The Harvey Weinstein scandal has opened a can of worms in our society. It has exposed the rampant problem of rape and sexual assault in our society. Every week a renown celebrity is getting exposed for a history of sexual misconduct. It has brought the pervasive rape culture in our society out in the open. People are finally discussing the problems with gender roles in our society. Victims finally have a support system to call out their abusers. Society is accepting the ugly truth that our civilization still has a long way to go.
These recent events have made me think a lot. My mind is processing a myriad of thoughts related to rape culture. There are three concepts I have grappled with the most
- How to react when a loved one is accused?
- What does justice look like?
- How can we do better?
How to react when a loved one is accused?
There is no easy way to address this situation. We love the people we do for a reason. They have been kind and generous to us. We often idealize them. To us, they are flawless and can do no wrong. So when a loved one is accused, it is like being run over by a freight train. It is sudden, shocking, and traumatic. There is a tendency to succumb to a knee-jerk reaction. We assume it must be the rare instance of a fall allegation.
So I often ask myself – what is the right way to react? If placed in such a situation, how will I react?
It is not easy to come forward with such a truth. Victims have to face the burden of slut shaming and victim blaming. Many face the fear of retribution. Some are vilified to defend their abuser. There are infinite hurdles and obstacles preventing victims from coming forward. So when one finally finds the courage, they deserve our unconditional support.
But, I would take a bullet for people I love. I cannot fathom my dear friends and family doing such a thing. There is a burning sense of loyalty in my heart. We have an unwritten contract of standing by each other through good times and bad. Is it a betrayal to stand against them? How can you go against someone who may have given you the world?
To be honest, despite hours of thinking and wracking my brain, I do not have all the answers.
Over the past few weeks though, I have seen templates of what to and what not to do.
Lena Dunham, though, is a poster child for what not to do. In her defense of Murray Miller, she accused the victims of lying and fabricating their stories. If she could not digest the accusation, she should have shut up instead of going after the victims.
Another example of what not to do was the letter female cast members on Saturday Night Live wrote in defense of Al Franken. In espousing his positive qualities, they lost sight of the real issues at hand.
Unlike them, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi found a far more gracious way addressing Matt Lauer. She shared her pleasant memories with him. But, she acknowledged the fact that just because she isn’t a victim does not mean other’s weren’t. Instead of defending her friend she expressed solidarity with victims.
As a Hindu, I also find guidance in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna falters before the battle of Kurukshetra. He refuses to wage war against his beloved grandfather, guru, and other relatives. Lord Krishna then reminds him that dharma can require one to stand up against loved ones. I can only hope that if faced with such a dire situation, I make the right call.
What does justice look like?
This one is a doozy. Who determines what justice looks like? Is it the victim, the legal system, society, or something else? What is the purpose of justice? Is it retribution, reparation or rehabilitation? Are cases of sexual assault the same or do they vary? Is there is one size fits all template of justice or are there other nuances to consider? We will never be able to answer these questions. But we can flounder trying.
It would be most empowering for victims to choose what justice looks like. But victims vary. Some victims seek to forgive and move on, no matter how grave the crime. Some victims seek violent revenge for even minor infractions. That is why we installed our legal system for fairness. As Aristotle said, “The law is reason free of passion”.
Our legal system tends to fail victims though. This is especially true in cases of rape and assault. Take the case of Brock Turner. It was an open shut case of rape. There were two eye-witnesses who saw Brock Turner rape an unconscious woman. The prosecution proved his guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Despite that, he received only a six-month sentence. The judge chose to be lenient. The so-called ‘bright future’ of this privileged white man outweighed the damage he had caused his victim. Now Brock Turner has the audacity to appeal his trial and sentencing.
Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Matt Lauer , Al Franken, none of these men have been convicted yet. There may or may not be trials. There may or may not be convictions. The only repercussions they have faced are public shame and the loss of their job/livelihood.
Is this enough though? Who knows what the future holds? Public shame is embarrassing. But they still have supporters. Loss of job or livelihood may not impact them. Some of them are filthy rich and can be set for life without working. Some of them will find employment sooner or later. Would we be satisfied if the only consequence all criminals faced was a public rap on the wrist?
Then again, public outrage is not always fair, unbiased or reliable. Social media vigilantism and public outrage have brought many issues to light. Yet, it still remains a dangerous mechanism. More people have suffered from social media bullying and outrage than those helped by it.
Also is firing/resigning a viable solution? Does it always serve the purpose of the greater good?
Kate Harding at Washington Post states ‘I am a feminist, and I don’t want Al Franken to resign‘. No, she doesn’t defend his actions or say that his virtues outweigh his flaws. She points out that in our current two party system it is infeasible. Instead of resignation, she chalks out a more reasonable path. One that leads to a progressive female replacement than a resignation.
What Kate Harding proposes is reparations instead of retribution. Masha Gessen at the New Yorker writes ‘Should Al Franken Resign? Is the wrong question to ask‘. Retribution may punish the wrongdoers. It may even give victims some much-needed relief and closure. But retribution is not enough. It does not change anything.
Gessen explains that it is almost impossible to hold all men accountable. Sometimes even men who do the right thing act out of patriarchy. Not all power dynamics result in sexual abuse. In the case of Ellen Page, Brett Ratner violated her privacy. He took away her agency to come out on one’s own terms.
Sexual assault is the visible festering boil that is plaguing society. Deep down the issue is every woman who is passed over for a promotion. Every woman who gets talked over during a meeting. Every woman whose ideas and accomplishments are ignored because she is a woman. We can’t address sexism and rape culture, unless we can create a culture of equality.
What we need is reparations for righting wrongs. We also need rehabilitation so the cycle of abuse stops somewhere. This does not mean that we give every abuser a free pass in exchange for charity or therapy. Harvey Weinstein to be publicly vilified and go to prison. Brock Turner should be rotting in a prison cell. Brutal rape-murders deserve a death sentence. Every now and then we need to take pause and think. Sometimes reparations and rehabilitation care the solution.
It will not be easy. Determining what justice looks like will always be a messy affair.
How can we do better?
This one might seem tough, but there is one clear and simple answer – Listen, learn and pass it on.
We need to listen to people with an open heart and mind. We have to set aside everything we know and open ourselves to learning. When we do learn something new we must pass that wisdom to others.
Forget your perceptions about feminism, no matter what they are. Set aside your prejudices about liberal or conservative values. When someone speaks up, listen to them as a human. Listen to them as a human who deserves your empathy.
Men especially need to understand that women are not out to get them. Nor do women hate them. The fact though is that we are all products of decades-long patriarchal conditioning. Many concepts ingrained in young men about masculinity and relationships are toxic. Calling men out on it is not about putting them down, but giving an opportunity to do better.
Women need to understand that women can perpetrate toxic notions themselves. Today I call myself a feminist. Several years ago as a teenager, I did not want to be one because I thought it was anti-men. Raised in India, I actually believed that women who wore revealing clothes were ‘asking for it’. I accepted the fact that the onus of preserving honor and virtue was on women. I actually thought qualities like softness were inferior.
It has taken several years of listening to unlearn archaic notion and relearn how to be a better human. I have been fortunate to have people around me willing to teach me to be better. Having been through this journey myself I know the only way to change is to listen, learn and pass on. I also know that no matter how much I have learned over the years to go, there is still a long way to go. There is a lot I still need to unlearn and relearn through listening.
Everyone can make a difference by making a simple commitment to listen, learn, and pass on today.