By Fr Joshan Rodrigues –
Ever since the Harvey Weinstein abuse scandal broke out last year, I have wanted to write about it. But I haven’t. Partially because I was afraid of how my thoughts on this subject would be interpreted (yes, priests are human too). You see, speech online today has become extremely emotional and quite often devoid of fairness. People have lost their capacity to be rational and look at an issue from all its viewpoints. Argument today has become binary, meaning that there are only two sides to every issue. You’re either with us or you’re against us. There’s nothing else in between. So when any issue hits the agenda, the ‘liberals’ shape a ‘socially-acceptable‘ or ‘politically-correct’ response to the issue and then everyone else is expected to agree with it and toe the line. If you try to express another point of view, you are trolled and your comments box filled with hate speech.
Oprah Winfrey made an impassioned speech at the Golden Globes a few nights ago, while receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award for her work spanning three decades on television. She ended with a spine-chilling “Their time is up! Their time is up!” And the audience rose to its feet. This is when I decided that I had to write something about this.
As many (on the politically incorrect side of the fence) have pointed out, Oprah Winfrey and all her celebrity #MeToo Hollywood A-listers knew for years that such abuse was taking place. They knew that power-drunk men were taking advantage of young women and girls who wanted to make their presence felt on the silver screen. And yet they kept silent. The New York Times was the first to break the story and then many actresses jumped onto the bandwagon saying #MeToo. Some were so impressed by Oprah’s speech that they called it ‘Presidential’ and rumour-mills immediately began saying that she was likely to run for President 2020. Seems like the Americans want to replace one TV star with another. Turns out, being a celebrity qualifies you to run for President, even if you have zero political experience.
When everyone knows that sexual abuse takes place at work, why do they keep silent when it happens to them, why do they quietly bear it? Probably because some value career success more than their personal dignity. They want the job so bad, they want the promotion so bad, they want to get through the door so bad, that they are willing to tolerate sexual and emotional abuse. They think this is normal. Everyone has to go through this if they want to be successful. The world is like this. If I protest, nothing will change but my job prospects will be over. So I’ll go with it. THIS is the problem.
It’s not only men who abuse their power in industry, women do it as well, albeit in different ways, usually mental and emotional harassment. Its not only young girls, young boys get groped and abused as well. Men are just very much less likely to come forward and admit to it. Of course, it goes without saying that women face far more abuse and on a far greater scale. Hence the fight should be against the culture of abuse in general. Abuse in all its types and forms.
We all love posting #MeToo on social media, but unfortunately only social media activism doesn’t change the world. Researchers even have a word for it – “Slactivism”. Unless our words online are accompanied with actions offline, nothing will change. Do you think, the habitual eve-teasers and sexual offenders are going to stop because #MeToo is going viral on Twitter? They are not.
The Economist in an article last month (December 19), described a study that showed the yawning difference between how women think they will react and what actually happens when they are confronted with a real situation. A (fake) research assistant job was announced and women applying for it were asked three questions that were of an implicit sexual nature. Mind you, these are all well-educated women applying for research positions. What happened? “Not one of them refused to answer the questions, or protested or walked out. Of course they were visibly uncomfortable, but they put on plastic smiles, hummed and hawed and went through the interview. When they were asked afterwards, they said they were afraid to protest.”
Later, as part of the study, college undergraduate female students, were asked to imagine being asked those same questions at an interview. How would they react? They all said they would react negatively, that they would protest and even walk out. So you see, the difference between what we say and how we actually react in daily life is different. The experiment, as The Economist observes, demonstrates that “sexual harassment of women at work by powerful men” works, because many women have begun to grudgingly accept that this is the how the world works.
Of course, it’s easier for me to say this here. But women know the pressures they face in real life. I am in no way belittling their experiences or trying to oversimplify the situation here. I’m not trying to say that it’s their fault (not at all). In real life, it’s difficult to report abuse. When you report emotional or verbal abuse, its usually extremely difficult to prove it to HR. Its difficult to convince your colleagues to back you up. Internal investigations usually take a lot of time and accusations against a senior in the company take that much more time. Even the cops are usually reluctant to lodge a complaint. Women face obstacles everywhere. The system is set up against them.
The solution to this is to break this institutionalisation of sexual abuse. To put it figuratively, when you are standing in front of a tiger (in this case, some evil power-abusing men and women), you don’t tell it “Your time is up!” You need to gang up and defend yourself. Outnumber the tiger so much, that it will have no choice but to flee. A few women coming together and calling out abuse is not going to be enough; every single girl, boy, woman and man needs to call out abuse in real life. When only a few stand up, the villains know that many others will acquiesce to their demands. And so it continues.
We must instill a culture in which no one is afraid to speak out against abuse in public. Of course, there will be consequences, but no battle is won without sacrifice.
- If someone gropes you in public or passes a lewd remark, scream at them and shame them. Call the cops. There are police helplines for this. Men, stand by women when this happens. Don’t be just an onlooker. Help confront and catch the accused.
- Don’t allow your male colleagues or friends to crack sexual jokes or innuendoes in your presence. Tell them its not ok. Men, doing these things is not ok. Such behaviour doesn’t make you more manly. It just shows your real attitude towards the opposite sex.
- Don’t acquiesce to sexual abuse for a promotion or a step-up. Try to build consensus among colleagues if this is happening at work and confront it together.
- Learn that beauty is not skin-deep. You are not all what you look like on the outside. Let’s try to collectively get rid of this Instagram culture which rewards ‘looks’. If people post inappropriate stuff on your Whatsapp group, explain yourself and then respectfully leave the group.
- Even when you are with friends, sitting on their laps, allowing them to put their hands on your bare back, laughing off sexual jokes is not ok. Believe me, it isn’t. Normalisation of this behaviour begins within friends and then spreads to strangers. Presenting yourself as ‘sexy’, ‘pretty’ or ‘muscularly handsome’ just tells the world that you have nothing else to show for yourself.
- Be Creative! I once came across the story of a girl who would click pictures of eve-teasers and then post it on Instagram and Facebook. This brings the issue to light and also helps point out habitual offenders. When there is photographic evidence, the cops will be pressurised to take action. Ask your friends to film this from a distance. This is a great example of social media helping to bring about real change.
- Safecity.in is a great example of a movement begun to make cities safer for women through the use of crowdsourced data and technology. Founded by ElsaMarie D’Silva who is also its CEO, Safecity has won numerous international awards. It is a platform that collects/crowdsources stories of sexual harassment and abuse in public places. This data is aggregated as red dots on a map indicating which are the hot spots at a local level. Please check it out and contribute your story.
- This ‘stand-up’ attitude must be taught by parents, teachers, churches, bosses, managers, by everyone. Respect, equality and appropriate behaviour must be taught at home, school and at church right from an early age. It is only when everyone stands up to this (both men and women), that this will stop. And it’s not only a ‘women’s’ fight. This is both a men and women’s battle. Men, even if you are not facing this yourself, you cannot stand around silent when you see this happening around you. Being silent is a sign of complicity with the problem. This is not about feminism. This is about creating a positive cultural change. This exists not only in the film industry, but everywhere. Corporations, businesses, universities, research institutions, this malaise is everywhere.
- We are often told at church that we need to live out our Christianity in our daily lives. Well, this is one way of doing it. Christianity teaches us that the path towards Truth and Righteousness is peppered with sacrifices, persecution and difficulties. Easter comes only after Good Friday. When Jesus said, “Pick up your cross and follow me”, what did he mean? This is what he meant. Am I ready to bear a temporary career pause for the Truth, to initiate a change in the place where I work or study or live? The choice is ours to make, each one of us. #MeToo #AllOfUs
Fr Joshan Rodrigues is from the Archdiocese of Bombay, India. He is currently studying Institutional and Church Communications at the Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome. Travelling, reading and social media are his passions. His drive is to make Church teaching more accessible to younger audiences and he holds G.K. Chesterton, Bishop Robert Barron and the Venerable Fulton Sheen among his role models for this task. He analyses different aspects of daily Christian life and culture through catholic lenses in his blog, Musings in Catholic Land.