Over the last few days, social media has been used as a powerful tool by people of all genders and sexual identities across the world to bring attention to the problem of sexual harassment and abuse.
Shocking revelations shook Hollywood in the wake of multiple allegations against Harvey Weinstein of being a serial abuser. It led to actress Alyssa Milano call to victims of sexual abuse to put up a post with #MeToo on social media.
Closer home, Indian social media was grappling its own Weinstein-like conspiracy of abuse, silence and cover-up as Khodu Irani, the owner of High Spirits, a popular local bar in Pune, was accused by dozens of women of sexual misconduct that his friends and employees had been covering up for years.
Even as accusations against Irani piled up and evidence of his guilt mounted, some dismissed the issue by saying that the girls must have been asking for it if they chose to return to High Spirits after their ordeal.
One Facebook user, made the terrible choice of joking about the matter.
There's nothing new about ill-timed, sexist jokes in poor taste on social media. We find them gleefully circulated on Whatsapp groups and lurking around our Facebook news feeds and Twitter timelines on a daily basis. Sometimes we make the time to call out the person responsible. More often, they are just ignored.
Until a mother steps in and takes matters in her own hands.
Responding to her son's shameful joke, the user's mother wrote a comment telling him without mincing words what she thought about his sense of humour and how he could prepare to go hungry for the rest of the month until he apologised for ridiculing a problem as endemic as sexual abuse.
What could have been a beautiful learning moment for the woman's son and all the others who had cheered on his awful joke, quickly turned sinister, thanks to overzealous social media activists.
The mother's comment quickly went viral as screen shots started making the rounds of social media. Duly chastised and publicly shamed, the son owned up to his mistake and apologised on Facebook. But by then, the matter had snowballed into something much bigger.
In a misguided attempt to commend the mother for the courage she showed by shaming her own son publicly, many social media users invariably ended up harassing her and her family.
HuffPost India spoke to the woman's son, the original poster of the joke. He showed us screen shots of the messages he started receiving from strangers after the story caught media attention. People offended by the joke have hurled abuses indiscriminately. One wrote to his mother advising her to hang him.
"Which mother will like hearing this? She is distressed and distraught. Now she wishes she had never written anything in the first place," said the user, on condition of anonymity.
"I understand it was a bad joke. I've apologised multiple times for it. Even to the people writing to me privately and abusing me. But at the end of the day, it was a Facebook post. Do I deserve death threats for that? I am afraid someone will file an FIR against me for fun. I'm scared that if the issue blows up further, it might affect my job. My mother feels guilty now. She is a cancer patient and cannot take the harassment any more," he said.
The backlash against his 'joke' and the consequent abuse became so severe that the user has now deleted both the original post and the apology as well as has deactivated his account. His mother too has gone off social media for the time being.
Calling out sexism is often difficult. Most of us are unable to even confront strangers, let alone our own friends or family. It takes great courage and conviction to be able to do it so pointedly on a public platform, especially when it involves a loved one on the receiving end of our sharp words.
Ironically, a mother who was able to take such a difficult step now feels harassed and punished for standing up for her beliefs. All because in the tearing hurry to champion the cause, so many people forget the basic rules of decency and engagement.
While the joke was distasteful, undoubtedly, far more disturbing is people's hunger to go to any lengths to make an example of someone. The whole point of calling out sexism when we see it is to help people understand why such 'jokes' are harmful and how they contribute to a culture that trivialises sexual abuse, not to start a witch-hunt or a social media trial.
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