In 2006, Tarana Burke coined the phrase “Me Too” as a way to empower women to speak up about their experiences with sexual abuse, mobilizing MySpace as a platform for women to share–often for the first time–their experience of sexual abuse at their workplace. A decade later, #MeToo is a worldwide movement, bringing crucial conversations about workplace harassment and sexual abuse to Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and even Nepali politics, and holding powerful men accountable for their actions. Not only has the movement highlighted the sheer frequency of such abuse, but also called attention to the need for creating safe spaces for having such important conversations. Furthermore, it has served as a way to help people understand the actions that can be taken by victims and their allies in this fight to end sexual violence. What brought this long-overdue conversation to the forefront of global media attention started with one woman’s intention to speak up.
When I first heard about the #MeToo movement and read the stories shared by numerous women from around the world, I immediately thought of the multiple instances of sexual abuse and harassment I had heard about over the years. Upon hearing such stories, more often than not, I would choose to take the path of least resistance: I would be fully supportive of the victims, but in silence. And I witnessed multiple instances of people trivializing such trauma, and even victim-blaming, without my pushing back. Making that choice saved me a few heated conversations, but in retrospect, I understand that that choice was and still is informed by my privilege, which allows me to remain complicit–simply because sexual abuse and harassment do not affect me directly. However, whenever I make that choice, I am walking away from the responsibility I should assume by virtue of my privilege and in my role as an ally–to foster conversations through which people like me can educate ourselves and unlearn the prejudices that we have internalized. Our doing so will help create an environment where we are held accountable for our privilege, and someone else’s lack thereof. Safe spaces help create this opportunity.
I am constantly speaking to people I know and reading about people’s experiences all over the world about the injustices they face because of their race, sexuality, gender, caste, and virtually every other demarcation of social grouping. I truly admire people who openly talk about how other people’s prejudices affect their lives and the society they live in. I am grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to understand the world from a viewpoint that is different from mine, for allowing me to question the prejudices that I have internalized, and for helping me realize that I have been complicit because of my privilege. And it’s all thanks to their bravery to start a conversation!
It is not easy to engage in discourse, especially when it challenges what our society has taught us to believe as all-encompassing truths. And when the conversation revolves around race, class, sexual orientation, religion, or any other topic where people can have differing viewpoints, complicity through maintaining silence is a far easier choice to make than engaging in discourse. For an individual, it is easier to avoid the conversation in the first place because our society has failed to encourage or facilitate open conversations among ourselves. From an early age, we are discouraged from having real conversations, be it in classrooms, where education is more instructional and less interactive, or in our homes, where an attempt at discussion is looked upon as ‘talking back’. What inhibits discourse more is the fact that we as a society reward complicity, and therefore create a system of social policing to ensure that the status quo remains. In today’s conflicted world, it is more important than ever to think critically about the origins of our identity and opinions. Engaging in and initiating these ‘difficult’ conversations allow us to reflect on ourselves, who we are, our purpose; they also enable us to entertain the possibility that differing opinions exist and that we can learn from them and create better accountability for what norms we choose to continue following and what we need to change.
There is no doubt that we need to create safe spaces where we can foster such conversations, however difficult. Safe spaces create crucial judgment-free environments in which people can speak about experiences and identities, especially those our society marginalizes. They also provide an opportunity for empowering these voices to call to attention real issues that affect them. Such conversations offer us insight into how pervasive and far-reaching the implications of prejudices can be–which would be unknown to us otherwise. They allow us to assess prejudices that we have internalized and create an opportunity for us to correct our behaviour and hold us accountable for instances where we may have perpetuated, or even remained complicit in through our silence. Undoubtedly, these conversations are going to be difficult, but we must learn to be comfortable around different perspectives, opposing ideas, conflicts, and differences. Such discourse is central to our advancement as a society–to one that is more inclusive and equal.
Being an ally is not a checkbox you can tick: it is a process through which you learn almost every day. Allyship extends beyond providing support–it is a process of making conscious efforts to listen to and learn from other people’s experiences, and then of using your platform to engage with marginalized voices and make decisions conducive to enforcing such changes in practice as well. By taking conscious steps to understand the inequalities in society and correct them, one would already be taking action to create that change.
A social institution that can help in this regard is the school. Schools should provide safe spaces where such conversations can take place, a space where students can verbalize and articulate their and others’ experiences. Further, in order to break the chains of oppression and prejudice that exist in our society, it is crucial that we consciously think about acts of oppression that we tend to normalise or gloss over and about bringing justice in such instances. Initiating conversations is one of the first steps to break this chain. These conversations can even lead to policy-level changes and laws that support the oppressed and help empower the survivors.
You never know what can become the next #MeToo. That said, in this process, we must remember it’s more about providing a platform to marginalized voices–meaning, the privileged among us must learn to cede positions of power to create equal spaces for the marginalized. But the allies must help initiate more conversations around ‘Dalit Lives Matter’, ‘Enough Is Enough’, ‘Me Too’, police brutality, suicide, ‘Black Lives Matter’, male entitlement, and other similar uncomfortable issues that will support the oppressed and create valuable changes in society.