For the last few weeks, the social web has been preoccupied with a hashtag and a list. #MeToo has been trending in different parts of the world, as it invites people who have suffered sexual abuse and violence — especially women — to come out and narrate their experience to name the problem that remains a well-known secret. The hashtag is a call for action to break through the taboo of owning sexual abuse and calling out the cultures of silence that protect sexual predators and perpetrators of violence.
While there have been many battle calls in the past for victims of sexual abuse to not give in to shame, the response to this hashtag appears unprecedented because of two conditions that digital networks offer. The first is the possibility of anonymity. The victims can, while remaining anonymous, still express their grief, anger, frustration and despair at continued cycles of abuse. The second is the breaking of the isolation chambers, where they no longer feel isolated but realise that they are struggling to fight a larger problem — and that they have allies they can depend on.
This digital invitation has generated an inspiring number of people — expectedly, largely women — who have produced the largest consolidated testimony of how everyday experiences of abuse become allowed, condoned, and even defended by institutions like families, markets and governments. The hashtag created a particular furore in India, because it elicited a militant response — #himtoo.
There was a suggestion that maybe it is also time to name the perpetrators rather than just reliving grief and facing a politics of despair. A list was curated, first on Facebook and then on an open Google document, which named some very influential names within Indian (and some global) academic institutions. Some of these names already have a history of public accusations and legal cases. Some of the names opened up a stream of accusations, which have been shored up but never released for the power that their institutional positions wield. And a few of the names were shocking because they are people who have positioned themselves as allies in the social justice movements in the country. Indeed, some of the men on the list have made professional academic careers out of their solidarity with women’s and queer rights activism.
The list — digital in nature and hence, unforgiving and unforgetting — has performed the act of transgression that digital technologies always offered the scope of. The list isn’t just content, but a potent digital object. It connects, circulates, and finds new relationships of causality and correlation that transcend localised human networks. The list has become a space of huge contention because the digital native feminists who are using social media to find solidarity in numbers and catharsis in naming are using newer strategies. These are particularly different from the pre-digital feminist tactics, which have depended more on secret connections and expanding circles of trust. There is, in the feminist groups within the country, a lot of debate (and some hostile name-calling) for and against the list.
While there is much to think about and discuss, something that strikes me is that the debates follow an expected trope in digital activism. Researchers of digitally mediated activism have long warned that digital technologies have a strange way of turning the conversations inwards. Every time there is a digital platform or technology used to effect change, more often than not, the conversations end up being about the digital and its efficacy rather than the problems that are at hand. In this case, the entire debate seems to now be focused on whether the list is valid, whether the anonymous spaces of the social web are the best space for this activism, the potential for abuse if people with false agendas infiltrate these list-making exercises, and the labour of due process that must be performed to give the list credibility. All of these are fair debates. But it’s quite telling that the energy that should have been invested in thinking about systemic injustice and structural abuse is being diverted to thinking about digital technologies, forms, and processes.
There are not going to be any easy answers to the list. However, there’s something we need to remember from the history of digital activism: we can’t lose focus of what is really at stake here — cultures of sexual violence that perpetuate themselves in silence — and we need to stop fetishising digital objects and processes as primary objects of our obsession.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.