POLITICS

#MeToo Made Us Realize That Being A Bystander Does Not Let Us Off The Hook

It's not just hashtag activism.

18/10/2017 9:54 AM IST | Updated 18/10/2017 9:56 AM IST
Abhishek Chinnappa / Reuters
A woman holds a sign as she takes part in the #IWillGoOut rally, to show solidarity with the Women's March in Washington, along a street in Bengaluru.

It's been hard looking at my social media timeline.

First there were a few #MeToos. Then a few more. The trickle became a flood. Now they seem to have taken over social media. That was always the point. The drumbeat had to become such a crescendo that it could not be ignored and dismissed. Too big to fail, as they say.

A friend. A colleague. A cousin. An acquaintance. A writer. A young student. A retired professor. Some I knew. Some I was surprised by. Some made me want to avert my gaze. Her too?

I am a social media cynic even as I am a social media addict. I think of it as a space where our statuses are more about performance than about sharing, often carefully calibrated with an audience in mind. I worry it is faux activism, reassuring us that changing a profile picture or sharing a status is actually doing something whether about cancer or suicide or depression.

I worry about the way public and private is constantly blurred, where we both overshare and undershare sometimes in the very same status, where empathy is counted in Likes.

I resent the emotional blackmail of those statuses that tell me that if only I bothered to share, or rather not share but copy-and-paste this one message about cancer, it would show that I cared. I care. I just don't feel compelled to advertise it. I worry about the way public and private is constantly blurred, where we both overshare and undershare sometimes in the very same status, where empathy is counted in Likes.

To be honest I viewed #MeToo with some of that same skepticism, thinking of it as yet another example of hashtag performance art, a blip of feel-good catharsis of the privileged, people like us, the ones who have the time to post social media updates while others search for body parts of their loved ones in the rubble of Mogadishu.

But there was something different about #MeToo. I was not surprised that it was so pervasive, so ubiquitous, that it touched almost every woman on my timeline. I am surprised at those who were surprised by that. As a beloved friend in her sixties said, 'you cannot be alive this long and not say ME TOO.' But then another professional acquaintance, a man, wrote "When your daughter also posts, 'me too'..." This hashtag can cut too close to the bone.

I was not surprised that it was so pervasive, so ubiquitous, that it touched almost every woman on my timeline. I am surprised at those who were surprised by that.

That's when it became discomfiting. This is the first hashtag that forced me to look at people I've always known in a different light. Social media calls them all my friends. But some are truly friends, some are cousins, acquaintances, peers I met once at a conference, long-ago hook-ups, colleagues. Some are people I would not recognize in real life.

Cathal McNaughton / Reuters
Women take part in the #IWillGoOut rally, organized to show solidarity with the Women's March in Washington, along a street in New Delhi, India January 21, 2017.

And for the first time there is a hashtag that reveals something that's in common to all these different kinds of people, the women you know slightly and the women you thought you knew well. The woman across the office with whom you laugh, joke, argue everyday still laughs, jokes and argues and meets her deadlines. But you realize that in between all that she also posted #MeToo. She does not talk about it. Neither do you. But you know. She knows you probably know. That knowledge has weight. This hashtag carries weight.

Other hashtags have been different. When they support gay rights or when they say Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, they are about solidarity not vulnerability. They allow us to wear our liberal credentials on our sleeves with the click of a Facebook filter. They can almost be an act of charity, empathizing with the pain of faraway others. They cost little and ask little of us. We hope they ennoble us in some way in the eyes of others. This one turns the lens around from others to ourselves. It's an act of out-ing and I understand the pain and power of coming out. Nothing is every quite the same again. You might feel freer, you might be truer to yourself but you have forever changed something in your relationship with others. You are no longer exactly the person they thought you to be or the person you presented yourself as. This is a difficult conversation disguised as a hashtag.

This one turns the lens around from others to ourselves. It's an act of out-ing and I understand the pain and power of coming out.

As a man I cannot begin to understand what it took to tell the stories. This I know is only the tip of the iceberg. Too many stories are too painful to be told on a Facebook wall. As someone commented on social media, that it took so many women to dig so deep into their pain and lay it bare for us to acknowledge it as a universal truth is itself telling. As a man I know my privilege even if I don't acknowledge it. I don't automatically create a barricade with my bag when I am squished in the back seat of a three-wheeler with strangers. I don't worry about the fit of my t-shirt.

And as a man I can also take refuge in the bubble of #NotMe. I am not the gang rapist. I am not the one who shoved my hand down a woman's shirt. I am not the one who rubbed up against someone in the backseat of that three-wheeler. I am not Harvey Weinstein and I have never been.

AFP/Getty Images
Members of All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) shout slogans during a march for women rights in society and politics, in Amritsar on October 13, 2017.

But what the volume of these #MeToos does is erode that smugness, the comfort of #NotAllMen. I might not be the truly rotten apple but what if the basket itself is rotten? It makes you wonder not just about what you do but what you enable. Even the best of us has let that horrible rape joke on the school friends' WhatsApp group pass. I remember clearly the joke a friend sent after the Nirbhaya gangrape. The Indian cricket team had been decimated in a match. Why was no one holding a candlelight vigil for the rape of the cricket team? I did not laugh. It made me cringe but I did not say anything either. No one else did too. Perhaps they cringed. Perhaps they laughed. I don't know but we all let it pass. After all who wants to be the party pooper, the finger-wagging moral police, the one who's too serious all the time, yaar?

This is the first hashtag that made me look at those I know differently. This is also the first hashtag that made me look at myself differently as well.

This is the first hashtag that made me look at those I know differently. This is also the first hashtag that made me look at myself differently as well.

Will it achieve anything concrete in the end? The sheer volume can become too overwhelming and it can make us feel it's hopeless. But if for one moment it forced us to stop, listen, and believe, that too is something. If it makes us think twice before we let that rape joke pass that's something. If it makes us speak up when we see that woman being heckled on the street that's something. If it whittles down our tolerance for boys behaving badly that too is something.

It's not about what we do when we witness something as horrible as a rape. Hopefully we would intervene. Or call the police. It's about what we do when we see the smaller acts of harassment, the garden variety ones on the street, the bus, the workplace, at home. Just because we did not do it is not enough. If nothing else this hashtag has made us realize that being a bystander does not let any of us off the hook.

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