Dalhousie University is in the news because some of its male dental students maintained what I recall is a Facebook page that -- among other things -- sexually rated their female colleagues. Styled as a virtual “gentlemen’s club” (or, some such bizarre euphemism), the site and the students are under investigation by the University. The problem, of course, is not just Dalhousie University. Over the last several years, we've seen a number of incidents on Canadian campuses and in the wider society that suggest not simply that misogyny is alive and well, but that what we are seeing is a deeply disturbing, violent form of misogyny that presents women as vehicles for male sexual pleasure. The sexist frosh orientation chant at SMU last year amounted to the same thing; investigations of the sexual conduct of hockey players at one Ontario school is another. For those of us who had hoped that Canada had turned a page on sexism ... these are not good signs. Let us reflect on the disturbing feature of what went on at Dalhousie as a bit of a case study into contemporary sexism. My thesis is short and simple: whomever put this “club” together and participated in it and not just sexist; they are stupid. We are right to be concerned about this behaviour and for a variety of reasons.
The first thing we should note is that sexist behaviour -- particularly aggressive male sexually-oriented verbal and physical attacks on female students -- often gets a “pass,” at least in some quarters. At least among some of the people I talk to, it is chalked up undergrad hijinks: immature young people doing stupid and disturbing but ultimately harmless things. They shoot their mouths off after they've drunk too much and do things that they later regret or, worse, don’t yet understand that they should regret.
I've never agreed with this argument. I’m not a law-and-order, fire-and-brimstone kind of person. I do think that people should be given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, make amends, and develop into good people who care for -- rather than sexually demean -- others. But, to state that point as if it were the end of the issue misses the central question that we should be asking about this or other forms of disturbing behaviour: why do these people behave in *this” specific way. Why sexism, in other words? (I know that there are other forms of prejudiced behaviour that Canada needs to address -- racism, homophobia, and others -- but am focusing on this one right now.) We need to see things like this “club” at Dalhousie as part of a cultural pattern that masquerades as hijinks. After all, hijinks could end up being just good fun. It could be a practical joke on a dorm mate (I will confess that I did that sort of thing “back in the day” at which everyone has a good laugh). This is not that. This pattern works with some of the darkest elements of Canadian culture that these students are obviously getting from somewhere. Thus, one of the more disturbing things about what has gone on at Dalhousie (or, other institutions) is that it shows us that there is a culture “out there” that views the sexual abuse of women as (a) funny, (b) OK, (c) something to articulate.
But, worse than that, the SMU and Dalhousie incidents are not just reflections of sexism in society. They serve to perpetuate sexism and a culture that sees sexual abuse as normal and entertaining. Years ago Michel Foucault argued hat power functions through a myriad of de-centred institutions in society. It was certainly unequal but, he suggested, viewing power as a zero-sum type-of-thing that is held by some people wielded over others missed how it actually functioned. Institutions served to make power work. It moved through them and in the process became more efficient and reinforced itself. We need to see this “club” at Dalhousie (or, the incidents at other institutions) as part of this process. Sexist orientation programmes or virtual communities that rate the sexual appeal of female students, in this way, serve to maintain, reinforce, and naturalize those deeply disturbing trends in Canadian culture. In other words, they don’t simply reflect them (or, even the predispositions of those involved) but actively create a culture in which sexual abuse is treated as natural, normal, and just plain fun. Moreover, by virtue of their very public nature they make this statement: its OK to say it.
Virtual communities are even more insidious. If the people who ran the SMU orientation did something disturbing (not just because of what they had frosh chant but because someone, somewhere who organized the orientation programme must have thought that what they were doing was perfectly OK -- otherwise they would not have done it). The people who engineered the Dalhousie “gentlemen’s club” might be of even greater concern because they operated in the in-between space of internet social media. This space is an odd space because it is at once private and public. It is under private control and subject -- supposedly -- to privacy. I have a Facebook page and only those people who I accept as “friends” can see it. On the other hand ... we all know that these sites are there. Like the gentlemen’s clubs of old, we might not know precisely what goes on inside, but we know that something is (or, was) going on. It is this nether space that makes the incident at Dalhousie dentistry so concerning because it tries to shroud what is, in fact, a very public sexism in the veneer of privacy all the while maintaining its public character.
Finally, for me, the incident at Dalhousie raises another concern and here I might speak as a man, a parent, and person who goes to the dentist. I expected better of these people. Some people reading this blog might be surprised that I did. After all, a number of my colleagues might say, “what, have you had your head in the sand? A culture that minimizes the sexual abuse of women and that treats women as sex objects is not a secret. How could you be surprised?” A good question because I don’t consider myself to be naive. But, for me -- for right or for wrong -- there was a difference between a drunk 19 year old manipulated by a stupid upper-class student to chant a disturbing chant and ... well ... adults who are on their way to being professionals in our community. My dentist is a great guy. He’s well respected, works hard, will see someone for an emergency problem just about any time one needs to. He is polite, professional, properly attired, and does not tell off-colour jokes when I am around him or make derogatory, sexist comments. A final disturbing thing for me is that these people were supposed to be like that. They cannot pretend that they were kids (they are not; they are all on -- I hazard a guess -- at least their second degree, admission to which requires a shockingly high academic standing). They are going to make claims after they graduate -- and perhaps before -- to be responsible professionals who take their duty of care for the other seriously by virtue of their profession. I guess I was the same age as these men when I went to graduate school. I had been married for a number of years, had a child, and was training for what I thought then -- and continue to think now -- is a responsible professional career. I had my dumb moments but my goal was to act like an adult and my peers and I looked down on those graduate students who behaved like drunk undergrads on a Friday night at the student pub. These people have behaved much much worse.
And, it is not simply that they acted in a way that exposed their sexism. They were stupid about it, too. Now, I hasten to add that I am not arguing for smart sexism -- a sexism that can cover itself up so well that it can hide from public scrutiny. What shocks me is not just that these dentistry students did not behave like dentistry students -- or, reasonable ordinary adults -- should. They were so God-awful dumb in doing so. Seriously ... did they somehow think that the nether world of social media would protect them from taking responsibility for their actions? I almost want to say “please tell me that this is not true.”
Let me try to conclude on a positive note. If there is something good to have come out of this incident and others like it, it is that Dalhousie has acted. It is starting to become clear that they did not act as quickly as they should have (and that might be the subject of another blog) but they did act, as did SMU. As at SMU, there was a torrent out outrage. There appears to be this time, too. That is heartening. Even if the administrators at Dalhousie acted only to protect its reputation (something I do frankly doubt), at least the public attention is there, the problems have been pointed out, and we are having a serious discussion of them. In other words, what I hope is a silver lining is this: if this incident exposes and reinforces deeply disturbing trajectories of Canadian culture, it also shows the opposite. That there are people willing to stand up for equality and safety and be counted and willing to demand that others do so as well.