Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Davidar case

As everyone knows by now, David Davidar, publishing icon, faces claims of sexual harassment from two women from his time as president of Penguin Canada. Davidar previously worked in Penguin India and several women in the Indian publishing industry have declared their disbelief. For example, four women are quoted here, as follows: "David Davidar is a deeply loved and respected figure in publishing. Naturally, his many friends continue to believe in him, and always will"; "He is one of the most decent persons I know. I refuse to believe these allegations"; "This is the last thing anyone would expect to be levelled against David"; "I find it very difficult to believe these allegations could be true".

Why is that relevant? According to one of his defenders (who, however, acknowledges the gravity of his accuser's charges, the trauma she must be going through, and the necessity of justice if the charges are true): "I know character is no defence, but sometimes a man's character does count." But men (and women) display different characters to different people. If Davidar is guilty of harassing two women (and we should not be judging him based on media reports), the fact that he did not harass several other women is of no importance.

Besides, is that really his character? According to the late Dom Moraes, writing back in 2002, Davidar "drank a lot and liked to fall in love." Moraes relates an illustrative story, which does not sound like harassment, but does not induce much respect either.

I saw the Moraes link on Ashok Banker's blog. Banker refers to Davidar's "dark side", which he saw "quite frequently -- and believe me when I say, I’m not revealing all that I saw because some of it is darker than even I want to talk about publicly." Banker, in an earlier, now deleted post (still cached in google as I write, but I won't link) relates a much more salacious story, which is still not a clear case of harassment but does make one wonder. [Update 17/06/10: Banker has restored that post, with reader comments. He says he took it down because his server couldn't handle the load. The reader comments are interesting: see below.]

Neither Moraes' nor Banker's assessments of Davidar's character are of any more relevance, however, than that of Davidar's numerous defenders. What matters is what he did in Canada. The truth could be that he was an inveterate womaniser who, however, never stepped over the line, and these particular charges are false. It could also be that he was the perfect gentleman in all dealings with women, except in these two cases, where the charges are true. Or it could be anything in between, or anything beyond. We simply don't know, and while it is fun to speculate, it is not very productive to do so.

The sociology of jumping to a man's defence on the grounds of, essentially, "but he never assaulted me" does puzzle me, however. We saw a lot of that in the Anand Jon case, too. Meanwhile, Banker's own posts sound like "kicking a man while he's down", and -- other than the Moraes link, which was interesting because it was unbiased by current events -- rather unsubstantial. And the same can be said of my post here. And of course I'm not alone. In today's world, we all enjoy speculating on celebrity news, and speculating on others' speculations, and so on ad infinitum. But I do agree with Banker that the entirely unbalanced initial reactions from the Indian publishing industry deserved some counterpoint. So, which is better: restraint from all sides, or unrestrained speculation from all sides? The result is the same: nobody is any wiser. Let the case take its course through the Canadian legal system.

UPDATE 17/06/10: As already noted above, it is the comments by Davidar's friends that intrigue me, and the ones on Banker's blog are no different. Yes, Davidar has close friends, who never saw anything in him that would suggest he would be capable of such a thing. Yes, they hope that he can clear his name. But why write hundreds of words that have no bearing on this case, referring to their personal experiences with him as "another side to the story" even though it has nothing whatever to do with the story? I understand feeling the need to speak up when your close friend is accused of unsavoury things, but why not simply say something like: "I know David well and respect him, and would not think him capable of such conduct; I hope he can clear his name, but I recognise the seriousness of these charges and, if proved, want justice to be done" -- and then leave it at that?

Also worth reading: "What it feels like for a girl" -- an anonymous blogger's experiences in the Canadian publishing industry.


Melvin said...

Well said, Rahul. It'll be interesting to see the outcome.

Rahul Basu said...

Rahul: Incidentally, (I can't name names unfortunately) the same has been true in the academic world. Senior scientists accused of sexual harassment have had their friends (including female friends) jump to their defense. And as Banker also points out, if that were the only thing, one could say that's what friends are for -- but here people have used their senior positions to essentially scuttle any chance of the truth coming out. Worse, some of the accused people have gone on to bigger and better positions.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Rahul B - unfortunately I believe you. I would like to think things have changed now. For example, when I wrote on my blog and in Current Science about a case of fraud and exoneration by a high-profile committee, I got lots of feedback praising me for my "bravery" for taking on all these famous senior powerful people. But it was misplaced praise: there was really no personal risk to me. And in fact, I got a lot of positive feedback from equally senior and powerful people. The "establishment" is not particularly monolithic.

So one hopes that, when senior scientists have less ability to interfere in others' careers, victims (of sexual or other harassment) would be encouraged to speak up and would find some support. But I fear I am too optimistic.