Understanding #MeToo as a revolution

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When they are not paid trolls or a potential accused themselves, I pity the men earnestly and innocently asking after every #MeToo reveal, “But where is the proof?” and “What happened to innocent until proven guilty?”

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They are struggling to understand what is happening. And in some cases, being too arrogant about it.

What is happening is a revolution. And revolution, by definition, doesn’t respect existing norms — social, moral or legal. It redefines norms. You can’t comprehend the new norms by using the old vocabulary.

Another thing about revolutions is that they are messy. Don’t let neat paragraphs about all the revolutions in the history textbooks fool you. Once you get into the nitty-gritty, which those who are living the revolution have to compulsorily face, you wouldn’t be surprised if many people want to just crawl back to the predictable, old days, even if it was more oppressive. So many people, women included, are dealing with the loss of their heroes right now. I don’t even know what family members of the accused are doing to cope with it. Well, revolution doesn’t neatly skirt you to care for your cherished, little comforts.

An impactful revolution does not come out of nowhere. The dissidence builds over time. A few failed attempts usually precede the successful ones. Many martyrs are made before a successful person ascends the throne. As is resurfacing, it isn’t the first time that women have spoken out about the harassments. But they have been unsuccessful in getting redressal in past. Many have had to sacrifice their careers for their audacity. Other attempts at making it public and large-scale also didn’t take off. But now, the moment is there.

Why does a particular attempt succeed? Again, leave it to History textbooks to list down neat, lucid reasons. For those living it, it may not have succeeded, just like the earlier attempts. But somehow, this one time it did. Somebody made another attempt, and this time it caught on. You can be happy, you can be sad, you can be jubilant, you can be confused, you can feel whatever you want to, but the only actionable choice you have is to live it.

What happens now? Pretty unpredictable. Revolutions go in all kinds of directions. They almost never neatly lead to the world envisaged by the original revolutionaries. The almost never fully destroy existing power structures and horrors. They almost always bring new kinds of horrors. They often also result in splintering within the revolution.

The impact of #MeToo has been unprecedented because a significant number of people have stopped defending and started accepting the horrors of the situation and the current system’s inability to fix them. Almost for the first time abusers have been sacked or had to step aside. But here is the thing. One year down the line, many of them are likely to creep back. The power structure is still there, and it is still owned by men. I would like to see, however, that after creeping back, do they keep away from repeating their offences? That would be something. And do others not yet outed learn their lessons and desist from now on? Does the definition of “cool” and “just a joke” and “just harmless flirting” change in workplaces?

One totally unintended and depressing outcome would be even more bias against hiring women. Because people don’t change that easily. All the existing biases against women will continue working, and now men in power would “fear” being “outed” for “even smiling at women”. So, no wonder if such people come up with the solution of not hiring women in the first place. If that happens, there is another fight to be fought.

A new kind of horror will, of course, be if too many innocent people are consumed by the fire that is spreading. There are a very small number of cases that look like it, but the attempts of highjacking the revolution by vested, conservative interests are obvious. I won’t worry too much about individuals trying to get personal vendetta out of it — I think those die down easily. But institutional bad faith can totally destroy it.

But even if that happens, a new norm has taken root and there will forever now be a tool to fight with. For those asking “What will come of it?” as persistently as the men mentioned at the beginning of this article asking “Where is the proof?”, it’s not going to become a gender-egalitarian world right away. So, don’t bother declaring it a failure because “x hasn’t changed” and don’t pretend to be wisely annoyed when another fight is started.

Most of what has come out in #MeToo is the most horrible kind of outright sexual harassment and assault. If even those go down or are punished by the system, it will be a big success.

But we haven’t even started on everyday sexism — the multitudes of ways in which women are denigrated and humiliated, the deliberate or unacknowledged biases that harm their careers and sense of self-worth, the thousands of ‘don’t’s and ‘can’t’s and ‘daren’t’s meted out every day! If we start calling those out at scale, nobody knows who will be left with any face to show at all. We have material enough for several more messy revolutions.

If you aren’t an abuser, congrats! Sit back, relax and make sure you don’t look the other way the next time an episode of harassment is going on around you. It might have been uncool, unsporting, puritan to protest it in past. Now you have the excuse of a revolution. And yes — stop being sexist in every other way too.