This editorial was first published in Pragati.
#MeToo has the power to change our culture. Men must play their part. We diminish ourselves by not taking responsibility.
It is common for women to feel uncomfortable at the workplace, and one reason for that is air conditioning. In the 1960s, when central air conditioning became common in offices, the norms of what the default temperature should be were set after taking into account what most workers felt comfortable at. This was logical then, but there was one problem: most office goers in those days were men.
Men and women have different metabolic rates, and women tend to feel comfortable at higher temperatures than men do. In other words, they feel cold in modern offices, and often wear scarves and shawls to account for this. But most offices remain too cold for women, as the men in charge dismiss and minimise the problem. What is worse, they make the women feel guilty for feeling cold, as if there is something wrong with them.
Air conditioning might seem a trivial subject, but to me, this is a good analogy for the state of the world today. We live in a world designed for men, by men – and the discomfort of women is brushed away as if it is nothing. This manifests itself in deeper forms than just air conditioning, and in more places than just the workplace. Men are oblivious to this; and women have had enough. This is what the #MeToo movement is about.
Patterns of Behaviour
The importance of the #MeToo movement is not about the big stories that makes waves, but the cultural tides that lie beneath. #MeToo is not just about sexual assault and crossing clear lines of consent: most people accept that those are wrong. It is about patterns of sexist behaviour that are so normalised that most men and many women take them for granted.
Men don’t get this because for all of us, our gender is not a factor in our everyday lives. I don’t need to question myself or alter my behaviour because of my maleness. Women carry the burden of their gender in everything they do: while commuting, while expressing themselves in work meetings in rooms full of male egos, while going out for evenings walks, while deciding what to wear, or not to wear. What might be a trivial event for a man – someone puts his hand on your thigh while explaining something – can cause great discomfort to a woman, and much self-doubt. (“Am I over-reacting? Did I do something to invite this?”)
And of course, men take advantage of this. Power corrupts, and in our society, most power is held by men. They use women as a means to an end, and not as autonomous human beings worthy of respect in their own right. They get away with what they can – and much of what they get away with, in fact, is not even considered a problem. Predators are affectionately said to be having a ‘roving eye’, so who can blame them for ‘playing the field.’ And men try to keep plausible deniability by saying that they respected the woman’s consent – but can a 20-year-old intern push away her much-admired 50-year-old boss when he hugs her in a social setting, with the risk that her colleagues will accuse her of over-reacting?
We must, here, consider the interplay between Nature and Nurture. All of us are hardwired with conflicting instincts: lust and violence coincide with empathy and altruism. Which of these characteristics get amplified depends on our culture: as Steven Pinker said, Nature gives us knobs and Nurture turns them.
Culture can amplify some of our instincts, and mitigate others. Since the Enlightenment began, the arc of culture has tended towards respecting individual autonomy. Slavery has been abolished, as have child marriage and Sati, women can vote, and our views on racism have evolved. There have been inflection points at which the norms regarding all of these have shifted. I believe the #MeToo movement is one such turning point.
The Effects of #MeToo
There are a number of different effects I see #MeToo as having. One, it will embolden more women to speak up. Many women who were silent earlier because of social pressures, or who might have simply doubted themselves, will now find the courage to say, ‘No more!’ #MeToo validates the anger most women feel, and gives it strength.
Two, it will change the incentives of male behaviour. Earlier, men could get away with sexism with impunity. Now, the boundaries of acceptable behaviour have shifted, and they know they could get called out any time. Even if they change their behaviour for the wrong reasons – the fear of getting caught – it perpetuates good behaviour instead of bad.
Three, it will change the minds of some men. All men are not evil sociopaths; most are just plain oblivious. This outpouring of anger from women will surely convince enough men that there indeed is a problem to solve, they are part of the problem, and that they diminish themselves by not becoming part of the solution.
I was hesitant to write this piece because I thought it might amount to virtue-signalling, which I loathe and try to avoid. Also, men tend to make everything about themselves. (‘See how compassionate I am, ye all, I am so deeply affected.’) But I decided to write anyway, because it is a sad fact that in a world dominated by men, the protest of a man is likelier to have a greater impact than that of a woman. Every man who sees the problem, thus, has a duty to act.
What can men do?
So here is a question I have asked myself: What should a man do now? I am still processing this, but I have three suggestions.
One: Don’t let women fight this alone. Call out sexist behaviour when you come across it, whether it is in a locker room or a family Whatsapp group. Others may feel the same as you, and your words may validate their feelings. They may join the chorus in a virtuous cascade.
Two: Remember the burden of their gender that women carry, and go out of your way to make sure you never make a woman uncomfortable. Think of it as a game-theory problem, where the purpose is to minimise the possibility of a woman feeling uncomfortable. Maybe, when you meet women in social setting, you let them initiate physical contact, whether a hug or a handshake. Maybe you avoid cracking lewd jokes in mixed company, and remain aware of how often you interrupt women. And so on: These are little things to men but, cumulatively, can add up for women.
Three: Talk to the women you care about. Ask them if you have ever behaved in ways they object to. Ask them if they feel angry. Give them space if they need it. Try to understand – and show them you understand.
And yes, you could also ask if the air conditioner is too cold for them. You know where the control is.