Amidst the din of ‘naming & shaming’

In all the din around the ‘naming and shaming’ list on social media I have been looking for statements that have the courage to take what might be a currently unpopular but necessary (for me) ethical stance – which speaks against the perpetrators of sexual harassment, whosoever they may be, and also simultaneously, warns against the dangers of social media trials wherein all manner of cases, people and instances are clustered together without context and/or specificity.

In the wake of the rage against the December 12 Rape and Murder case in Delhi I found a few feminists saying what I felt needed to be said – that we cannot let the anger against rape segue into a legitimisation of the demand for the death penalty. That was an unpopular but necessary thing to be said then.

Today, I find some feminists, who have been tireless against sexual harassment for the entirety of their political lives, saying equally unpopular but necessary things when they warn us against rushing to embrace the intoxication and headiness of online vigilantism.

I choose to stand with them, because they speak of ‘due process’ in a way that makes it a much more expansive notion that what can be contained within narrow legalese. I concur with the understanding (see Kavita Krishnan’s recent article in Scroll, where she elaborated on this understanding, which I owe to her) that this ‘due process’ is the last and sometimes only available defence, not of the well networked academic elite, (individuals amongst whom may well be culpable, and should certainly be investigated with all necessary authority if people who claim to be their victims do press formal charges in the framework of autonomous complaints redressal bodies within institutions, or in the larger framework of the legal system) but actually of people belonging to vulnerable populations, who are routinely accused, in a time of heightened moral policing, of a large spectrum of real and purported offenses.

Remember, every case of ‘love jihad’ is framed by those who want to prosecute, in the language of vigilance against sexual harassment. The mob, in those instances, is so sure that it is right, that it refuses the requirements of ‘due process’, and the question of the presence or absence of the agency of the concerned individuals in specific instances, with the same moral authority that fuels those who are celebrating ‘the list’ today.

I refused to be swayed by the hectoring of ‘collective consciences’ when an Afzal Guru was sentenced to death to satisfy some requirement for catharsis and I refuse to be swayed by another call to feed a collective conscience today.

Each instance of alleged sexual harassment needs to be examined and dealt with on its own merit – with due process available both to the accused and to the accuser. Sweeping, anonymously driven collective assertions of the culpability of a cluster of named and shamed persons violates the principles of the need for rigourous individual examination of each instance, with due attention to the testimonies of victims and the defences of the accused, without which justice and resolution can never be served. Without such processes in place, there is always the danger that some of the accused, without recourse to an adequate defense, will become the ‘collateral damage’ of persecutory zeal. ‘So what if a few genuine non-harassing men get damaged in the process of bringing justice to the vast majority of men who are serial and chronic harasses’ -I have actually heard this sentiment being expressed in the debates around the list, and it horrifies me. The path that leads out from that kind of rationalization of ‘collateral damage’ in the name of justice leads towards the destination called a gulag, which continues to be championed by many so called votaries of rough and ready social justice. I refuse to go down that path.

The care and diligence necessary to avoid this kind of ‘collateral damage’, is precisely what was not available in a different context to a man like Afzal Guru, who was hanged, not because any real attention was paid to what he did or did not do or say, but because the ‘collective conscience’ demanded violent and punitive closure.

This is why, again in a different context, I was against the rage that swept the Shahbag movement that demanded a doing away with ‘due process’ in the case of the trials of people accused of war crimes in Bangladesh. (and I say this despite the fact that I have the very opposite of sympathy for the politics of those who were so accused). And I really don’t care how unpopular this insistence on due process in these situations is. What matters in the long run, is whether, in a very dark and turbulent time, we had the sobriety and patience to think a difficult thought through to the end.

One last thing : claiming the entitlement to consider ourselves ‘oppressed’ does not translate, in my view, into an endorsement or justification of questionable means that can produce the collateral damage of a few damaged lives and reputations that we should take in our stride while striving for justice against the many who are truly guilty.

It may well be (for the sake of argument) that there is only one man on the ‘list’ who is not guilty of sexual harassment. Even if that is so, no amount of righteous anger and rage against all the others is worth the damage it does to even just that one person’s innocence.

And that is why I refuse to be ‘understanding’ of the rage that fuels this list. If you have rage, then find a means to express it that is commensurate to the responsibility of harbouring that rage. Don’t sell your rage so cheap in the market of condemnation. Even your rage deserves better.

POST SCRIPT

I have come to know that the persons who broadcast ‘the list that names and shames people alleged to be guilty of sexual harassment in Indian academia’ had their Facebook account blocked (now unblocked)

I am completely against ‘the list’ and I am at the same time completely against the blocking, or even the demand for the blocking of the account of the person or persons who has/have compiled and released the list.

To do this (block, or call for a block) is to emulate the worst tactic of the right wing – which calls for blocks and bans all the time.

I think the ban/block dilutes the case of those who are opposed to public naming and shaming from under the cover of anonymity on social media as a matter of principle.

I am publicly asking for the blocking of Raya Sarkar’s Facebook account to be lifted. I hope others will join me in this, regardless of their position on ‘the list’. Mine are transparent. Many of us, who are opposed to the method that lies behind ‘the list’, do not fear it, and must not be seen to be running scared of it. We must not ask for censorship and the curtailment of the speech acts that we vigorously oppose.

Social Media is full of trolls and unreasonable behavior, we have to deal with these phenomena with maturity, not in a knee jerk manner, not with anxiety and paranoia, no matter how deeply offended, damaged or hurt anyone may be.

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Raiot

Shuddhabrata Sengupta is an artist with Raqs Media Collective

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