Monday, December 22, 2014

Hating Women Together and for Sport: The Dalhousie “Gentlemen” and Misogyny in the University

Increasingly, I am seeing the word “misogyny” being deployed in all kinds of mainstream media. It’s no longer a concept relegated to feminist, alternative media spaces. Misogyny, and transmisogyny, as social and cultural illnesses, are being talked about more and more. But, as the word often used in conjunction with other terms and phrases – sexism, assault, harassment, violence against women, patriarchy – I sometimes feel that its meaning becomes less clear.

I’m not saying we are overusing the term misogyny, not at all. Sadly, we are probably not using it enough to diagnose things happing in society and, certainly, online.  Rather, through using it we shouldn’t forget what it means, at the core level of the word.

misogyny:  a hatred of women

origin: Greek misogynia, from misein to hate + gynē woman

Another definition:

dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women: she felt she was struggling against thinly disguised misogyny

origin: mid 17th century: from Greek misos 'hatred' + gunē 'woman'

Misogyny is more than thinking women to be inferior to men. Misogyny is more than judging someone on the basis of sex or gender. Misogyny is about hating women.

I want to focus on what the word means and how that meaning hurts people – women – in society. Not everything that is oppressive to women is automatically misogynistic. There are some forms of sexism that, while still sexist, are not based on an actual hatred of women (some may argue with me on this point and say that all sexism is undergirded by misogyny but I think subtle distinctions are worth making).

So in the case of the Dalhousie Dentistry“Gentlemen’s Club” secret Facebook group – where meme photos about chloroforming women were posted, a poll asking "who would you hate fuck" was created and names listed, and other sexually explicit, violent, and degrading discussions about women and female classmates took place – what are we talking about? Hopefully no actual drugging or assaulting of women took place and maybe none of the members ever planned to do such things. 

Maybe it was a place for male students just to have rape fantasies and mock women.

I’ve noticed some media coverage mentioning that “hate fuck” could be construed as rape. Yes, I think so. I think that’s exactly what “hate fucking” is.

Basically, I’m really pleased that media outlets have been using the word misogyny from the start. This isn’t just men being sexual and inappropriate. This is well beyond harassment. This is more than a patriarchal circle jerk.

It was a place for male students – men – to derive pleasure and entertainment from the communal hating of women. To hate women together and for sport.

And it was all done in a way that was explicitly linked to a faculty and a university – and now Dalhousie University is tasked with deciding how to take a stand against the proliferation of misogyny, sexism, and rape culture on its campus.

While I would be disgusted and outraged to learn of the existence of any similar group associated with any academic school or faculty, it merits pausing for a moment to think directly about who it was – fourth year dentistry students. Male students set to graduate in 2015 – very soon – and start their professional lives as dentists.

There are many academic programs in which one doesn’t train for a specific job they expect to start upon graduation. Dentistry is not one of them. Not only were these soon-to-be-dentists joking about chloroforming women and regaling each other with hate-fuck preferences, they were being schooled to become people in health care, in positions of not only ethical responsibility, but power and trust.

Situations like this are a good reminder of the false correlation that we often imagine between certain programs and career pursuits and morality. There are many, many “good,” caring, decent people that pursue medicine and related fields (thankfully!) There are also many others who could not easily be defined as moral or showing good judgment. Many untrustworthy, negligent, even hateful people are also attracted to prestigious helping professions.

I strongly believe at least some aspect of the shock of this story has to do with the fact that it involves students in a prestigious program that is in the healthcare sphere.

We want to believe that anyone who wants to help people (and be paid well for it, let’s not forget) wouldn’t joke about raping women. That is not the case here. 

So what will the university do? Many are calling for their expulsion. Talking about this with some people, I said I empathized with the position of the university in terms of the challenge of how to handle it. It could be precedent setting, and the administration would need to carefully consider how they would deal with similar, perhaps arguably “lesser,” but still serious cases in the future. 

How will they decide what is bad enough, what is hateful enough, to warrant failing and being expelled from the program? Will they hold certain programs to different standards? 

If the behaviour was not so closely linked to and branded with the school’s identity, would it matter? They have an important decision to make in choosing a course of action.

There is also the challenge of deciding what level of participation would warrant being expelled. What about the student who posted nothing but “liked” a post? What about the students who never posted or participated but knew what was happening and never got involved or tried to stop it? 

Aside: For men who want to be feminist allies, think about all the situations you may find yourself in where you can speak up against other men. Speaking up can be hard, but sometimes silence is permission.

The University – in all its physical and virtual spaces – should at the very least keep students safe from harm, discrimination, and threats of sexual violence. To go a step further, it should be a place where critical, anti-oppressive, sensitive thinking is taught and cultivated. University should be a time to become more respectful and open-minded, rather than a time to learn how to denigrate women with your peers.

I think the students who participated in the club’s misogynistic posts and discussions should be expelled. While sometimes forgiveness seems preferable, I think certain transgressions warrant serious, life-changing consequences. 

These men need to know that hating women – and talking about and encouraging it – has actual academic and professional repercussions.

Maybe they will learn to respect women, or maybe they won’t. But at least they won’t be dentists.