Grieving Those We Cancel: A Call For Restorative Culture

This week, a Class 12 student from Gurgaon died by suicide reportedly because of the public shaming that followed a #MeToo story on social media where he had been accused of rape and molestation.

As news of the ‘Bois Locker Room‘ and the suicide surfaced, what should have been a moment of grief and reflection was drowned by more outrage.

Ironically, but perhaps not unsurprisingly, the girls who spoke out about offences against them are now being chastised and blamed for the death.

The freedom of our girls to stand up for themselves seems at odds with the well-being of our boys  –  a cruel conundrum created by patriarchy and the resulting cancel culture (widespread public shaming)

Cancel culture: a necessary evil

Who better than survivors of abuse know the impact of being cancelled  –  our voices, our existence, our credibility  –  a lot of it had been cancelled for eons by the patrons of patriarchy.

In its current version, cancel culture demands ‘never ending public shaming’ or the ‘strictest possible punishment’. It is not feminist and egalitarian in its approach but rather a very patriarchal one. It makes us fight the battle of patriarchy with the same weapons that created the battlefield in the first place –  authority, inequality, insensitivity and not seeing the other person as a whole human being.

If the tools we use to fight are patriarchal, would the destruction be any different as we win this?

Also read: The #MeTwo Movement: Notes on (Cyber) Crime, Mental Well-Being and PTSD in 2020

Or as feminist writer Audre Lorde said,

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Let’s reclaim our stolen tools.”

It adversely impacts everyone involved  – some more than others –  and yet it is impossible to imagine cancel culture vanishing any time soon. Rather, unless we work towards creating an alternative, it would be unfair to demand it to vanish.

For the longest time, survivors of abuse have struggled to speak out and even now when they do, they still have an uphill battle  – to be believed, to fight the excessive backlash, to expect justice from prejudiced and corrupt institutions.

On one hand, cancel culture gives much-needed space to break the isolation and silence of survivors of gender-based violence, and provides a momentary sense of agency to fight for their freedom. But on the other, it doesn’t create space for redemption, introspection and forgiveness for those accused. It doesn’t create space for survivors to reconcile and let their pain be seen truly by those who harmed them.

It brings shame, vindictive justice, expression but never an apology.

There are no easy answers or quick replacements but only thoughtful and gradual paradigm shifts.

Restorative culture: an aspirational alternative

We need a slow and steady movement towards restorative culture which focuses on restoring the well-being and humanity of everyone involved rather than treating justice as a zero-sum game.

Restorative culture  –  as I am defining using the principles of restorative justice – allows such an expansion to happen. It is survivor centric and ensures that communities of both the survivor and the offender that shaped them can also heal and be part of the resolution.

It would let us grieve the loss of this young life without having to diminish the validity of our rage.

Such a coexistence of grief for those we ‘cancel’ not only acknowledges their humanness but also our own.

It allows us to be complex and difficult, it allows us to acknowledge that people we love and trust can harm us and that it can be very hard to forgive and fight back at the same time. This complexity lies at the heart of #MeToo.

#MeToo did not begin with survivors fighting against strangers, but people they trusted, admired and loved.

Such a fight demands that we not only think about right vs wrong, but also kind vs unkind.

It might help us take #MeToo to its ultimate goal – redemption and reformation.

Making space for redemption in our resistance

Restorative culture focuses on everyone involved and helps us identify the different burdens each of us have to carry.

It may help us to think about the suffocation the deceased boy must have felt, who must have struggled to find words or perspective to process a sudden rise in rage and shame for something he considered a norm.

Patriarchy’s idea of ‘casual fun’ for boys is tragic for not just others but themselves too. It dehumanises our boys – it teaches them to ignore emotions and be ‘more macho’ – all at the expense of the safety and dignity of our girls and at expense of their own ability to be joyful and deeply loving.

Patriarchy has recruited our boys to always be on the offensive and it never teaches them how to reflect and repent.

As we mourn this loss, restorative culture will not let us forget to sympathise with the girls who were offended in that Instagram group. On one hand, some of our girls now have a gift of powerful language to identify and classify the injustice. But on the other, we haven’t given everyone else the tools or language to understand what these girls have to say.

We have made our girls aware that they are in a battlefield but have left them alone to fight. Or worse, not let them fight.

Their battlefield is unfair, chaotic and messy, but we expect them to have a fair, multi-faceted and kind strategy to fight back.

Even in this situation, we are asking them to make the most compassionate decisions without showing how to process a cocktail of grief, rage and unexpected and misplaced guilt. Let this be heard loud and clear, the burden of guilt and shame is not theirs as they navigate this complex space.

Restorative culture will make us see the agony of the family of this young boy and many others. It would make us wonder if they are outraged for being bullied or are in pain for having failed their own sons and daughters. They must be lost and stunned to find meaning of their individual grief placed in an ugly systemic reality.

They are no more just the parents of a deceased teenager, but are also a data point of clearly identified casualties of patriarchy.

Also read: Will Death to Rapists Give Life to Women?

It will help us take a step beyond these individuals and put a mirror in front of us –  the society – to question us on why we still demand death sentences for rapists.

If identified and reported, we do not have enough jails that can accommodate all abusers. We do not have enough resources to heal the collective and individual traumas of people who have survived abuse and rape.

In this reality of a lose-lose situation, it is pertinent to create spaces for redemption of those who wrong us.

Grieving for this young person’s death is part of creating that space –  it signifies that there was more to him than just his wrong actions and that there was a path to redemption other than him deciding to cancel his life altogether.

Grieving someone doesn’t absolve them of their questionable virtues, glorifying does. Grieving ensures that we don’t forget our empathy and our ability to offer solidarity.

Let this young boy’s death and the pain of the girls who stood for themselves be reason to reflect on how to continue the good fight without losing the values we are fighting to protect.

Needless to say, the burden of guilt, grief and rage are unequally distributed. But let this comparison of burden not be a reason to lower our benchmarks of effective resistance and our idea of a ‘better world’.

There is no winning this if we continue to lose each other. This resistance will thrive when it is driven for love and with love. It may look like tough love, but it has to be rooted in love nonetheless.

Until all of us do not commit to dismantle patriarchy, it will continue to dismantle all of us – one rape at a time, one suicide at a time.

As we continue to rage, grieving for the life lost is nothing less than a thoughtful and radical act of resistance.

Surabhi Yadav is a development practitioner and a freelance writer working on gender issues.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty