Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dentistry and Responsibility and Misogyny

According to a number of news stories, Dalhousie University has decided to use a restorative justice process to address the participants in the "Gentlemen's Club" Facebook site. Is this a good idea. Frankly, I don't know because I actually know shockingly little about restorative justice. Commenting on it might end up being a big mistake because there is at best even odds that I'd get the issue wrong. Instead of taking a side on this issue, I think it is important to address a number of concerns people have raised that might help us think about the best way to approach these individuals and their actions; that is: what type of punishment is to be used. I say this because it strikes me that there has been a bit of confusing about this issue and what these men did. At least this is the impression I get from reading the comments on news stories and talking to people.

First, what strikes me as a matter of particular importance: these were not "young men." A number of comments refer to the organizers and participants in the "Gentlemen's Club" "young men", particularly to suggest (a) that the reaction against them is overblown, and (b) to suggest that some leeway should be given in terms of punishment because their youth is a mitigating factor.

Under Canadian law youth can be a mitigating  factor. That is: below a certain age, the law assumes that people lack a capacity to fully understand right from wrong. Thus, my daughter when she was three stole some candy from a store (we returned it). She would never have been tried for this because she was too young. This can be a bit of a complicated matter but, generally, under the age of twelve, no one can be charged with a criminal offense. There is then a bit of a middle ground (until one is seventeen) and then at eighteen, one is a legal adult. Even beyond that, however, most of us are willing to make some allowance for immaturity for people who are 18 or 19 or undergrads at university (up to, say, 22).

The point I want to make, however, and the point that needs to be made is that the individuals involved in this "Gentlemen's Club" are not simply legal adults, but they are not young men. Unless there is something really odd going on with Dal's dentistry programme, these are all individuals who have at least one university degree behind them, have been able to vote for years, may have their own families, etc. I don't know about the last one but I will take it that the point has been proved. It is very, very difficult -- unless we want to stretch the definition of "young" beyond recognition -- to maintain that these are young men. The defences that go with the legal category of youth, therefore, do not apply. In short, whatever punishment is affixed, youth cannot be a mitigating factor.

Second, the individuals involved were well aware that what they were doing was wrong. Of this, there seems to be no doubt. When this Facebook page became broader knowledge, at least one participant suggested a cover up. CBC news reported that a post on the page read: "RED ALERT!!!!! RED F--KING ALERT!!!!!" reads one post. "Apparently one of the ladies has seen or heard something about the recent posts in the gentleman's. We have to get rid of the evidence." I actually don't have much more to say about this. What we have here is individual who, in the rest of their lives, would claim the rights of responsible adults who are trying to cover up behaviour that they know is wrong. Another post -- again according to CBC -- had as an option to actually do nothing "unless the shit hit the fan." In other words, if they go away with it, they would keep the page going. It was getting caught … not maturity, or ethics that stopped this site.

Third, I think that the women who are these men's classmates have every reason to be concerned. Individuals who are willing to suggest that lesbians should have sex with men so that they can become "productive" members of society have some pretty messed up values. If you add in the jokes about young girls (having sex with babysitters -- suggesting again that at least some of them have their own families) or knocking women out with chloroform … well … if I were them I'd be concerned too. I don't know who reads this blog but I have a teenaged daughter. She does not babysit, but she took the babysitting course when she was twelve and I'm disturbed about this. I don't want adults making jokes about having sex with her right now. Certainly … when she was twelves … well … I'd have been tempted to do something.

Fourth, I've also heard some people say that this is a "complicated" issue (I've read this is new comments as well). "Complicated" is one of those words -- like "young" -- that is often used to mitigate actions. How is this complicated? A group of adult men in a professional programme knowing did something wrong. What is complicated about that? If I speed on the highway and then lie to the police officer to try to get away with it, is that complicated? I'm not being rhetorical here, I'm asking an honest question because it does not strike me as complicated at all. In fact, the very opposite: it seems open and shut.

I don't want to come off as some sort "shoot 'em at dawn" type of law-and-order conservative. I don't imagine myself that way. Nor do I particularly envy the people who are going to have to make the decisions on this one. Here is, however, what I think I would do in their shoes: I'd urge the men involved to take responsibility for their actions. They might not want to but I'd tell them that (a) there really aren't any mitigating factors in their favour, (b) what they did was wrong and they knew it. We expect better of our professional and better of members of our communities. (c) I'd tell them that that is what adults do. They don't try to wiggle out of their own responsibility. They accept it and accept the consequences. I'd also tell them that accepting responsibility for their actions was a way that they could start to address the problems they have created because they (e) should do something to address the problems, particularly with their fellow students.

Now, some of this may already have been done, already. I'd urge the administration of the school of dentistry and of Dalhousie University to meet with the female students. I'd get their views on what they think a reasonable approach to this issue would be. I'd also meet with the male students who were not members of this club. I'd get their views, too, but I'd also want to ask some tough questions: did you know about this club? If you did … what do you think your responsibilities were? One of the good things that might be able to come out of this mess is a learning opportunity, a open dialogue on the proper behaviour of students and professionals.

Should these men be suspended? I don't want to dodge this question because that would be … well … dodging a question. I'll first say that universities have both a limited and large number of sanctions available to them. They apply to both academic issues (say, like cheating) or behaviour. Mount Allison -- where I work -- addresses issues relating to misbehaviour all the time. That is not unusual. Theoretically, there are a range of options one could follow but in practice these tend to be reduced to (a) fines, (b) taking extra sessions on various things (why not to cheat, say), (c) lowering of grades (if one cheated), (d) probation (which is a warning) (e) suspension, (f) expulsion.

In recent years, the people who address student misbehaviour at Mount A have gotten a bit more creative and have tried other types of things (extra papers, for instance). I don't follow this aspect of Mount A very closely, however, so I can't speak with any more authority than I have on it.

I don't want to get all wishy-washy here, but I'd like to believe that people can change. If the female classmates of these people were OK with this, my temptation would be to try to find some mechanism whereby these men could take responsibility for their actions, learn from them, and still get their degrees. They may have a tough time getting jobs, but they will. And, I'd guess that they will get jobs one way or the other. If expelled, for instance, they might not get jobs as dentists -- although I suspect that they would be able to find a dental school somewhere else that would take them and let them  finish their degree -- but they will get jobs. What I'd like to see, then, is some approach that moves these men down the right track, away from the disturbing behaviour in which they have been engaged.

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