Some events began innocuously and acquire potency over time. They gain in both symbolic and political power as they grow into the imagination. Such an event was the Raya Sarkar episode, which I think needs detailed analysis both as text and context for a debate. What began as a letter indicting a whole list of academics, including outstanding social scientists, has become a minor monument to feminist politics. It was an indictment of social science intellectuals and masculine ideology.
One’s first reaction was tempered. One realised that it was not just an indictment but a scream of pain, a revelation demanding a hearing, warning people that women’s suffering had been ignored for too long or sanitised through the tactics of power. More than a search for truth, it was an indictment of the irresponsibility of power. Despite its stunning impact, one must realise that there is a frog in the pond syndrome, because while it traumatised the academia, it created barely a ripple in corporate, industrial or bureaucratic life.
As a male academic, I was shocked to see how my colleagues in some institutions were treated. They suddenly faced inquiry committees and ostracism, but many were puzzled by the charges, exclaiming to me: “What is the charge, so that I can reply to it”. Another exclaimed that he could not face his wife and children in an everyday sense. I am sure some individuals were guilty, but to enforce a blanket judgment of guilt without any proof makes one wonder whether due process has lost its legitimacy. I am not claiming that all is well with the academic community, or with sexuality in academia. Yet, the list has a corrosive quality that worries one.
The first critical reactions came from senior feminists who objected to the style of the indictment, and rallied around some of their friends and colleagues. They were immediately condemned as being part of a convivial back-scratching club. The split, at least overtly, was between younger and older feminists. The former was ruthless in its sanctification of the list. The concern was not with proof but with the demand that the silence and suffering of a woman is confronted openly and that men accept responsibility for the mayhem created.
The list in a way rewrote history, creating a difference in political emphasis. As Latika Vashist, a feminist and legal scholar, told me: “The list has created a severe divide in perceptions, in what feminism means and what it stands for.” She observed in a very personal way that “pre-List” feminists attempted to evolve a philosophy of justice for the personal and sexual, without being singularly obsessed with victimhood. For “List feminists”, she claimed “victimhood has become a frozen and static identity, therefore politics is no longer about a just future, it is a response to their wounded psychic states”.
Another observer commented about the emphasis on consent. They warned that a fetishisation of consent can distort the very nature of relationships. One can cite in this context Amitai Etizion’s quote from the Antioch Review’s Handbook of relationships in his book The New Golden Rule. It is a list of instructions of what one is expected to follow as one propositions another. The participants are “warned not to proceed unless explicit and unambiguous consent to advance has been granted. Each step of the way one has to ask — if you want to remove a dress, you have to ask, if you want to touch the body, you have to ask”, and so on. Courtships almost become an obstacle course through a mandated questionnaire.
Etzioni asks whether consent and regulation have to be reduced to such mandated aridity. He talks of the one-sidedness of the social in this context. The regulative becomes so strong that trust, understanding, the moral responsibility for each other gets hypothecated to consent. There is a fetishisation of consent which makes sexuality arid and artificial.
There is a deeper problem. The balancing between morality and freedom, the tensions it creates is missing. It is almost as if one is panopticonising the male-female encounter.
Worse, to consent is added an abstract notion of justice. Women feel that so many of them have suffered for so long that it is time men suffer, and many seem quite candid that even if a few innocent men suffer, the effort would be worth it. There is a complete dismissal of proof and justice, and as one of them stated dismissively, “when did law even contribute to justice?” It is power, and only the power of lists to name and shame can teach men how to behave. It is as if the younger generation is more concerned with the asymmetry of power than with the nature of the man-woman relationship.
Somehow one senses that the everyday nuance of feminist struggle has not penetrated the younger generation. There is no sense of give and take or irony. Power becomes a score where only numbers make sense. There is another point which many made and with vehemence when I mentioned that the list has a dead man on it. They shrugged it off. When I told them of academics who were barely coping with the humiliation that the list had enforced on them, one was greeted with a shrug. One asked where were they “when I was suffering?” When I argued that the current situation where a few professors are being made a lesson of creates a mob mentality, they seem amused. The destruction of reputations, the torment that a man may suffer, and the unavailability of specific charges... which one could respond clearly to seemed to be minor issues.
Suddenly the world of the male and the female, rather than being reciprocal worlds of negotiation, adjustment, conversation, compromises and experimentation, now becomes two polar worlds, where each step of the way has to be specifically negotiated. A formal contract takes over from any sense of the sacred or sacramental. I hope that the episode of the lists does not remain surrounded by political correctness or vengefulness. There is a need to reflect on it and the feminist movement, in its attempt to rework the man-woman relationships, must finds the energy, the humour and the political will for it.