First published on Loyar Burok on 12th August 2013
This article is about the men who walk amongst us whom we admire, whom we call our friends, lovers, husbands, fathers, brothers. If you prefer, this article may also be about the ‘other’ men out there, the rapists, child abusers, sexual harassers, and other shadowy characters in the news and conversations whom we hope to never meet and know in real life. But above all, this article is about liberal hypocrisy.
Did it come to any shock or surprise that many respectable white men in Britain have been exposed as paedophiles, rapists, and low-lifes in fine suits? How did they get away with despicable behaviour for so long while their accusers languish for decades waiting for justice? Sometimes in their belated battle for justice, their accusers continue to languish post-trial because justice has an expiry date.
In Britain, men who worked for the police sleep with female activists in order to infiltrate activist groups. Some of these men have even fathered children with these women. As police ‘spies’, all of these men have assumed false identities as fellow activists that they have managed to maintain through lie after lie for years. When these men were exposed, the women reported to have felt as if they were raped by these men. Who wouldn’t feel like that?
Case after case of sexual crimes in the past year have revealed men, all men, who have lied and destroyed people’s lives. These men have chosen to prey on girls and women, and thought nothing of the repercussions. For a long time, these predatory men have walked among innocent people, many of them children and protected by their status, the law, and the auspices of the state. It is only when these men are finally caught, placed in the dock, and subjected under the mercilessly glaring light of the media that they are framed as criminals.
Before they were classed as criminals, they were just like any other man you might know. Nice, pleasant, loving, well-respected, normal. How much does it take for us mere mortals outside the machinations of the law and media to recognise that the men among us are guilty of heinous crimes like rape and harassment? A lot, plus some denial on the side.
In Malaysia, we have so little faith in the justice system and its apparatuses that we resort to our own kind of justice and sense of order. This is why private security and fear of crime are so high in Malaysia. Some people go to extremes and take the law into their own hands by committing vigilante justice. Others take futile precautionary steps and not go outside alone late at night and build iron grills around their own personal prisons.
When there is so much fear of the ‘other’ men we don’t know, we usually become blinkered from those who commit everyday forms of sexism and misogyny under our own eyes especially when they don’t look like your garden variety rapist. In films and the popular imagination, rapists are visibly psychotic and don’t hold down respectable jobs.
Is this the reason why many women refuse to report if they had been raped and/or harassed? Because they will be disbelieved? And perhaps because it is far easier for us to condemn those we read about in the news, but not those we know and consider our friends? Except for the privileged few, we’ll never meet the men who have committed crimes of a sexual nature and so we’re sheltered by own self-righteousness and cowardice when we hurl abuse at these men from behind the screen.
Gender-based harassment and assault within high-profile liberal middle-class circles are relatively common and some go unreported. When they are reported they are forced under the carpet in the name of … what exactly? Somehow the proximity of familiarity renders the crimes of the respected and respectable insignificant and easily dismissed. How long do we wait until they are properly exposed as criminals?
The possible reasons why criminals within one’s respected ranks are protected may be economic (no one wants to lose their jobs), social (being a whistleblower has shown to be stigmatising and damaging to one’s livelihood), and political (you don’t want to lose the prestige, power, and popularity by exposing the guilty because apparently no one is a saint).
But it is also possible that the protection of the respected and respectable within the liberal middle circles is class-based. Since time immemorial, the crimes of the powerful and privileged have often been overlooked or mitigated while the poor and disenfranchised are punished disproportionately harsher.
This article is not a call for a witch-hunt of would-be male rapists and harassers amongst us but rather a reminder for us to reassess what justice means. There is credible evidence that those who purport to fight oppression are perpetuating oppression themselves and by implication undermining the good work of others. We are quick to point out the hypocrisies of others, namely politicians and religious authorities but struggle to come to terms with those closest to us and our own.
In one of the more transparent countries in the world with a functioning legal system, Britain, justice as has an expiry date. Even if the crime had happened a long time ago, it does not make it less of a crime but its sentence will be mitigated by the time length between the act of crime and indictment. Hence do not wait to tell others of the injustice that you know and that has happened to you. It is therefore fitting to conclude with an adage attributed to the courageous Shirin Ebadi who said that we may not be able to end oppression for good, but the least we can do is tell as many people about it.
A companion piece to this article is by Clarissa Lee who has written about the insidious dynamics within liberal and “intellectual” circles that lets men within such a circle off the hook.