Nova Scotia·Opinion

Wayne MacKay reflects on Dalhousie dentistry Facebook scandal

Dalhousie University law professor Wayne MacKay reflects on the Facebook scandal at the university's faculty of dentistry.

There is little real accountability for sexual assaults and harassment, says MacKay

Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University, says technology and social media are wonderful things but they are not a substitute for real human contact and satisfying personal relationships. (CBC)

Wayne MacKay is a law professor at Dalhousie University, the chair of the Nova Scotia Task Force on Cyberbullying as well as the chair of the President's Council into the rape chant at Saint Mary's University.

Universities are and should be places where freedom of speech is highly valued. However, all speech has its reasonable limits that should be respected.

Among these limits are avoiding hate speech targeting identifiable groups and discriminatory speech more broadly.

The sexist and misogynist discussions, shared on a Facebook site by some members of Dalhousie University's faculty of dentistry, clearly cross the line and deserve to be sanctioned.

This kind of disrespectful commentary about women generally and specific female classmates, again emphasizes how deep rooted and pervasive the problems of sexism and misogyny are, not just on campuses but throughout our society.

I was immersed in these problems both as chair of the Nova Scotia Task Force on Cyberbullying and also as chair of the President's Council into the rape chant at Saint Mary's University.

In light of the broad publicity surrounding these studies and the troubling incidents that sparked them, how can people continue to act in such disrespectful and harmful ways towards their fellow human beings?

Tragedies — such as the death of Rehtaeh Parsons, the infamous rape chant, the alleged conduct of Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby — should have educated people about the high price of objectifying and sexualizing women.

Message not received

Somehow the message has not been received by all.

Not only does inappropriate sexist behaviour continue to occur, but it is posted on social media for the world to see.

One would hope university students would be smarter than this.

At the risk of sounding old — which I suppose I am — we live in an age of instant gratification, where speed is deified and getting things done quickly is more important than doing them thoughtfully.

Social media itself encourages blunt and brief communication. Why use an email when a text or a tweet will do? Dealing with people on the phone or in person is becoming a time-consuming anachronism. Why be involved in a real community when you can connect through Facebook or Instagram?

Technology and social media are wonderful things but they are not a substitute for real human contact and satisfying personal relationships.

I cannot imagine that these Dalhousie dental students would have said these hurtful things to the faces of their fellow students — be they female or male — but they were comfortable saying them within the "safe" confines on an artificial online community of "gentlemen."

Most young men learn about sex and appropriate sexual relations not from parents, schools, peers or the church, but from hard core pornography, now readily available online.

All of us are surrounded by a pervasive sexist culture, which is sometimes more subtle, but still present. Violent video games celebrate the degradation and exploitation of women as do — to a lesser extent — many music videos and advertisements.

Some parents' concerns misplaced

Some parents seem more concerned about being their children's friends than responsible adults making them accountable for their treatment of others.

Peers have often replaced parents as the primary role models, as have celebrities in the larger culture.

There is also a growing gap between young and old where adults talk about the evils of "sexting" while younger people do not even use that term for sharing images online. This is seen as being part of free expression and relating to one another.

In respect to matters of sexual assaults and harassment, there is little real accountability. Most incidents are not reported and even when they are, the chances of serious consequences are remote.

This is particularly true in respect to criminal charges. There are inadequate supports and resources for victims of sexual violence not just on university campuses, but throughout society.

Statistics about sexual violence on university campuses are scarce. Ironically, if better statistics are kept, the reputation of that institution suffers.

When victims do decide to file complaints, they are often revictimized and blamed for damaging or destroying the lives of men who "really intended no harm."

Improving legal responses

The fact that the women affected by the Dalhousie dentistry situation could not file complaints anonymously, discourages seeking a remedy for inappropriate sexual conduct.

The potential injustice of this was recognized in the recent Supreme Court of Canada case A.B. vs. Brogg, where a victim of sexualized cyberbullying on Facebook was allowed to pursue defamation anonymously.

The picture is not completely bleak and there has been some positive change.

The very technology and social media that facilitates much of the harmful conduct also exposes it and allows the perpetrators to be found. This was the case of the person who cyberbullied Amanda Todd in British Columbia.

We are improving our legal responses and raising the consciousness of the nature and extent of the problems of sexism and other forms of discrimination in Canadian society.

Cyberbullying is no longer a hidden phenomenon.

Insufficient appetite

However, we have not made as much progress on preventing the harmful expressions and conduct and educating our children to be sensitive and empathetic people, who care as much about the feelings of other people as their own feelings and desires.

This major systemic challenge needs to be met on many different fronts. Individual acts of an offensive and hurtful character should be sanctioned but we need to go further.

We need to make structural changes that really emphasize values such as humanity, empathy and community — and not just individualism, materialism and personal gain.

Until this happens, incidents like these at Dalhousie University's faculty of dentistry, Saint Mary's University and ones like them all over the country, will continue to bubble to the surface.

This is one of those complex social problems for which there is no app — and often insufficient appetite for a serious and meaningful response.