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Two Sides of Different Coins

“For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered. It is this real connection which is so feared by a patriarchal world.” – Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Indian columnist Tavleen Singh’s recent piece in the Indian Express has caused much furor for its “fiery” take on the #MeToo movement’s ‘Indian iteration’. Accused of being many things, as varied as a defense penned for friend Suhel Seth to being plain ignorant, social media has– as per Singh herself – subjected the writer and her piece to much abuse. Published only recently, the provocative article adds to Singh’s regularity in the pages of the Indian Express, opining week-in, week-out, only this time it seems personal –a reply to those on Twitter who questioned her analysis of this Indian iteration of the movement.

Before we go ahead, let us not mix intentions, the backlash on the internet due to the opinion piece was bound to happen – the undeserved edginess in the title is what ‘clickbait’ is essentially employed for by media houses in the age of the ‘Web 2.0’. While there is more to be said about this later, the piece itself deserves some attention for its awry and awful argumentation. What at first sight looks like an underdeveloped exercise in ‘Lovejoy’s Law’, shows itself to be exactly that when read and taken in its entirety. Misplaced emotional appeals, explicating fresh and gruesome tragedies in places such as Rajasthan, Bihar etc., one after the other, only to make sure that the current vision of #MeToo looks class myopic, a real champagne discussion for the high culture’s Facebook and Twitter feeds and timelines. While real concerns do their rounds somewhere in the piece, all is lost in Tavleen Singh’s hasty and trainwreck of an attempt to have her ‘Audre Lorde’ moment.

Of course, it is criminal of me to make this comparison but here is a point to be made. Critical Feminist thinkers such as Lorde have often dished out a similar critiques of progressive bourgeoisie movements in order to make, in Lorde’s case, the American – academic and white, to be precise – Feminist movement to self-reflect about its lack of inclusivity and complete disregard for appreciating difference among women and their struggles. A quick read through Lorde’s soul stirring writing in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, will get even the most progressive of thinkers to introspect radically into the furthest corners of their respective movements. Herein lies the point about how Radical approaches are to be taken – Taveleen Singh’s piece is at complete loggerheads with the #MeToo movement’s ‘Indian’ version and it doesn’t help bring about any intended change in the movement’s outlook towards the Indian society. Some may think it to be a deserved critique –it will surely be employed by those drooling at thought of discounting the various allegations under #MeToo’s umbrella as being nothing more than fictional last ditch attempts at salvaging fame – and one that warrants thought precisely when the #MeToo movement catches its traction in India, but the arguments advanced are so misdirected and divisive that it amounts to misappropriation of our energies in the present moment and time.

There is some saving grace though. If it hadn’t been for the shameless bits of rationality still lodged away in the minds of occasional readers in the age of social media, Tavleen Singh’s take on this phenomenon would look like a surreal choreography of unfounded mental gymnastics – one that makes the gravity and aggregation of recent allegations under #MeToo’s umbrella appear to bear some kind of onus for the continuance of atrocities in our villages and towns. Rest assured, this is no way to argue for the concerns of those who are socially understood to be disadvantaged in having their issues raised in a manner similar to the celebrities. Solidarity is reflective and supportive, not divisive of those who we stand with and support. A few words on this from Jodi Dean could be illuminating for those who rush to lampoon serious issues, employing cases of rape and violence upon adolescent bodies as leverage for their ill-thought-out and unsound arguments against allegations and accusations which are mired in their own legal complexity and power structures.

All done and dusted, simply to experience that useless drug-rush of vanity amidst a Twitter bust-up, the opinion piece stops to even look like it had an opinion to begin with.

This is essentially why we need to revisit Laurie Penny’s article titled ‘Who Does She Think She Is?’, where she reminds us that the most damaging attacks on Feminism have often come from within the movement. Penny recalls Jo Freeman’s 1975 piece in Ms. Magazine which described the act of ‘Trashing’. Freeman, having experienced ‘Trashing’ herself,says:

“It is not disagreement; it is not conflict; it is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which, when engaged in mutually, honestly, and not excessively, are necessary to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination… It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.”

Note how even Freeman accounts that disagreement and opposition can keep the organism of the movement “healthy and active”. Tavleen Singh’s writing is far from it and lacking gravely. But it is perhaps worth accounting for that it may also not be her fault entirely.

Akin to some Neo-classical model-based supply-demand graph from an Econ101 books or a modern day Internet adage, it seems to true to me that in the age of social media, Web 2.0, online reportage and pack-and-sell news bits, it is easier, if not absolutely essential, for writers to opine and print even before they can reflect and revise. The importance of having one’s opinion ‘out there’ as the hottest, edgiest take on a situation to generate clicks and traffic the quickest cannot be overstated for it is the bloodstream of today’s media houses. ‘Publish or perish’, that is where we are at today when it comes to opinion pieces.

While we are at it, it is also important that we remember that #MeToo does not have regional episodes even though its critics and supporter may like to argue otherwise. There is no American #MeToo, no Indian #MeToo; none of these iterations exist despite cultural differences, even though critics such as Singh makes it a vital component of their arguments. They are merely engaging in a thought process that has gradually become a defining trait of our times. It is what Rana Dasgupta recently called ‘national solipsism’ – the act of thinking that a nation’s experiences are unique to itself and what happens in other nations, ‘happens there’ and ‘happens to them’ and should consequently have no effect on our nation’s life.

Riveting stuff, really, but it can hardly hold any water in the mind of a progressive.

There is a very famous dialogue between French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and journalist Claire Parnet titled ‘Abécédaire’ or ‘L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze’ (meaning ‘Gilles Deleuze’s alphabet book’). Consisting of various interviews done in 1988-89, the dialogue was part of a television program wherein Deleuze takes on each letter of the English alphabet to talk about different topics. Coming to ‘G’ the discussion is entitled ‘G for Gauche’, where Deleuze defines what thinking from political Left means. Answering in atypical manner, Deleuze drives home the point that being from the Left is not about governments but a question of perspective and perception. He reminds us that it is first about ‘perceiving the horizon’; that it is about starting with the ‘whole’, thinking about worldwide arrangements to alleviate problems, thinking internationally. In a death knell for all such hyper-nationalist solutions, Deleuze reminds us that to be engaged in Leftist, progressive politics is to “know that the Third World’s issues are closer from us than our neighborhood’s issues”.

Much could be said about where things are to go from here. Self-reflection could perhaps be one of the foremost landmarks to be achieved for #MeToo in its effort to surge change in different aspects and spaces of our society’s structures, even as allegations continue to come out. But Tavleen Singh’s opinion piece is certainly not what the movement needs.

It is perhaps potent here to return to the sharpness of Laurie Penny who, no more than a year and a half ago, remarked:

“..[at a time] when the world is turning darker and there are more conservative forces in power is exactly the moment when activists and political writers should be more radical, not less.”

Shantanu Singh is writer/editor for Catharsis Magazine.

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