Making sense of a list of sexual predators through the lens of JM Coetzee's Disgrace

I, however, don't want the story to end in a travesty of justice. Now, a different climax is possible.

 |  12-minute read |   30-10-2017
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"I don't know what you do about sex and I don't want to know, but this is not the way to go about it. You're what - fifty-two? Do you think a young girl finds any pleasure in going to bed with a man of that age? Do you think she finds it good to watch you in the middle of your...? Do you ever think about that?"

The above quote is from Nobel laureate JM Coetzee's Disgrace, a novel in which a communications' lecturer at a technical university in post-apartheid South Africa seduces one of his more vulnerable students and arguably rapes her. The girl stops attending the lecturer's class and he falsifies her grades. The lecturer is threatened by the girl's boyfriend and the girl's father, but this doesn't stop the lecturer from chasing the girl.

The "disgrace" occurs when the "affair" is revealed to the authorities of the university and a committee is convened to pass judgment on the predatory act of the lecturer. 

noo_103017023849.jpgA dramatic churning is happening; the lids are coming off. 

David Lurie - the lecturer - refuses to read the girl's statement. He also doesn't defend himself or seriously apologise. As a result, the lecturer is forced to resign from his post.

Disgrace has much more to the story, but it is a modern work of literature that also deals with the issue that is raging in India - especially on the social media - sexual harassment and predation of young students by essentially older academics.

The issue - that surfaced after a list of alleged serial sexual harassers in the field of academics was published on Facebook and went "viral" - is complex and multifaceted. There are no easy answers or final conclusions: the story has only begun and facts are still unravelling at a furious pace.

A professor had put up a reflective and apologetic Facebook post and then deleted it; few others have denied the allegations; and one professor, while defending the charges, has put up a public post that digs into the past history of the feminist activist who has published the list - a history that is portrayed as unflattering and troubled.

One is not required to have a "spotless" past to engage in a social cause. One needs to see things with empathy: feminist activists are often survivors of past abuse and have to deal with their own demons.

Women are also bravely coming forward and posting the details of past harassment - pertaining to the names on the list - on the social media.

A dramatic churning is happening; the lids are coming off.

sh-690_103017023922.jpgThis menace has the potential to ruin her both emotionally and educationally - and thereby ruin her future. Photo: PTI

But till date, none of the alleged sexual harassers have taken any legal recourse to clear their names from #theList. Most of them have taken the strategy to ignore the happenings. Public memory is short; there is always a new sensation around the corner; the raging conversations will soon be replaced by a fresh controversy.

But this might not happen in this case. Apart from the "ever-expanding" list of academics published on Facebook - that its critics are calling the "lynch-list" - there is now a public Google spreadsheet that aims to go beyond the academic field, where the victims can anonymously register the names of serial harassers from all spheres of society.

This news might make some people extremely jittery. Everyone will be keenly following the expansion of the Google spreadsheet. This is likely to become more controversial; there will be repercussions, and there will be consequences.

*

One's perspective always depends upon what one feels is important and what aspect one wishes to emphasise. This is again dependent upon one's nature, mindset, circumstances and past experiences. Hence, the issue has divided all of us, essentially, in three camps: pro, against and conflicted. There are no clear winners as of now, in regard to the arguments being made, which are being quickly repudiated by counter arguments. This is likely to continue, intensify and assume political dimensions, as the issue progresses.

However, no one can deny the existence of the malaise - sexual harassment of students by professors/teachers - in our institutions of higher learning. Everyone agrees that this malaise is a disgrace. The differences are about the "method" of the dissent that bypasses the traditional processes - the internal institutional mechanisms and the legal system.

Since this is a literary take of the issue from the perspective of an author - an observer of society and a witness of the times - I wish to employ the use of stories in this piece for a "humanist's perspective".

When facts only confuse, one has to turn to literature.

*

In Disgrace, after a series of events - unrelated to the predatory act - David Lurie attempts to attend a theatre performance that features the student - Melanie Isaacs. But he is forced to leave by her boyfriend. Lurie finally meets Melanie's father with the intention of apologising. He is told by Melanie's father that his forgiveness is irrelevant.

Lurie returns to his daughter's farm and has to find his own lonely path to redemption.

Coetzee doesn't tell us in any detail what happened to the student - Melanie Isaacs. That she had recovered from her trauma is indicated by the mention of her appearance in a play. Since the novel follows Lurie, we don't get to hear about Melanie's struggle. We don't know how she healed herself: her depression, the probable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the medication and how many therapy sessions she might have had to undergo. Lurie doesn't entertain such thoughts in his mind; hence, neither does Coetzee.

But I would like to explore from the victim's perspective.

disgrace_103017024038.jpgDisgrace by JM Coetzee 

Let me share with you a synopsis of a story that I haven't as yet written. It is titled The Dissent. It begins in a small town of India, where a young woman - despite all odds - has managed to secure admission to a renowned institution in a major metropolis of India. She is supported by a single working mother - she had to take an educational loan to support her daughter's education by mortgaging her home. The 18-year-old student comes to the city and joins the educational institution that is the gateway to her future. She wishes to complete her studies and get a job. She is motivated to become an honest citizen of the country and also bring comfort/security to the life of her mother, who has made many sacrifices for her.

She herself has many personal challenges - to adapt to the ways of the city, adjust with her peers and develop herself - and the last thing she needs is a trial of horror: how to fend off and save herself - in the environment of higher learning - from the libido of an older professor.

This menace has the potential to ruin her both emotionally and educationally - and thereby ruin her future.

The young woman starts to get stalked by a professor whose reputation as an educator is as impressive as his "whispered" reputation as a serial sexual harasser.

The shy young student, let us call her Trishuli, becomes aware of an incident when a PhD level student didn't get a fair outcome after a sexual harassment complaint - via the internal institutional process - that she had made against a different supervisor. She was stigmatised, forced into silence and eventually had to drop out of the university.

Trishuli didn't have any faith in the institutional process. She also didn't have the social resources, the support system and the money to afford any legal action. She has a couple of friends who are resigned to the underlying realities of the university where any dissent or charge against any influential professor has been dealt with scorn and disbelief. The accusations have been treated lightly, ignored, suppressed and forgotten. No single professor has ever been indicted and dismissed for any sexual harassment offence - everything has been stacked against victims. They are the ones who have everything to lose.

If the story follows a certain trend of modern literature, it has to end in melancholy. Trishuli would eventually get sexually harassed by the predator professor, and suffer a cruel destiny. She will either get depressed due to the trauma and think of inflicting harm upon herself or succumb to the advice of a "practical-minded" friend who told her to "give in" to the professor and ask for "favours in return" - such as recommendations to foreign universities for higher studies and advice on securing full scholarships. Whatever idealism she had would be burnt by harsh realities. She will have to compromise on her ethics, suppress her conscience and give something to get something in return.

*

I, however, don't want the story to end in a travesty of justice. Now, a different climax is possible.

Due to severe pressure, Trishuli's inner resistance is breached; she finally types "yes" to a series of "proposals" by the professor on WhatsApp. He had asked her to come to his house on a Saturday evening when his family was away. Trishuli knew what she had agreed to do and she knew that she was going to be violated.

The state of mind of Trishuli had become too complex for her to make sense of it. Fear, anger, apprehension and anxiety had combined with her vulnerable circumstances. Somehow she thought that the only way of "escape" was an absolute submission to the will of power, whose aura is amplified from her position and perspective.

But what really saves Trishuli is a random event - the dissent on the social media. The professor has been featured on the list of sexual harassers - published by a young feminist activist on Facebook - and a scandal erupts on the campus and a group of students organises a protest.

Someone from the university takes the list seriously, rallies the other professors and takes up the issue with the authorities. They ask for a written response from four professors who are featured on the list. Things get too risky for the old ways to flourish with impunity. The professor cancels Trishuli's visit to his home.

*

Trishuli too is inspired by the dissent. She senses hope and courage. She longs to emerge out of her internal abyss and break her isolation and silence. She fills out the online Google spreadsheet and uploads all the evidence: the "seedy" messages and a barrage of "proposals" which she had received from her harasser. Now she feels empowered by an easy and uncomplicated mechanism to lodge a charge anonymously. She connects with other victims via the internet; they create an online self-help group. She acquires a sense of belonging to a community. She feels a protective shield around her that she had never experienced before.

*

If we allow ourselves to move away from jargon such as "mob justice", "Facebook list", "feminazi vigilantism", "naming and shaming campaign", "blackening faces", "kangaroo court" and so on; and if the young feminists also don't divert the focus from the core issue by framing their crusade as "bahujan and Dalit assertion against the savarnas" - because I am sure all the victims aren't Dalits and Bahujans, and neither all the alleged sexual harassers savarnas - then this new "method" can be an addition to the ones available to fight sexual harassment, such as internal institutional processes and the legal system.

There is a danger that the issue will be hijacked by unnecessary jargon and mudslinging - and focus will be diverted from the key subject of providing protection to students from sexual harassment by those who hold power over them.

The feminists - instead of collaborating to strengthen the new online mechanism, plugging potential loopholes and campaigning to spread its use - may keep arguing among themselves while engaging in discrimination on the basis of caste, privilege, age, experience and accountability.

It's distressing to witness that those who fight against discrimination are falling so easily into the trap of identity. Maybe the Ambedkarite ideology is meant for politics, not feminism.

What the young feminist activists are doing and why they are doing it needs to be understood from a neutral perspective. This is not even the FEMEN type anarcha-feminism that I personally sympathise with because causing disruption and raising a racket are also ways to further the causes and raise public awareness.

What Raya Sarkar and her team have done is to open up another mechanism - unconventional but in tune with our times - that can potentially save a lot of young women from future harassment. Making the students aware of certain "red flagged" individuals and the fear of being on a "publicly viewable list" can be an enormous deterrent to those who can easily negotiate and "manage" the institutional processes and the legal system.

The correct analogy of the deed/movement is akin to "whistle-blowing" to red flag the serial perpetrators, and to stem the malaise of sexual harassment.

This is a guerrilla ambush on power and patriarchy. The blowback will be severe. It will test the young feminist activists -whether or not they can hold ranks and weather the storm.

Something good, lasting and progressive can still emerge out of this drama. If the young feminists receive wider support - especially from influential feminists - then the movement can potentially lead to the creation of a feminists-led national database/ website where victims can anonymously upload charges along with the evidence, which will be previewed by a team of legal experts who will recommend the inclusion of a name - as serial harasser - in the list. That would trigger the respective institutional mechanisms to undertake a mandatory enquiry, issue warnings and even recommend dismissal/suspension when the offence is firmly established according to the Vishaka Guidelines - stipulated by the Supreme Court.

The cases can also be monitored by a panel of feminists on a national website; they can intervene if they feel that the institutional mechanism/ people on the committee haven't done a fair job.

The legal action route should, perhaps, be the last option, because of the difficulties it poses to the victims - financially, emotionally and in terms of time.

There is also a deep-rooted anti-establishment impulse in this "movement". This is symptomatic of the mood of the citizens of our world who are thoroughly disillusioned by the elite self-serving establishments, and wish to disrupt and reform the status quo.

Time is ripe for new possibilities to emerge that challenge the dated ways of redress. Risks will have to be taken. The young feminist activists have taken one.

Throwing a new idea fearlessly - as a Molotov cocktail of thought - is a sensible beginning.

Also read: We are all living inside a rape story

Writer

Devdan Chaudhuri Devdan Chaudhuri @devdanchaudhuri

The writer is the author of 'Anatomy of Life'. He is one of the contributing editors of The Punch Magazine and lives in Kolkata.

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