When people acknowledge that someone has done wrong, victims feel strengthened. A neutral stand betrays prejudices
While reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the supreme court acknowledged the apology that Indian society owes to people with sexual minority identities. This acknowledgement has evoked deep validation amongst people who identify themselves as queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Acknowledgement of responsibility of hurt by those who directly or indirectly caused it has a strong healing effect on victims: they feel their pain has been validated, their anger legitimised. They feel they have been heard.
It is quite usual for families of those who have been murdered, victims of domestic violence, assault, sexual harassment and rape to demand that perpetrators acknowledge and own up their guilt in public. Over the last few weeks, the #MeToo campaign has caught fire. Accusers like Tanushree Dutta are being asked what they are looking for by raising an old incident, one that has remained unresolved for them. Perhaps she is asking people to take a stand on sexual violence.
The reaction is not heartening. People like Amitabh Bachchan, who campaign on social issues on behalf of corporates and political parties, have refrained from commenting. They say they are ignorant of the facts of the Tanushree Dutta-Nana Patekar spat. The politically aware and correct Aamir Khan, too, has distanced himself from the issue. But in the same breath, some celebs have denied any knowledge of sexual exploitation in the film industry. Such reactions are dictated by prejudices.
Here’s an example of how that happens. In a remote village in Bengal, Reena Khatoon, 19, battles stigma in her family and in the village. Three years ago, she’d tried to migrate to Mumbai to find work as a domestic help. But the man who took her there with promises of good work and pay sold her to a brothel. He was her cousin. When she got away and returned to her village, word was out that she had been a sex worker. She told people she didn’t choose sex work but was forced into it by her cousin but people remained unconvinced. Their prejudice against a sex worker was stronger than their anger against a trafficker.
When people take a stand against those who have done wrong, even without names being named, victims feel strengthened by the support. When people do not add their voice to the cries against a perpetrator, their prejudice against the victim or the ill that has befallen the victim speak out loud. The fact that a woman was once a prostitute is held against her, never mind that she was forced into it.
The judge and the empath
When someone suffers violence and exploitation, or has been otherwise wronged, what he or she seeks is empathy, the feeling that someone understands how he or she feels, be it sadness, anger, despair, conflict, guilt or shame. Empathy is the basic and the fundamental enabler for healing. It does not require a professional such as a therapist or a social worker to be an empath - all of us have felt empathetic towards another person at some point of time in our lives: we have felt that we understand someone’s struggle, either because we have identified with the victim, had a similar experience of violation ourselves, or because we are very good listeners and are able to sense the other person’s feelings deeply.
The biggest barrier to us feeling empathetic to another person is when we feel judgemental towards that person. We feel judgemental when in the situation, there is something that is dissonant with our own morals. For example - we may find it difficult to empathise with Tanushree Dutta because we have strong moral values on sexuality, and we find it uncomfortable to talk about it and having to look at something that is taboo. Or, we may find it difficult to sense the hurt and pain of LGBT people because we feel very conflicted with homosexuality morally. Or, in the case of Reena, the discomfort of the villagers in empathising with Reena because of their view of prostitution, of it being a sin, a vice. Very often, intellectually sophisticated people withhold their moral judgements to themselves and do not express it, because they wish to be non-judgemental. Unsophisticated people may be far more explicit about their moral judgements and therefore may appear crude.
When Tanushree Dutta and millions of other survivors of sexual violence wonder about the silence and spectator-hood of other people - peers, colleagues, families, neighbours, they are unable to grasp this behaviour - usually explaining it away as cowardice, expediency or fear of confronting because of threatened self interests. They are equally shocked when those people make statements that judge victims for their complicity or shared responsibility for the violence, or statements of avoidance (“I don’t know”, “I haven’t heard”, “I’m not involved” and so on), or even the more explicit judgements (“If a girl wants, she can always walk away from a situation to protect her own dignity” and “It’s when they are greedy that they compromise and then cry rape”).
The ability to imagine and sense what another person may be feeling, and how it must feel to be in someone else’s shoes is not an ability one is born with. We learn to be empathetic and sensitive as we grow up, from the education at home, in communities, in schools. If we observe other people to be empathetic, if we see and hear our parents being empathetic towards others, we imbibe the value of being empathetic.
Empathy can also be taught and learnt in more structured ways. Self-awareness or personal growth programmes help us build our awareness on our thoughts, behaviours and actions, values and morals that we hold within ourselves, and what in our value systems may be taboo or the untouchable, the stigmatised. Being aware of our own judgements and the way is reflects in our relationships in our lives and learning to feel the impact of it on those other people whom we judge also helps build empathy.
Social emotional learning for children also helps them learn about empathy. When in schools, issues of bullying, alienation, stigma are taken up as issues using participatory and experiential learning technologies like sociodrama (as opposed to theoretical teaching of shoulds and should-nots), it has significant impact on children, making them more emotionally mature, empathetic and sensitive to diversity.
You are, or you aren’t
It’s often said that perpetrators of sexual violence are the minority, most people are innocent. This is mostly said in response to anti sexual violence campaigns which may often seem to be male bashing, accusing all men of being offenders. Like Bachchan who said that “neither am I Nana Patekar, nor am I Tanushree Dutta”, most people feel that they are the uninvolved, and therefore, should not be held responsible of the violence itself. For those who have been victims of violence, this “uninvolved” stance of the bystanders creates trauma - of betrayal, rejection, alienation and stigma. The lack of empathy amongst spectators and bystanders, including unresponsive authorities or power holders (could be management in organisations, governments, or parents in a family, elders in a community) results in depression, internalised stigma (when the victim starts internalising the stigma and starts blaming herself or himself). The stance of being uninvolved is often a myth, a stance of self-deception. It is a stance of avoidance, one caused by fear, prejudice and lack of empathy.
Roop Sen is a researcher, facilitator, and an activist who works on issues of gender-based violence and personal growth. He is a certified coach and a practitioner of behavioural sciences.