Thursday , 25 April 2019

The #MeToo media?

Frederick Noronha

Over the past weekend, the Indian media underwent its #MeToo moment. Women journalists from parts of the country well connected by instant online communication, shocked cyber readers by naming names and shaming persons who they said had sexually misbehaved with them.

As someone who has worked with the media, and watched its power with a mix of fascination and concern, I’m sure this happens. Okay, maybe I don’t know. As a lady of colour on the BBC the other day asked a white man calling Britain the most non-racist country in the world, “How would you know?” I belong to the ‘wrong’ gender, men aren’t supposed to get sexually harassed, and we are not the persons who get propositioned and bullied because of our youth or beauty — of which we may also not have any.

But then, we’ve heard the occasional complaint about sexual misbehaviour at the workplace come up (along with some consensual relationships and a few even resulting in marriages, the evidence of which is there for all to see).

This industry, given to working on shifts, a relative lack of hierarchy, fraternizing quite freely and long hours can sometimes make for an unhelpful mix. What starts as light banter grows into unwelcome attention, continual harassment and worse. These days, even organisers of conferences are laying down codes of acceptable behaviour, and drawing this to the notice of all who attend.

Today, technology has given people a chance to speak out. Women journos have taken to Twitter, Facebook and other spaces to name their male colleagues and seniors who had sexually harassed, propositioned or worse.

This is a reality. It cannot be denied. The shock of someone you thought of as a friend even just misbehaving after a press conference (where alcohol might flow) is both unexpected and traumatic. One doesn’t need to be a woman to understand that. In a field like the media, subjective as it is, promotions and bylines too can depend on totally unfair pressures which could even have sexual overtones.

Talk about such misdeeds (or crime) is one form of countering it. Word spreads fast. Anyone misbehaving will be talked about, widely. Of course, this is not enough. It has been said, somewhat condescendingly perhaps, that women use gossip ‘as a weapon’ in romantic rivalries. As misbehaving males are now realising, this can be deployed against gender harassment too. The echo-chamber of the social media has taken this to a new high perhaps.

This might have something to do with the relative lack of power (and a ‘boys club’) that most professional and working women, in the media too, suffer from. To be honest, not all ‘boys’ are part of a ‘boys club’ as well. It is true that those actually guilty of the misbehaviour are just a few alpha males, who see sexual possibilities as part of their perks of office, for which an entire gender (roughly half of humankind) gets slandered. But women who are currently complaining do point out that the others have not done enough to address the issue; nor are there grievance mechanisms to fairly address such issues.

But I don’t think that these issues are coming out into the open simply because there is today space available (cyberspace?) through which to raise the same. The situation has also changed. At the risk of sounding conservative, it’s true to say that we have lost a lot of our moral moorings.

Maybe even two generations ago, the sexual mores of most around were far more stringent. Humans were all far more god-fearing then, literally and metaphorically. To go beyond the permitted sexual lines then was something akin to murder; one would not think of committing it, unless under grave, grave provocation. Added to this is the fact that our prudish society is still largely unable to acknowledge the role that sex plays in normal human life.

But the issue cannot be seen as an open and shut case, without scope for further understanding. Two other issues are of concern here.

The first is that it’s easy to name persons. Sometimes the persons making the allegations have chosen anonymity, as on the ‘shitty media men’ list which first came up in the West some months ago. As Wikipedia reminds us: The Shitty Media Men was a crowd sourced Google spreadsheet created during October 2017 that collected allegations and rumors of sexual misconduct against approximately 70 men in the media industry, particularly in New York City. Moira Donegan, a former assistant editor at The New Republic, initially created, organised and anonymously posted the spreadsheet online.

One can argue that women are not going to complain for no reason, but the risks of such instant justice can also be anticipated.

The other issue is about how prevalent such issues are. When we hear of paedophilia or sexual harassment in a church or temple, we all get severely scandalised because that’s not quite what we expect it to be. A priest who served in Africa wrote a heart-wrenching story about the kind of work they put in civil war situations there, only to have the media like the NYT ‘slander’ their names over sex-abuse charges. But whether one, a hundred or a large number indulges in such misdeeds (and prompt action is not forthcoming), it is just as much as a scandal.

It could take centuries to build and just a handful of individuals to destroy an institution. One might be wrong, but in the media too, the number and type of complaints seem to be coming from the misbehaviour of a few.

At the risk of seeming to water down what has been said above, without doubt, such issues need to be discussed, better understood and addressed. The workplaces are changing, and for the first time in human history, we rub shoulders across the genders. Sexual harassment is a touchy subject, even if all of us, both men and women, undergo all kinds of other pressures in work and at homes. Sexuality is itself a powerful tool in human evolution, which can be used, misused and abused in many diverse ways.

Such misunderstandings and conflicts are not going to get any less, for sure.

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