Lessons on instant justice from America

RAJKAMAL RAO | Updated on January 09, 2018

The outing of sexual misconduct in high places has transformed the narrative of justice in the US. Can India learn from this?

For 23 years since the release of the explosive Hollywood morality thriller, Disclosure, in which Demi Moore’s character uses her power as boss to force Michael Douglas’s character to reluctantly perform sexual favours in the office, not much happened to America’s sexual predators. But today, America suddenly seems to be gripped by a renewed sense of morality as public figure after public figure, accused of sexual misconduct, tumbles out of the limelight into a black hole, handed quick justice in the public square.

In a sense, the underlying issue is not really morality. For the last two decades, America has led the world in moving away from the cultural rules and inconveniences imposed by organised religion. It is no longer taboo for unmarried couples to live together, have children outside of wedlock, or be in relationships that border on infidelity. So what is it that America is so caught up in?

Clear distinction

The answer is hidden in a powerful line spoken by an attorney in Disclosure: “Sexual harassment is not about sex. It is about power.” The distinction in the American mind is now clear. Any behaviour between two adults that is consensual is fine and protected as a civil right. But harassment shall not be tolerated, especially if it involves race or gender inequity.

The first to fall under this new system of justice was Harvey Weinstein, the famous Hollywood director. Five women went on record in the New York Times about his absolute power to offer roles to aspiring actresses in exchange for sexual favours, none of them consensual. The public response was so shrill that he was ejected from his own company and shunned in the industry.

Decades-long careers of others allegedly involved in similar misconduct have now been wiped out, including journalist Charlie Rose, actor Kevin Spacey, veteran Congressman John Conyers, and now, Senator Al Franken, fighting for his political life.

While the circumstances of each accusation are different, the judgment process has been remarkably similar and swift. First, a victim tells a reporter about what happened years ago. The reporter investigates, including confirming with someone that the victim may have confided in at the time. If confirmed, the reporter rushes to publish the story online.

This would be an extraordinarily low bar of proof in a court of law, but America, always in a hurry, has no patience any more for due process. The employer of the man — only men have so far been outed as perpetrators — suspends him, generally within 24 hours. The story goes viral and prompts more women to come forward. If one more accusation is published, the company fires the accused: no jury, no judge, no courts. Since the first published report, over 60 women have come forward with their stories about Weinstein.

Tipping the balance

India has much to learn from this market-based approach to justice. Our movie industry is larger than America’s. Each year, hundreds of young women make the pilgrimage to Mumbai and the movie-making regional capitals in the hopes of becoming stars. Almost all the power in deciding who is cast in roles is in the hands of men. And thousands of women have probably involuntarily succumbed to the primal instincts of men in exchange for promises to get ahead.

India could also adopt this lightning rod approach for another movement which has gripped our own nation: fighting corruption. Someone pays a bribe to an official, records the transaction and goes to the press, which confirms the details and publishes a story that then goes viral. The person accused can no longer tolerate the non-stop coverage of being publicly shamed and quickly resigns. This instils fear in other corrupt officials and they stop being corrupt. Because they never know when it is their turn to fall.

Sounds far-fetched? Not at all. Just ask powerful Americans who have been forced into oblivion, some almost overnight. In the world of social media, the court of public opinion is a lot more powerful than the slow wheels of justice in a court of law.

True, there is always the danger that good men and women may suffer without the benefits of due process because they are incorrectly accused. But this may well be a small sacrifice to pay because India too is in a desperate hurry for justice. We all seem to be willing to sacrifice for bigger, righteous goals, so a few guinea pigs may well be worth it.

The writer is MD of education consultancy Rao Advisors LLC

Published on December 07, 2017

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor