The nearly two-hour discussion on ‘Casual Sexism’ organised by the Women’s Development Cell (WDC) of Hindu College following some sexist comments made on Facebook by a cabinet member of the college did more than just holding the said person accountable – it raised larger principled questions.
Does a person making casual sexist comments deserve the same platform as the victim to voice their side of the story? Is it right to target the perpetrator in such cases? Who or what should even be targeted – the act or the doer? Is the public complicit, to what extent?
No dirt was swept under the rug when some time back, a student of Hindu College, Sachin Gupta, wrote a sexist post on Facebook, which was then followed by further sexist comments by the PWD Secretary of the College Parliament, Devashish Singh. Social media outrage erupted. DU Beat covered the story and more and more people became aware of the story.
Perhaps when the Hindu College WDC decided to have the discussion, the idea was to focus on these particular incidents, to facilitate dialogue and to hold people accountable. However, in retrospect, it raised some thought-provoking questions.
Let’s get some perspective. When senior journalist Seema Mustafa wrote about her reservations against the #MeToo on The Citizen, saying “…these campaigns have become more about social media lynching of those who dare disagree with even one aspect of it, than about the campaign itself”, she wasn’t opposing the movement but pointing to a trend, which she saw as self-harming – the trend of not giving space to dissenting voices, such as hers and perhaps those of the accused.
Of course, Devashish didn’t sexually harass someone. A sexist comment and an incident of sexual harassment aren’t of the same severity, and thus the type or extent of platform given to the respective offenders in either of those incidents can’t be compared either. But, the principle remains the same – who should be given the platform?
This becomes more important considering the existence of a unique situation, wherein, on the one hand, victims are blamed and on the other, dissenting voices are not given enough space for expression on certain platforms.
In this regard, the WDC managed to do a commendable job. Not only was the discussion open to all Hinduites, but the cabinet was also invited, along with Devashish and Sachin (the latter didn’t turn up). Devashish was given a chance to explain his actions and was equally subjected to questions by the audience.
Hence, when Sakshi, the Vice President of the WDC told me that “not giving Devashish an equal opportunity to speak is wrong because…the main motive of this discussion was to make him understand”, or when a student in the audience urged others not to villainise him, the idea was to encourage dialectics over vilification; to tackle the larger issue of the mindset and culture over a particular individual. Else, essentially only echo-chambers are created on either side of the fence, rather than uprooting the fence itself.
However, problems exist. Yes, Devashish apologised – even though it didn’t seem very convincing. So, when asked what his mindset was while writing that comment, his response was essentially that if something was illogical, then why not just ignore it – drawing a rather weak analogy that if someone said something illogical like “two plus two equals five”, then why even bother. Or when Sakshi asked, who according to him could be called a ‘whore’, his answer was dodgy and rhetorical. He answered that while short clothes didn’t make someone a whore, one could just google the meaning of the word. He also said that since he had accepted his mistake, perhaps others should accept his apology too.
Sure, maybe he isn’t the most articulate person around, and clearly, tried dodging questions. But the problem here isn’t one individual. Such responses are also perhaps symptomatic of a tendency to deny the responsibility of your actions simply because you “accepted the mistake”, especially when even that acceptance is often a mere formality.
But the problem also lies in how we approach these issues. Since a mindset like this exists in people around us, cornering them can’t be a wise solution as it simply excludes them, without addressing the root cause of their action. Not only would that leave the larger problem untouched, but also potentially cause more hostility among both sides – creating conditions for the possible repetition of these incidents.
Yes, the burden shouldn’t lie on the victim. But the responsibility does lie on the community as a whole. For the people are complicit both, when they do not actively oppose particular incidents, and also when they fail to address larger issues.
These are complicated questions.
Image Credits – Prateek Pankaj and WDC, Hindu College