By Kiran Chaturvedi
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off,” said Gloria Steinem.
Mr. Shiv Visvanathan had a choice. To stay pissed, when faced with new truths, or to unlearn, relearn, and move into freedom. What he chose was to write something which scapegoats women as the reason for men being victimised, romance being threatened with extinction, and for his being unsettled by all this.
His article is a particular kind of farce, given that Mr. Shiv Visvanathan, elsewhere in his life and work is a scholar, social anthropologist, professor, and Public Intellectual who coined the idea of Cognitive Justice – a concept that talks about recognising different truths of different social groups.
It is a truth too well known to need mentioning, that in man-woman sexual/romantic, desire-led interactions, men have wielded worlds of power in rather unequal proportions for ages. This raaz is being stripped of covers faster than Vera’s seven veils, even for Public Intellectuals who have a theory for everything but cannot stand in someone else’s shoes.
I am trying meanwhile, to stand in Mr. V’s shoes and see why he wrote that whiny confused piece of obfuscation, comparing a public voicing of private pain, through MeToo and The List, to ‘chilly justice’ and the Gulag, and bemoan the death of romance that this has supposedly led to. And while at it, why did he lay the blame of all of this on women’s need for instant gratification?
Poor innocent men, what are they going to do now, worries Mr. V. The world runs on sex, desire and all that follows. And women have decided to turn cold as a dystopian version of hell, and we are heading for apocalypse! Here is the end of love and mating and sex and marriage and relationships and all things nice and warm that lit up our hearts and made the world such a singalong place.
The idea of Cognitive Justice that Mr. V floated is the idea that there is not one hegemonic way of knowing something; that there are divergent and equally valid systems of knowledge, experience and lifestyle among different groups, and that asking one such group to “abandon their felt experience and identity is a form of injustice”. He has written about how “trying to normalise a group’s felt trauma is an act of erasure”. That “indifference and erasure become two rituals of normalisation of violence”. Can Mr. V please then look at MeToo through this lens of Cognitive Justice? To quote his words, “what adds insult to injury is that often people protest in favor of the perpetrator, ignoring the pain of the victim.” Time to walk the talk a wee bit, Mr. Public Intellectual?
It is ironic that the creator of the concept of Cognitive Justice should be calling someone else’s story of their experience ‘essentialism’. And he doesn’t stop there. Giving in to the worst exaggerations, misappropriations and false equivalences, he goes on to compare The List to a kangaroo court, the online naming and shaming of perceived sexual misconduct and harassment and assault to a Stalinist/Naxal tactic, and regrets that the targets of such naming shaming are being ‘eliminated’ in a feminist version of the Gulag. To compare the methods of state control employed by a powerful dictatorial ruler of a world power to the methods of a guerilla innovation by what is at best a small movement within feminism, is strange strategy for a social scientist who presumably should know the difference.
One wonders why indeed Mr. V fears the death of romance and the end of fulfillment of desire, simply because some women have started saying they would like to have a say in what they do with their own bodies. It isn’t like all of womenkind is suddenly discarding estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone from their bodies along with all the other essentials of carnal capability or romantic attachment. As a gender, women have been programmed into prioritizing male desire. This programming is so steeped into culture that it does not get fully wiped out after decades of feminist sloganeering or substantive gender training. We have barely begun to reclaim ourselves. It is even hardwired into men, to take women’s bodies and existence as an entitlement for the male. After all, we still put adults into arranged marriages as the most normal of procedures, and balk at the idea of acknowledging marital rape as worthy of notice or intervention, in the name of preserving social order.
As the ones who got to call the shots since all living memory, males feel the pinch, and resent having to watch their p’s and q’s after MeToo and The List. It is an odd sort of unfamiliar place for them, to be mindful of their desire, their behaviour, and to take steps in keeping with how the object of their approach feels and accepts or does not accept their moves. It was so much nicer, wasn’t it, being assured the right to instant gratification, and not having to bother with what a woman might want or feel? Why, all of a sudden must these women wake up to some sense of ‘what is it that I want’ instead of going along silently with what men want?
And worse still, to make it all open, and open source, by making use of technology and mass communication and social networks, to talk about things that need never be mentioned? Social media technology is a tool that patriarchy has not been able to pull away from some women. It is the kind of thing they are at ease with. As someone whose work helped develop the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) Mr. V could have tried another way of understanding this social shift, but to do so would need him to put aside his entrenched entitlement, and presumption of innocence of all men and the meanness of all women and confront the reality of the power differential in gender relations.
The talk of innocent men facing the chilly justice of the Gulag is beyond ridiculous. For one, calling out on social media is in no way a legal conviction. There is therefore no legal punishment to serve. What then does a man have to fear? Women have been named and shamed in all sorts of ways as far back as we can remember in relationships, marriage, family and at work. A girl is brought up fearing for her ‘reputation’. Men smugly judge every woman they set eyes on. Now here comes a little ‘judgement’ their own way, nothing more than a sharing of someone’s painful personal story, and oh lord, the prickliness! So much fear – it invites you to ask how many of the “innocent men” too feel guilty, how much and for what, and whether they fear the lid coming off their secrets?
Perhaps obfuscation is the only line of defense left to a Public Intellectual, when he cannot change his views and thus will know not and care not about what others go through. Sample this next – “I understand the poignancy of pain but I feel there is a one-sidedness to it. To make a man suffer just to open him up to women’s suffering does not add up. I admit mine might be a more innocent, stupid world where people learnt to confront each other’s mistakes”. Did I read that right? “Confront each other’s mistakes”? Does he really mean confront? Well, then The List is just what he ordered, isn’t it?
He goes on with his fantasies of what men and women in relationships had and will no longer have post MeToo. “There was romanticism here but also a genuine attempt to work out a more humane relationship.” Seriously Dude! A woman asking for her consent to be respected IS asking for things to be more humane in a relationship. But there is more confounding bilge up ahead. “Yet this search for shaming eliminates the joys of a man-woman relationship.” Darling Mr. V, if there had been joy, reciprocity and humaneness in the man’s approach, believe you me, there would be no need for lists and telling stories on Facebook.
MeToo is a ritual of grieving, for loss – loss of trust, of hope, of faith in the mutuality of desire and the value of consent. Grant us the dignity to grieve without your judgement. Millions of women have been shutting their minds and abandoning their sense of inhabiting their bodies, to live with the violation they feel on their wedding nights and in their marital beds and with men they love and respect or fear and dare not say no to. This is the collective consciousness of the female gender, Mr. V, and it seeps into even the most seemingly ‘bold’ woman seeking to chart her sexual and romantic destiny independent of the shackles of conditioned constraint. With MeToo and The List there is a safe space and community for women to speak up about the disquiet, to find release from shame and guilt of violation, and feel heard and understood. It is a first sigh of relief for many. It is a precious moment of owning and realigning fragmented bits of our selfhood. It is subjective experience being respected, and what I thought could be understood with the lens of Cognitive Justice.
Kiranjeet Chaturvedi is a sociologist, ex- market researcher and founder of the NCR’s pioneering Write & Beyond writing workshop and support group.