On the “#Me Too” Movement | Prerna Anilkumar

ವಿಮೋಚನೆ or Vimōcane (Kannada).

విముక్తి or Vimukti (Telugu).

വിമോചനം or vimēācanaṁ (Malyalam).

স্বাধীনতা  or Sbādhīnatā  (Bengali).

मुक्ति or Mukti (Hindi).

Liberation (English).

Each of these languages capture a different nuance of the word ‘liberation’. And in the linguistic womb of most, there are two simultaneous movements involved in this word:

  1. a setting free.
  2. a deliverance.

One is not only released from one state. But is also delivered to another (higher) state.

While Kant saw this release or freedom as a prerequisite for morality, Heidegger, drawing on from Kant, looked into the origin of freedom itself and claimed that freedom was a state that the self displayed when it uncovered its own possibilities. This ‘uncovering’ included moments of discovery. Moments of disclosure. Moments of setting free. Moments of liberation. Thus, we got:

Liberation as a prerequisite for freedom.

Insights into the very notion of liberation, human existence and freedom come through when one looks into the “#Me Too” movement. It was an ‘uncovering’ in the most literal and symbolic way possible. It created moments of disclosures. These moments were the moments of liberation for millions of survivors of sexual harassment. Without this uncovering, no true step towards freedom would have been possible. There was definitely a setting free. But whether there was a deliverance, only time will tell.

This piece doesn’t aim to bring the reader ‘up-to-date’ with all the developments that have arisen in this movement.  Neither is this piece going to claim to offer the latest political analysis into the most recent offshoot of this movement pertaining to Aziz Ansari or Catherine Deneuve. Nor is this piece going to claim a geographical/cultural specificity and offer an India specific narrative.

What I want to offer here is a Hegelian owl of Minerva. The Greek Goddess of Wisdom comes on her owl only after the day’s main events have taken place. And even though this owl flies only at dusk which some think is too late, it is better than the owl flying in at midnight. All of us right now are in a liminal space, an in-between (what is history if not a series of liminal spaces layered onto one another). Events have happened. Events are happening as we speak. They will continue to happen. But there is a much needed moment for pause and reflection. And that is what this piece aims at.

Pausing.

Amidst all our Facebook and Instagram feeds, that seems like a resistance in itself.

It is fascinating how movements are birthed. How revolutions erupt.

Rebecca Solnit, the coiner of the term ‘mansplaining’ who shot to fame with her brilliant ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ and who almost predicted the ‘#Me Too” movement says something very crucial that must be held onto before we all jump into the quick battleground of words and our swords of judgement pronouncing this movement as having or not having gone too far or contemplating its success/failure. She says:

..feminism advances by seismic episodes. I’m old enough to remember the Anita Hill hearings when she testified against (US Supreme Court nominee) Clarence Thomas. The nation was drawn into this huge conversation about sexual harassment. A lot of people didn’t get that it exists, that it’s not all in good fun, that it’s not the woman’s fault. We didn’t have hashtags, but we did have a bumper sticker that I saw for many years after: “I believe you Anita”. It was a watershed: we got legislation after that.

Any movement advances by these subtle but (in retrospect) seismic episodes. And one dilutes a movement by looking at it with a certain linearity of cause and effect. Solnit, in her quintessence wisdom offers another beautiful rendering of this phenomenon[1]:

Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later, sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope.

Once again:  liberation (of the mind) as prerequisite for freedom (in one’s reality).

Many critical discourses, however, didn’t see this movement as a moment of ‘uncovering’ or ‘liberation’. They saw this as a proliferation of the ‘victim’.  Recently, Zizek in one of his articles portrayed a dangerous trend towards this ‘victimisation’ and the potential subversion of sexuality itself. Seeds of this tangent can also be found in Christine Faire’s article. This is not to negate how significant “#Him too” and “#He too” became in trying to take the discourse towards the perpetrators and away from the victims. Or how brilliant a momentum Faire’s article lend to the whole movement. Each of these had an equally important role to play in the collective catharsis the world experienced.

However, the problem I pose in these discourses is this:

Vulnerability being perceived as mutually exclusive to the site of agency.

Paternalism as the only site of agency.

Vulnerability as the site of victimization, passivity and inaction.

Only a masculinist politics could look at this in such a way. Judith Butler along with Zeynep Gambetti and Leticia Sabsay offer a point of departure in their book ‘Vulnerability in Resistance’. They talk about the two axioms prevalent in most theoretical and popular discourses:

  1. Vulnerability is the opposite of resistance and not a step in that practice.
  2. Vulnerability necessitates a need to be protected by paternalistic forms of power

In their work vulnerability is not placed within a gendered ontology to validate the heteronormative- conventional-binary distinctions between the two, where vulnerability is assumed to be inherent to women and antithetical to men.

No. This doesn’t rethink the resistance.

Vulnerability is proposed as a way of being and as an ontology inherent to all beings, irrespective of their gender.[2] However, there is also a trap here: the logic of disavowal. The discourse on vulnerability becomes hijacked where nations advertise their ‘hypervulnerability’ to new immigrants and men advertise themselves as becoming hypervulnerable victims of the feminists. This is precisely what the alt right is doing. This recourse to vulnerability works and propagates the same power structures. And this is not what is proposed. What this framework offers is a different conception of vulnerability. Seeing vulnerability in its purely ontological state and not as a mode of social production. Only then can we breach its true revolutionary potential.

‘#Me too’ has to be seen from this framework. In their acts of claiming their voices. Claiming our voices. They were vulnerable. We were vulnerable. And this was not any less resistance than the guerrilla fighters or the comrades fighting it out on the land. This was as beautiful as resistance gets. It was a moment of disclosure. It disrupted. It uncovered. It set free realities that were till then assumed to be something which had to be silently engulfed within one’s being.

Raya Sarkar’s list in taking the debate further by bringing in the failures of our institutional machineries and the much adored ‘due process’ radically threatened the status quo of our systems. The merits of the list will continue to be debated. Those are worthy of another discussion altogether. But the reason the list is invoked here is to see it from this Butlerian framework of vulnerability as resistance. As a continuation of “#Me Too” the list became a moment of ‘uncovering’ and ‘liberation’.

As an ode to the personal indeed being political, I would like to end with how disheartening it was to see the logic of disavowal referred to in Butler’s framework work its way in how “#Me Too” was received by the people around me, especially men. According to this logic, one either conveniently assumes ‘hypervulnerability’ or transposes that vulnerability onto an ‘other’. Most of these men, quite conveniently protected their own actions from being brutally reflected upon and joined the train in rubbishing off the likes of Weinstein or Woody Allen. There was always an ‘other’ who was evil. He did it”, “He is a bad person”, “He is a misogynist”.  This allowed themselves an ontological relief:  “we have not actively harassed anyone. Ergo, we are good”.  But they forgot how they still stood witness to the locker room talks and the typical boys hostel-style-objectification of women. This silence will always be equivalent to actively propagating that misogynist culture which is at the root of the problem.

It is crucial to invoke the analogy on racial prejudices and conveyor belt drawn by Tatum more than two decades ago and apply the same here.[3]  Any cycle of prejudices and hierarchies is thought of as a moving walkway at the airport. The ones who perpetrate it vehemently (in this case, sexual harassers, misogynists etc.) are moving fast on that conveyor belt. The ones who are passively watching are standing still on the walkway and not moving. Even though no active effort is being made by them to walk ahead, the conveyor belt is still moving ahead to the same destination as the one which the earlier set of people (misogynists) want. The ones who are unwilling to go to the same destination turn around. But unless they actively walk in the opposite direction at a rate faster than the conveyor belt itself they will be carried along with the rest. Thus, passive bystanders don’t get to say that atleast they didn’t actively engage in harassment. Till you didn’t make that effort to go in the opposite direction you are part of the conveyor belt and supporting the destination it is headed.

This was the tragedy of the movement. Most of the people continued to engage with this discourse in the realm of mere thought. They intellectually engaged with it. They supported it. They appreciated it. But they never engaged with it on the realm of feeling. And so they never actively made that effort to walk in the opposite direction at a rate faster than the belt to try and reach a better and more equitable world.

It would be unfair to not acknowledge a partial disruption that the movement did achieve when the flooding of all our Facebook walls made everyone realise how close and yet far away they were from the innermost realities and struggles of their our own friends, lovers, partners, family and colleagues.

However, it didn’t completely knife through everyone’s consciousness. Brutal introspection of one’s own actions didn’t truly happen in most of these cases. We critiqued the fascism of the systems and the institutions but never looked within to face the fascism, the tyranny and the bitterness we exude in our daily lives. This reminds one of Foucault’s preface to Anti-Oedipus where he refers to “not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini—which was able to mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively—but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

So what is truly required is a larger discourse on the very relationship between desire and reality. And how that relationship shapes sexuality and sexual relations. Till we don’t heal that deeper relationship which entrenched with twisted ideas of power and superiority, the same problems will keep manifesting in different forms.

A natural question that then emerges in Foucault’s preface is “how do we rid our speech and our acts, our hearts and our pleasures, of fascism? How do we ferret out the fascism that is ingrained in our behavior?”

Krishnamurthi lends an answer to this in his conversation in ‘Reflection on the Self’:

It is possible only through watching, not condemning or accepting, but just watching the whole movement of your thought, watching the very activity of thought, watching the origin, the beginning of thought. And so in this watching the brain then becomes much more sensitive, not only to its own responses but sensitive to nature, to everything around one, to the world that is becoming more and more dangerous, and to the world of one’s own psyche.

This is the intensity of reflection needed.

Pause.

Reflect.

Pause.

Reflect.

The piece started with the word ‘liberation’. It is only fitting that we journey back to the same. Till each one of us doesn’t reflect, no true ‘liberation’ will ever be possible. Because history has painfully proven again and again that revolutions of the mind have failed to achieve the ideal world we all thought was possible. The only true revolution will have to be a revolution of the mind, of the heart and the spirit all beautifully weaved into one.


References

[1] Solnit, R. (2005). Hope in the dark: The untold history of people power. Canongate Books.

[2] Butler, J., Gambetti, Z., & Sabsay, L. (Eds.). (2016). Vulnerability in resistance. Duke University Press.

[3] Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: And other conversations about race. Basic Books.


Prerna Anilkumar is a student of law at Gujarat National Law University.

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