To live, or not to live

June 6, 2021

The way to go forward, in an educated society, is reformation

To say that the face of the entertainment industry all over the globe has changed, with the emergence of the revolutionary #MeToo movement, won’t an exaggeration. Discussions on a fair representation of women, the ‘male gaze,’ harassment at workplace, and subjects that are generally considered taboo, have surfaced in the media, especially the social media, and made it to our dinner-table conversations like never before. Which is to say that we are being increasingly made aware of what is wrong and what isn’t. But if one takes a deeper look at the byproducts of the movement, one cannot help but pause to also observe the ‘destruction,’ so to say.

Recently, a friend of mine who was visiting me in Islamabad from Karachi got called out for virtually harassing underage girls that he hadn’t met or known in person. It was a difficult time for everyone around him — the victims and their family, us and him. The hate stories on Instagram, the abusive messages, even the death threats — all of that threatened to push my friend to attempt suicide. I vividly remember one terrible day when he went missing. We had no clue where he was. He had been labelled a harasser, a predator; and life, for all of us, from that point onwards, has never really been the same.

“Same, but not really!” was a caption on Instagram that my friend used when he visited Islamabad a year later. At that point, I had disassociated myself from him for most of the personal trauma that the entire episode had caused me. I’m unsure as to whether that is selfish, or morally right, but I did that. In other words, this was what I was ‘advised’ to do, and what I did. Nonetheless, I did agree to see him at the café we hung out at only a year ago. He remembered the panini I liked best. We recreated an old picture for old times’ sake and the melancholy in the air somehow put me at ease — seeing him grow and evolve and wanting to do better gave me genuine happiness.

However, when he posted that picture on Instagram, it created quite a stir. Now I started getting called out for aligning myself with the ‘harasser’; my best friend called me an ‘enabler’ (of harassment). In all honesty, I now understood how my friend might have felt like, all this while.

What most people perhaps do not know is that he underwent extensive therapy. He also apologised, and I am witness to his struggle to keep himself alive.

Broadly speaking, when the #MeToo movement took a turn to the ‘cancel culture,’ there were no apparent boundaries. Unless a case holds legal and extreme repercussions, one cannot trivialise such movements or casually label someone a “predator” — a loaded adjective, I may add. My friend had wronged people, and as a result of being cancelled on social media, had been scarred for life. In many ways — and rightfully so — he openly admitted to his ‘crime’ and expressed his deepest regrets. But now what? At the age of 21, does he deserve to be treated like a social outcast for as long as he lives or is there a thing called redemption?

Social media has given people the freedom to voice their opinions and take a stand where they deem fit, but they never know when it can become so damaging and deviate from the purpose of it all.

“Guys like that will never change” is something we’ve heard on many occasions. This may not be true for everyone who is or isn’t called out, but maybe the ones with serious psychological disorders. Forensic psychiatrist, Barbara Ziv, of the Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia, US, observes: “They’re apples and oranges,” serious offenders and not-so-serious offenders. Having studied victims and perpetrators of misconduct, she maintains that most are opportunistic or self-delusional, albeit not beyond help. A few years into some ground-breaking, inspiring and, well, baseless stories of women and men both, the focus needs to also be on whether it is appropriate for the ousted men to return to work and also shift to underlying questions of rehabilitation.

The bulk of offenders are too often conflated with the most egregious ones who dominate the headlines. My friend was no Harvey Weinstein, but the consequences of what he did seem to equal those of the disgraced Hollywood producer. Generalising misconduct and its sensitive variations is perhaps equally problematic as the problem itself, since justice is now looked at as passing of trauma.

The expression of hurt is expected to be translated into angst in a manner that the ‘abuser’ is not only humiliated but also expected to never be able to improve. The way to go forward, in an educated society, is reformation.

My friend had been determined, not only to improve himself but to also to improve his equation with me. He grew from being a part of the problem to a part of the solution, facing his demons head-on. But the people won’t let him. The social media won’t let him. Twitter won’t. Instagram won’t… Unfortunately, I am being told I can’t either.

Real change depends on men accepting accountability and taking conscious action. He made impulsive decisions in his late teenage years, but the premise of any social movement is to bring about change, which begins with the perpetrator.

The girls who called him out have helped immensely; the people, including yours truly, who stood by the victims, have helped, and my friend knows that. But beyond that, we cannot be the judge, jury and executioner. We need to view things at a more humane level.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist, vlogger and budding filmmaker

To live, or not to live