Why does nobody—nobody in Dalhousie University administration anyway—seem to ‘get’ that the behaviour of the dentistry students’ ‘Gentleman’s Club’ is a manifestation of a brutal culture of sexual violence, sexual predation and hatred of women? Why are they so slow to recognise that the events at Dalhousie are not the one-off ‘naughtiness’ of a few young lads but part of a dangerous and increasingly blatant trend? Why have they not acted to express repugnance that this kind of thing is happening on their watch and under their roof?
For those who haven’t been following this debacle over the past several weeks, it was revealed in December that several fourth-year male dentistry students had been posting hateful and disturbing comments on a specialized Facebook page for men of their graduating class. Thirteen of them have subsequently been identified as key perpetrators in this scandal. As CBC described it: “The fourth-year male dentistry students’ violent sexual comments about female classmates included a poll about having ‘hate’ sex with female students and drugging women.”
The many ways to express sexual violence
The Facebook extracts show clearly that when these men look at their female colleagues they are not seeing colleagues but expendable bodies. Moreover, they are seeing women as bodies that they hate and want to rape and dominate. Make no mistake: the excerpts from those parts of the Facebook pages that we were allowed to see is evidence of profoundly inhuman attitudes. And you can be pretty sure that that way of looking at women will not stop when they are qualified to pull teeth.
So imagine these young men as qualified dentists. I do not want to lie down, exposed and vulnerable, on a dentist’s chair and think that the vertical, empowered person above me is seeing me like that. I certainly don’t want to think of my daughter lying down and being exposed to those kinds of eyes, and above all, I don’t want my granddaughter to be abused in that kind of way.
Make no mistake: these actions—and even in cyberspace they are actions—and these ways of thinking about women stick like cat’s fur to velcro.
Why restorative justice is the wrong answer
Among the weak and ineffective responses from the Dalhousie University administration is the suggestion of ‘restorative justice’. How caring! How sensitive! How massively inappropriate in these circumstances. Restorative justice works, and works well, in specific circumstances. These circumstances require bounded communities that share both a common understanding of what has offended that community and the capacity to enforce the outcomes of restorative justice processes.
Dalhousie is not a bounded community, although the 13 men in the ‘DDS 2015 Gentleman’s Facebook Page’ probably are. They will, therefore, bond together and agree to their own interpretation of what is right and what is wrong — and we already know what their position is. However, the primary victims in this case—the women targeted personally on the Facebook page—have spoken out strongly against this weasely response, and been supported by four articulate Dalhousie professors who demanded a more strident response from the university administration. Dalhousie University promptly ignored their perspective and continued its limp responses by first excluding (temporarily) the dentistry students from clinical practice and then, even more temporarily, from classes.
And these are prospective health professionals?
The evidence on Facebook is not ‘inappropriate and deeply disturbing’ as Richard Florizone, President of Dalhousie University characterised it: it’s very close to a hate crime and completely unacceptable in any civilised society. And it is more than unacceptable among people who aspire to become health professionals. To his credit, Irwin Fefergrad, registrar of the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario, has taken a stronger line, indicating that such behaviour is incompatible with professional accreditation and demanding the names of the students involved. As of now, these names are a closely guarded secret, although the identities of the women abused are not so protected.
Dalhousie is part of a disturbing trend
We know now, alas, that the kind of sexual hatred exhibited by the Dalhousie students is increasingly common in our universities. Just recently we have heard about ‘frosh week’ rape chants at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and several other universities. The University of Ottawa has instigated a formal enquiry into all forms of sexual violence at UofO after allegations of sexual assault by two members of its football team.
Hatred of any kind is not acceptable in our society. Universities are at the front line in developing and fostering appropriate behaviours and attitudes. If they fail, our entire society is at the mercy of escalating patterns of hatreds — and this includes both the hatred embodied in the “gentlemen’s” Facebook page as well as the sort of violent extremists who are prepared to physically attack Canadian civilians. It’s all of a piece.
We need our university administrations to ‘get it’ and be prepared to act to help build the society we need. Civil society needs to abhor and eliminate hatred in all its forms. And we need our universities to develop strong, unequivocal, well informed, consistent and decisive actions to stop all forms of hatred in their tracks.
This article is part of an ongoing series produced by members of the Social Justice Cooperative Newfoundland and Labrador in collaboration with The Independent.
Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.