The Politics Of Public Whisper Networks, A Reprise
by Anoushka Shyam (ASP’22) and Sowmya Vaidyanathan (ASP’22)
A part of The Edict’s Cultures of Harassment series
Content Warning – This article contains mentions of sexual harassment.
In my first year at Ashoka, I attended an orientation meeting of a certain club and was encouraged to make conversation with a senior I was ‘paired’ with during the ice-breaking events they had planned. During the event, he offered me a drink out of an iced-tea bottle he had on him, and after, he invited all the first years at the meeting back to his room for a party. At the time he seemed friendly enough, but shortly after I heard from friends that this man was known for preying on first-years, and the ‘parties’ in his room were basically an opportunity for him to ply 18-year-olds with alcohol and coerce them into having sex with him. Having heard that, I felt like I dodged a bullet, and was also shocked that all the other seniors present would allow someone who seemed like a known predator to use their club events as a place to pick up first years.
Over the last few months, there’s been a lot of talk about an Instagram ‘confessions’ page, where people anonymously submit their opinions and confessions about anything Ashoka-related. Among the sea of random, often disturbing confessions are the ones that discuss the validity and efficacy of whisper networks at Ashoka. One confession says, “UG23 is currently the best bach because they seem to have common sense and knows why messed up things like whisper networks are stupid… UG24 pls don’t make Ashoka into a clown university that some stupid woke people are making it into [sic]”. An excerpt from another reads “Given the weight that SH accusations have on people, especially in this atmosphere that whisper networks propagate (trial by social perception and presumption of guilt rather than innocence), it is completely fair to criticise whisper networks” Aside from the casual horrifying lack of belief in survivor narratives and the tendency to file these conversations away as effects of ‘cancel culture’, many of these confessions also present another problem. This is the presumption that the posts made on the Undergraduate Facebook group by survivors are immediate reactions to acts of sexual assault, rather than the last resort arising from systematic letdowns and a fear of the perpetrator of the violence in question.
I almost didn’t go through with writing about my abuser, because I was afraid of the response I’d get, both from this person and strangers reading the post. I couldn’t stop asking myself why I was posting my experiences, which were so deeply personal, to a large Facebook group full of people I’d never spoken to before. In retrospect, I realise that the ‘point’ of publicly writing this had very little to do with the person it was about, and their reaction to it. I made my peace with the fact that they wouldn’t ever really accept any of it, or apologise to me. I needed to share what had happened to me so that I could finally begin to move on from it.
The recent Sexual Harassment Climate Survey Report states that as many as 1 in 4 students are harassed during their time at Ashoka, while only about 5% of these instances have been reported to CASH. On the other hand, this year we have seen upwards of 100 accounts from survivors of sexual (and other forms of) harassment on the undergraduate Facebook group, in addition to a large number of accounts that were posted the previous year. These numbers point to several things; firstly, a growing disillusionment with official bodies on campus and their ability to provide justice to survivors. The survey notes that about 76% of its respondents ‘were less than certain about Ashoka University providing guidance and advice’ after an experience of SH’, and about 46% of people perceiving that it would be unlikely for CASH to take appropriate action against the accused. In addition to this, when the MeToo movement was happening this year on the Ashoka Undergraduates Facebook group, the current CASH chair, Ashwini Deshpande sent out an email in response to the accounts, one that seemed quite tone-deaf and devoid of empathy at a time when survivors greatly needed reassurance. The email itself denounced “naming and shaming” as a way to deal with harassment and urged survivors to seek redressal via official channels, ignoring many valid concerns that had been brought up with CASH as a body and the university’s past record of failing survivors. It’s bad enough to have received an email like this from a faculty member, but when that faculty member happens to be the chair of CASH, it reflects poorly on the Committee as a whole.
The second thing that these numbers point to is a degree of trust in the student community to receive these deeply personal accounts and provide the support needed, and a desire to make certain ‘secrets’, some that have been held for years, public. At the heart of whisper networks is the need to keep certain spaces safe, to warn friends and acquaintances about certain dangerous individuals who have caused harm in the past. When these networks go public in the form of MeToo posts, those intentions are largely unchanged.
An Edict article titled “The Politics of Public Whisper Networks” published in the November of 2018 ends with the question, “Can a public whisper network at Ashoka handle the onslaught from a community that is small enough for you to be whispering about the person sitting next to you every week?”. Almost three years after the publishing of the article, we’re still asking ourselves the same question. There is one caveat to this, however. Technically, we’re no longer whispering about the person ‘sitting next to us’- the cyberspaces we’ve found ourselves in since the beginning of the pandemic have made it so that the people talked about can simultaneously be the Zoom box next to yours and thousands of kilometres away at once. This isn’t to say that whisper networks have been less effective in a virtual setting- if anything, it’s the opposite. Public whisper networks, like the one seen on the Ashoka Undergraduates Facebook group (and, ironically, the various confessions pages), are a powerful tool for change. Ashoka, since May 2020, has seen two very large and powerful rounds of MeToo which have led to the disbanding of a club, two political parties, and the entire House of Representatives, as well multiple stories that have pointed to very disturbing patterns about SH and the abuse of power on campus.
With the power that whisper networks have, we need to do better. And to do better- we need to address a few things in relation to these networks. To begin with, we need to talk about the ‘cancel culture’ problem. After seeing this phrase, or variations of it, appear on multiple social media platforms since the beginning of the MeToo movement, we’re left wondering if ‘cancelling’ is a fair assessment of what is happening from the perspective of a victim posting their experiences. The idea of ‘cancel culture’ is already at odds with the ideas of accountability and reform, implying that victims seek to have their abuser ‘cancelled’ by their social circles when often all they’re really asking for is empathy and accountability. The accusations of ‘cancel culture’ have, at their heart, a question about whether this movement has the space for the accused to grow and do better. Understandably, what accountability might look like is difficult for any of us to determine in situations like this, situations of staggering rates of abuse that we never expected to encounter and are not entirely equipped to handle. When someone you know is accused of harassment, there is an entire range of emotions you might feel as you process it, and are at the same time expected to make decisions that concern your personal ethics and long-standing relationships. When this moment is made public, the situation is all the more complex—however, it’s important that we recognise that the spaces survivors take up to share their trauma are not the spaces for all these anxieties to play out.
The confusion about what accountability looks like has also resulted in many long-drawn public apologies, both from people accused of harassment and from people who have been accused of enabling their behaviour. It’s also concerning that when these accusations involve public figures, the blame is shifted onto the women and non-binary friends of the accused men—who are then made to self-flagellate for their involvement. This is not to say enablers of harassment are not also complicit in the larger situation we have found ourselves in, but that these apologies seem to benefit nobody, least of all the survivors. Often, they can seem hollow or ingenuine. While no one can tell you how to be sorry, we do think it involves both real introspection and action that accompanies it. That might be in the form of respecting your victim’s boundaries or providing them with an apology if they communicate that they expect one, or understanding that your presence might be uncomfortable for others and unwelcome in certain spaces. It might also look like having those difficult conversations with your friends, acknowledging that they’ve caused real harm to people, and evaluating that relationship for yourself. The hard part is that none of this is publicly visible; especially so when the accusations and larger conversations around them are so public. But what we can do is listen, believe survivors, and provide support.
Before I had written publicly about my experiences with my abuser, I often heard through whispers and directly from survivors that they had similar experiences with the same person. While I continued to feel helpless, it was also affirming. Once I posted about them, I found that several other people had felt this way and I was less ‘alone’. I also stopped second-guessing my own memories of trauma as I had done before—I often think about how many stories about certain repeat offenders would not have come to light had the accounts before them not been posted, how many survivors wouldn’t know that their abuser had also caused harm to others.
Returning to the question that the 2018 article raised, we no longer think that the dilemma associated with whisper networks is whether we as a community can handle a public onslaught of survivor accounts, but how we do. We have been in the midst of them for over a year now, and we are now faced with the massive task of supporting survivors and dealing with the aftermath of it all, of figuring out how to keep spaces safe while also allowing for those accused to learn and grow to be better. While there aren’t clear answers to many of the questions we grapple with now, we strongly believe that fighting to silence the voices of survivors who are finally speaking up is not the answer to any of them.