Credit: Alice Donovan Rouse/Unsplash

Sexual harassment, etc.

The name of Sadanand Menon had found mention in Raya Sarkar’s list last year. Since then, a journalist and former student of the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) had published an article in The News Minute about how a noted scholar and culture critic had sexually harassed her. Though she hadn’t mentioned Menon by name at the time, his identity was revealed recently when the journalist’s complaint to the ICC at the ACJ, where Menon teaches, was dismissed.

Sashi Kumar, the college’s director, had said the accusation couldn’t be examined by college authorities because the alleged incident had happened after the journalist had graduated from ACJ and outside the ACJ campus. However, she, her supporters and many allies of the #metoo movement in India have been urging ACJ to conduct an investigation on moral grounds, saying, among other things, that it’s the college’s responsibility to provide a safe space for its students.

Earlier this week, a group of teachers, artists, activists and other people signed and released a letter in the public domain refuting allegations of moral corruption after theatre artistes had convened in Spaces, a space for non-mainstream artistic and cultural events maintained by Menon in Chennai, to discuss redressal mechanisms after one of their peers had been accused of sexual harassment.

The question of whether we can, or should, separate the artist from his art has always bothered me. After witnessing a brief but striking exchange on Twitter between astrophysicist Katie Mack and theoretical physicist Tommaso Dorigo, I was able to decide that the production and consumption of art, or science, enabled misogynist attitudes to survive in creative industries; that good art shouldn’t be an excuse to put up with unprincipled people.

Of course, this places us on a slippery slope. We may have decided to shun the work of people we know are morally corrupt; what about those creators whose work we enjoy but about whose inner lives we know very little? Second: everyone is flawed; does this mean we just don’t consume any art anymore?

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Xan Brooks in The Guardian, November 2017:

I’d love to follow [Peggy] Drexler’s advice. Keep the art clean and pure, exempt from the actions of its creator. I’m just not convinced it quite works in practice. If we accept that “bad” (subjective moral judgment) people can create “good” (subjective aesthetic judgment) art, then it follows that amoral artists can hold the world to a higher moral standard than they follow themselves. But isn’t art also an extension of the artist’s inner self? How does one begin separating the two? “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” as Yeats put it – though ought we still to quote Yeats, what with all that fascist-sympathising? If so, here’s another: “Out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” …

For years I thrilled to the notion of the wild, outlaw artist. I thought of great, personal film-making as something torn from the heart, or a form of self-therapy. It was the process by which flawed, stumbling individuals could harness their demons and spin their basest matter into gold. That sounds wonderfully romantic. It may also be bullshit. Because what if it’s not that at all? How about, instead of harnessing the demons, the artistic process is a means of feeding the demons, of indulging them? Then the film is a fig leaf; even a by-product of abuse.

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Stray thought: It feels so much harder to navigate towards a solution in the non-technical sciences. Can think of three reasons: the lack of a fixed framework in which to ‘solve’ problems, the sheer number of ‘solutions’ that are required according to context, and the possibility that the tendency towards ‘solution’ as such might be unique to the technical sciences. And I think getting used to the last of the three reasons is where the pain lies.

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Of all places, I found on Scott Aaronson’s blog the perfect articulation of some feelings related to my sexual identity, particularly relating to how males privileged by their nerdiness are not entirely without suffering. Specifically, it’s comment #171 below a blog post published in 2014, by Aaronson himself. Excerpt:

Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. And furthermore, that the people who did these things to me would somehow be morally right to do them—even if I couldn’t understand how.

You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.

Contrary to what many people claimed, I do not mean to suggest here that anti-harassment workshops or reading feminist literature were the sole or even primary cause of my problems. They were certainly factors, but I mentioned them to illustrate a much broader issue, which was the clash between my inborn personality and the social norms of the modern world—norms that require males to make romantic and sexual advances, but then give them no way to do so without running the risk of being ‘bad people.’ Of course these norms will be the more paralyzing, the more one cares about not being a ‘bad person.’

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Of course, such suffering does not legitimise the privilege men like me have because it doesn’t live and die in our teenage years. It’s something we need to know is there, is all; beyond that, there’s still the patriarchy to face down. Laurie Penny spelled it out best in the New Statesman: that nerdy boys get out of their suffering into a world that respects them; nerdy girls get out of their suffering into a world of sexism. Feminism is a stand against every step of this painful journey, not just the one that keeps nerdy boys nervous about what to do next.

Heterosexuality is fucked up right now because whilst we’ve taken steps towards respecting women as autonomous agents, we can’t quite let the old rules go. We have an expectation for, a craving for of a sexual freedom that our rhetoric, our rituals and our sexual socialisation have not prepared us for. And unfortunately for men, they have largely been socialised – yes, even the feminist-identified ones – to see women as less than fully human. Men, particularly nerdy men, are socialised to blame women – usually their peers and/or the women they find sexually desirable for the trauma and shame they experienced growing up. If only women had given them a chance, if only women had taken pity, if only done the one thing they had spent their own formative years been shamed and harassed and tormented into not doing. If only they had said yes, or made an approach.

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Yes, a rubric about ‘what to do’ alongside ‘what not to do’ would be fantastic, but I think we need to figure that shit out for ourselves. Simultaneously, everyone needs to keep telling the world stories of what we – men, women and others – did and didn’t do to help it cope.

Featured image credit: Alice Donovan Rouse/Unsplash.