City City Bang Bang, Columns

#MeToo as social regulation?

There are many things remarkable about the #MeToo movement in India. That so many courageous women came out into the open and shared their trauma. That they managed to break down the defences of the powerful and the well-insulated to impose some consequences for their actions. That for once, the divisions of ideology, so corrosive otherwise played little or no role in calling out the wrong-doers. And that, in a lot of cases, the proclivities of the men involved were an open secret, widely known but equally widely overlooked.

It was as if a section of society could get away with anything and do so openly, without facing any consequences whatsoever.  No mechanism seemed available to push back against this exploitation until #MeToo came along too. In some ways, society’s ability to regulate behaviour without needing to take recourse to formal institutions of law have been reclaimed in this instance.

There was a time when almost all our behaviour was regulated by the all-seeing social eye. There were rules governing most everyday behaviour and social order was maintained through social means. The law lived at the outermost edge of reality, to be invoked only in extreme cases. The mechanisms used were many and quite intricately designed. Beginning with a strong dose of cultural indoctrination about things deemed right and wrong, the regular doses of adult wisdom that the young received about everything they did, and the fear of social opprobrium ensured that we knew what kind of behaviour was expected from us.  Imperfect as these social mechanisms were, they provided a valuable service by proactively curtailing disruptive behaviour patterns. Being corrupt for instance carried social costs of a high order, and served as a deterrent. Going back on one’s word in a business deal invited social ostracisation.

Of course, what was deemed socially desirable was most often a result of existing power hierarchies within society, and hence reinforced the dominance of the dominant. Social control instruments worked hard to preserve the status quo, and this meant that women, in particular, were at the receiving end of exacting forms of social control. Every step was watched and commented upon, and any perceived infraction, however minor, resulted in consequences. The constant awareness of oneself as a gendered being was drilled in, and self-regulation of behaviour was contrived as a result.  The institution of social regulation was an effective one but funnelled as it was through the existing structures of power, it worked more often than not to thwart change.

With time, the role of social institutions has diminished in our lives, albeit only in certain sections of the country. The idea of the cosmopolitan carries within it a certain freedom from being embedded in a cultural ecosystem capable of regulating one’s individual behaviour. The reliance on legislation to fix social problems is on the rise even as the older instruments to maintain order start losing some of their erstwhile potency.

This leaves a large gap in the areas that fall between law and order; behaviours that are clearly undesirable, even criminal, but difficult to litigate. However imperfect many social instruments of control might have been, they played an important role in providing an alternative mode of regulation in society. The transition from one’s primary identity being rooted in the idea of the civic rather than the communitarian has been a messy affair. In effect, what we are seeing is the absence of both law and order. The powerful get away with whatever they want, without being subject to either instrument.

This is where a movement like #MeToo is able to establish a new kind of social formation to fight back against an injustice that otherwise went unchallenged and unheeded. The internet becomes a new form of social organisation, and the instrument of public shaming, used extensively in the past by traditional society, now becomes a contemporary weapon to correct a wrong that so far went unaddressed. Male misbehaviour now attracts consequences that are material, without the law necessarily being invoked. If this appears unfair on occasion, given that it does not require concrete proof and does not follow from a presumption of innocence, then it is no different from social norms that have been in place for centuries where social costs were levied on the slightest hint of suspicion. Social boycotts and reputational damage were the key instruments used then and in most cases, these are the kind of consequences the alleged perpetrators will face today. The difference is that this time around, it is a less powerful group that has been able to organise itself and create a powerful social force.

But this new ability to come together to fight against an injustice extends to any group that shares a sense of injury. Unlike the past, where only the historically powerful could mobilise the community to enforce its values, today, any group with a sufficient sense of injury real or imagined, can use the medium similarly. The frequency with which shudders of outrage ripple across social media on an everyday basis for issues that are trivial at best is a pointer to how this instrument can get used.

What we are witnessing is the birth of a new way to organise society. If earlier power flowed from one’s vantage point in the hierarchy, today it is beginning to flow from the size and sense of purpose of the network one is part of. Unlike the past, today this network is global and instantaneous. The power of this new social network is immense, and the ability to overturn traditional power hierarchies is great. The #MeToo movement has the potential to permanently alter an aspect of the gender power equation, which has been in the need for correction for a long time. But the same power can be used for other causes, not all as desirable. Learning to live with and manage this power is a process of messy negotiation that we will all need to engage with the days ahead.

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