often boring work over years to enjoy success. Remember the phenomenon of ‘outing’ around the 1990s – that odious campaign by some gay men to expose a person’s homosexuality, which they had kept secret, without their consent?

That too failed to achieve a fraction of the rights and freedom that the LGBT community achieved on the back of painstaking efforts to lobby governments, educate the public, enact anti-discrimination laws, and alter cultural and social norms.

Imagine dalits deciding that the best way to end the discrimination and violence against them is to lynch a few Brahmins in Connaught Place, pour encourager les autres? Or African Americans thinking their cause will be boosted by shooting a few, known racist policemen in the back?

Me Too has not led to any systemic or structural change in favour of women. Post-Weinstein, does Hollywood operate any differently today in terms of acting against inherent biases against women or the sexism in the industry? After shaming so many men, what do we have to show for it? The wrecking of lives was blithely dismissed as ‘collateral damage’ but even if you accept this disagreeable premise as a necessary evil, it is unclear how much of the larger purpose has been achieved.

It’s true that the impact of the movement has had intangible benefits in terms of changing public perceptions and making women more confident about speaking out that are not amenable to quantifying or measuring. It has made everyone aware of the hundreds of ways that men can behave inappropriately or offensively in the workplace. It has undoubtedly made some men more cautious. And it has dragged out much of the dirt in everyday ordinary interactions that had been kept concealed.

But if public consciousness has been enhanced in any way, it is only one step that will not be sufficient until and unless it is accompanied by policies, concrete measures and processes in place to protect women against sexual harassment and punish offenders.

Rush’s acquittal barely got a mention in the media. It simply isn’t ‘sexy’ or interesting. It was much more fun to pillory him and destroy his piece of mind. In contrast, Rush was gracious in his response to the verdict. There are, he said, ‘no winners’ in the case.

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