Everything wrong with TVF's response to sexual harassment allegations
Even as the Arunabh Kumar-TVF sexual harassment story continues to snowball, another story played out in its shadow. An unverified redditor accused AIB's Rohan Joshi of sexual harassment. The same redditor has now posted again, saying the original post was untrue, and was meant to show why anonymous claims of sexual harassment (like the TVF one) should be ignored. However, there is a valuable lesson here.
No, that lesson is not that we should treat such allegations with caution. That goes without saying and the blind belief of everything you read on the internet is inherently bad for both one's intelligence and mental health. Instead, what was truly eye-opening about the Reddit incident was Rohan Joshi's response to it.
In a series of short, simple tweets, Joshi responded in the best possible way. He denied the claims without going into hyperbole about his virtuosity. He welcomed an investigation of the claims by appropriate authorities. And, last but not least, he refused to fight this out on social media platforms or the media, thus avoiding victim shaming.
Right. Several people have drawn my attention to this, so I'd like to address it in no uncertain terms https://t.co/w0sjAIgwzD— Rohan (@mojorojo) March 14, 2017
I would like to state categorically that this did not happen. I am open and willing, and even urge @MumbaiPolice to investigate this— Rohan (@mojorojo) March 14, 2017
I cannot & will not respond to the slurs being thrown at me for this because any defence plays into typical victim-shaming narratives— Rohan (@mojorojo) March 14, 2017
This, however, isn't an attempt to laud Joshi's response. While in today's times it may seem necessary to hand out cookies for basic human decency, common sense need only be acknowledged, not applauded. What this is about is TVF and how horrifically they've responded to the unfolding scandal.
Here's a timeline of the responses offered by TVF and its employees, and how they're both lacking in sense and sensitivity.
1) A Medium blog titled The Indian Uber- That is TVF is posted by blogger 'Indian Fowler' on 12 March. TVF responds by denying the allegations, further stating, “We will leave no stone unturned to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice for making such false allegations.”
Now, TVF's denial of the claims is not problematic in itself. Any business' natural instinct will be to protect itself from bad press. Besides, anonymous posts on the internet should naturally be treated with some amount of suspicion.
However, more is expected when allegations as serious as those in the blog post are made. One, quite understandably, expects those involved to show some amount of introspection and concern. In this case, TVF makes it clear that any concern is for its own interests. And as for introspection? There's none of that. Instead, TVF have made a very direct threat against the accuser, even going as far as to threaten “severe justice”, a term that would sound corny even from Batman's mouth.
Through this, it immediately becomes clear that TVF's intention is not for the truth to be heard, but for possibly inconvenient truths to be silenced.
2) With the original Medium blog going viral, and TVF's credibility on the line, various people associated with the company take turns defending Arunabh Kumar. Again, terribly.
Nidhi Bisht (Partner and Creative Director, TVF)
As the only female partner at TVF, it was inevitable that Bisht would have to respond to the issue.
5 yrs at TVF & no memory of who this Female employee is. It's a baseless fictitious allegation. Haters pls don't stoop down to this level :(— Nidhi NEETU Bisht (@EkThapaTiger) March 13, 2017
Right off the bat Bisht rubbishes Indian Fowler's claims because she is, evidently, omniscient. Since she has no memory of a possible accuser, the allegation is not just baseless or fictitious, but both. She then indulges in some light victim shaming for good measure, terming potential victims of sexual harassment “haters”.
Sadly, for both Bisht and TVF, that's not how the world works. Incredulity and disregard are hardly admissible defences in a court of law. Her willingness to bury an allegation without even the most superficial consideration ties in perfectly with TVF's original terrible response. This doesn't inspire even an iota of confidence that the company intends to do what is right.
Bisht did attempt to mitigate her initial insensitivity in a follow-up post, and we'll get to why even her clarification rings hollow in a moment. But before that, there were more TVF people queuing up to defend Arunabh.
Sumeet Vyas (Actor in TVF's Permanent Roommates series)
Vyas has made a career of fronting for TVF, so it's no surprise that he'd feel the need to step in. Unfortunately, it was more of the same.
Vyas began by decrying social media as a place for gossip, comparing it to barber shops and the like. It's not an unfair thing to say given the level of discourse on social media. Nearly everything that followed, though, was ass-backward, and showed that Vyas has no idea how sexual harassment works.
Vyas vouched for his friend by calling him, among other things, “a teetotaler”, “driven” and “intelligent”. That Vyas thinks any of these things stops a person from perpetrating sexual harassment is worrying and ill informed. By Vyas' standards, cases like RK Pachauri, Tarun Tejpal, and countless priests of various religions would all be innocent of wrongdoing on various counts. The reality, however, is not nearly this simple.
Vyas further implied that just the fear of being found out on the internet would've deterred Arunabh. However, not only does that discount the intimidation of the accuser mentioned in the blog post, it also displays ignorance of how these cases play out - the stigma that comes with being a complainant, or the confidence of those in positions of power to act as they please.
Like Bisht before him, Vyas too goes on to use his personal experiences with Arunabh as proof that Arunabh is innocent. He even offers the 60:40 gender ratio in TVF as another example of TVF as a safe workplace, completely forgetting that there has already been a case where a female staffer quit due to sexual harassment.
But, like with Permanent Roommates, Vyas too had a supporting cast.
3) Supporting cast: Amit Golani (Director, TVF), Biswapati Sarkar (Creative Director, TVF), Naveen Kasturia (Actor, TVF)
Sarkar, best known for his portrayal of TV loudspeaker Arnab Goswami, took to Twitter to defend his friend, refusing to pay heed to the allegations. Meanwhile, Golani used the 'we've-made-women-oriented-content' card, a close relative of the 'I'm not racist because I know a black person' excuse:
For a company that specially champions and has a woman centric channel @Girliyapa it's disheartening to see people question our culture— Amit Golani (@GolOpinions) March 13, 2017
This 'We-know-women-so-how-can-we?' approach was also underlined by TVF's HR statement that happened to mention the HR team also had three women. We're just waiting for the 'He has a mother' excuse, it doesn't seem very far away.
Kasturia, another of TVF's regular actors, also rubbished the allegations. And, of course, his word should be taken as gospel because it's not like the blog specifically mentions him by name...
What they have in common
From their press release to Bisht to Kasturia, TVF's team have made every possible attempt to shield Arunabh Kumar from all attack. However, every response has more than just unwavering love for Kumar in common. There's also a uniform lack of the need to address such allegations through the proper mechanisms.
While they all do their best to rubbish the blog, discredit its poster, and herald Kumar as more virtuous than even Sita, nowhere do any of them mention that the claims will (or should) be investigated. The only mention of investigation is in relation to the accuser, not the accused, a galling lack of anything resembling conscience.
Sure, all of the individuals mentioned have since issued 'clarifications', but these too ring hollow.
Hindsight is always 20/20
After their initial outrage at the accusations, and the social media flak they faced, the good folk at TVF have all tried their best to explain themselves.
Now, after first trying to brush the allegations under the mat, all of them insist that TVF will conduct an internal inquiry into the allegations. They've even gone as far as to ask accusers to come forward and approach the company's internal complaints committee.
However, this sudden sensitivity should only be seen in the context of their original responses. None of these people truly wanted this scandal to take its normal, legal course. Rather, either drunk on success or under delusions of grandeur, they thought themselves above the requirements of the law.
While they may now make conciliatory statements, promising their full cooperation with an investigation, their initial statements were all meant to vitiate the atmosphere. To make it intimidating for potential victims to come forward. To essentially bury the truth.
In fact, their original refusal to introspect or investigate becomes even more disturbing when you take into account Arunabh Kumar's unintentionally damning defence.
Kumar, in a statement to the Mumbai Mirror, displays a nonchalant attitude towards his accusers. “I am a heterosexual, single man and when I find a woman sexy, I tell her she's sexy - but this is only done in my personal capacity,” he said, underlining the fact that he simply does not understand what sexual harassment is.
Sexual harassment doesn't require penetration, or physically restraining someone and subjecting them to your genitals. ANY unsolicited gesture that makes someone feel unsafe, or even uncomfortable, can be construed as sexual harassment. Kumar's statement to the Mumbai Mirror is textbook sexual harassment.
That all his colleagues seem to think that such a cavalier attitude towards harassment is not clear grounds for an investigation shows just how clueless TVF are to safe workplace culture.