Psychological aspects of slutwalk – how does it work?

Imagine this scenario.

An colleague in office has anger management issues. He’s a great guy. Doesn’t mean any harm, but he ends up hurting a lot of people who are on the receiving end. He alienates clients, he offends other employees, he leaves housekeeping in tears. He believes that is his style of speaking and refuses to change just because people can’t take it.

One day, a large group of employees decide enough is enough, and make a presentation about effects of verbal abuse in the work place. It is not addressed to him, but it is a convincing affirmation of the right of employees to work without being attacked at whim. It describes the losses the organization faces in terms of productivity, organizational well-being, victimization and reputation.

What do you think happens after this? Do aggressive people become more conscious of their actions and their unpopularity? Do people find it easier to ask this person to behave when they feel hurt? Do people find it easier to speak up in aid of someone being attacked? Do people find it easier to establish norms of acceptable communication? Or do things remain as usual?

If you have a choice to empower or disempower that presentation, is it useful to debate the futility of challenging such people? Do the victims deserve that amplified voice?

My bet is that even if the presentation is addressed to no one specific, aggressive people in the office get the message that their actions are not acceptable. The massive opinions in disagreement of their attitude are visible indisputably. There is a trigger for re-evaluation of actions – which some may or may not take.

Another aspect is that with such powerful statement being made, people find it easier to ask abusers to back off if they get aggressive. With the problem established as a group problem, onlookers feel inclined to intervene and ask for appropriate behaviour rather than mind their own business – it is their organization that is being degraded – no longer a matter between two people. There is less hesitation to risk being the bad guy and confronting or filing a complaint. And the management, being made aware of the mood of a large section of the organization is less able to ignore the matter or play favorites.

This doesn’t happen because this is a company. It happens because this is how human beings are. If a threat is not directly relevant to us, we don’t take risks in challenging it. Witness the different responses to Irom Sharmila’s ten year fast against Army atrocities in the northeast, and Anna Hazare’s war on corruption. For society to change in its tolerance of inappropriate behaviour, its members need to see that this is a degradation of society happening and damaging to them, not an incident limited to two people and irrelevant to them.

It isn’t even about supporting the movement. It is simply being exposed to the protest. It  doesn’t matter if I say “think of a pineapple” or “don’t think of a pineapple”. You think of a pineapple anyway.

That is why these protests are powerful enough to spread like wildfire around the world. They are life affirming, they are empowering, they are liberating. They have an impact on the awareness of people.

If you have heard them, if you have seen them, the next time you see someone harassing a woman, you recognize it. Even if you thought the protest was stupid, you clearly see that what is happening is wrong and your strong opinions in the interest of society and women make you want to do something about it. The chances of someone challenging the abuse rise considerably the more people who have debated the walk or seen it are around.

The chances become considerably higher that the victim is able to raise assistance from those around. At the same time, there is less of a feeling of impunity in an attacker who has seen his actions solidly condemned in public space. I think there is a good chance this makes the city at least a little safer for women.

This is why I invite even critics to be there to watch, even if they will not join.

The other thing is it creates awareness of projections (and I recommend that several slogans be designed with this in mind) and challenges false assumptions. A projection is when as a child your mother forced you to wear a sweater even if you were hot from playing, because she was sitting on the park bench and feeling cold. It was not your reality. It was hers. Similarly, a man with lust on his brain sees women as sexual objects whether they are flaunting their sexuality or not. There is a lot of data to support this.

What is shameless about a confident woman? The only thing wrong with her is that she is way out of legitimate reach of the lustful person making the comment. She isn’t going to take bullshit, she is unlikely to be quiet and allow her space to be invaded, so she is cheap! In other words, sour grapes – “I could easily have her, but she’s not worth it”.

If clothes or provocative behaviour were the cause of rapes or harassment of women, there would be none in conservative societies where revealing clothing is out of the question. This is far from reality. It isn’t about revealing clothes being an invitation – a truth most women know and every controlling person likes to deny, because that invalidates their control.

Also there are other “proofs” – kids, men, old people being raped, harassed, abused. Here are some nightmares for you.

Yet, the first question a victim fields is often “What were you wearing?”. This is further victimizing by protectors who instead of supporting heap blame. Then there are family, friends and random society who think less of a victim for being attacked. It is as thought they unconsciously fear helplessness may be contagious and condemn what they fear. A woman is powerless to defend herself against the weight of collective judgments.

There is unconscious acceptance of criminal behaviour and defending it from those who would challenge it. A classic example is saying that a person flaunting valuables will get robbed and a woman flaunting her physical beauty will get raped. Forget rape, this person doesn’t realize that he seems to be saying that it is natural for a person to get robbed because his belongings were visible! The criticism isn’t actually supporting crime, it their own shame that they didn’t fight it. Therefore, they say it is futile and recommend their response as ideal, because otherwise that is a reminder of their own submission or failure to challenge wrongs (read projection, again).

Another part of this is our own attitudes toward sexuality. Whom do you speak with, meet, return with, what time, etc is something you must hide or defend to remain respectable. Have an affair, and you must marry – people dating are socially the same as people engaged in most of India. Dating many people at once? Cheap! Slut! Whore! What was courtship has evolved into an ownership claim. You’d think its easier on the man, but they get labeled “users” if they simply change their mind about a girl they were dating and womanizers if they date more than one person.

Judgmental and controlling attitudes. In this women and men are equal victims of other women and men who appoint themselves moral police. Be it parents or random street romeos who think a woman seen going out with more than one boy is fair game to approach and she MUST accept their attentions. Because a woman is not a person, but a public object with everyone’s opinion on her considered more valid than her own. Her having a preference on who to interact with is absurd to abusers.

It makes for an extremely dysfunctional and depressing society in terms of living.

A slutwalk creates a space to examine all these inequities and create space for breaking through oppressive social narratives holding many people hostage.

The slutwalk is creating vital debates, triggering  thought, forcing new considerations and challenging dysfunctional and hurtful assumptions. It challenges the status quo that is not working. This helps a society become more thinking, more tolerant and also more intelligent, because freedom is a state of being, not subject. Thinking openly about one thing makes it likely people think openly about more things and increasingly arrive at better thought out understandings.

But one of the greatest achievements of the slutwalk is that it says things individual victims cannot assert. It gives them the freedom to speak out and make it clear that they were victimized for something that was not their fault. It gives them the freedom to say this openly and aloud without fear of being silenced. It makes people feel less victimized and more heard. And it is not only about women. Not at all. Anyone with a wish to live larger than allowed has hit this wall and often fallen back hurt. Others broke through and are scarred for life.

If nothing else, for this alone, it would be worth it to gift women, men, children, old people, alternative sexualities and other assorted people who have known helplessness and violations this day of being able to live free under the sky and be heard and be respected for who they are.

It would be a healing of us all.