Sunday, 11 January 2015

To Punish or Reform, That is the Question

We instinctively look to long sentences to punish offenders, yet the evidence shows
that long periods served in prison increase the chance that the offender will offend
again ... In the end, public security is diminished rather than increased if we "throw
away the key" and then return offenders to the streets at sentence expiry,
unreformed and unsupervised.
1

Thirteen male students at Dalhousie University made misogynistic and/or violently misogynistic comments about fellow female students. These facts are not in doubt, but what is publicly in doubt is which students made which comments. Furthermore, we do not know the intent behind the comments. Were they of serious intent, or were they jokes?

Regardless of what is known and what is unknown, many individuals have cried out for justice. These male students need to be punished, and the female students need to feel safe. Dalhousie is under immense pressure to outright expel all thirteen students. If they somehow ever get their degrees, they should not be employed.

It is at this point the question needs to be asked, what is the goal of all this punishment? What is it that this powerful mob of vigilantes want? If the point is to only punish these young men, and if suspension and denial of employment happen, point made. But what next for these thirteen young men? Are they allowed to apply back to university for other professions? If yes, then why can't they become dentists, why is it only this one profession denied them? If no, well then what are they allowed to do? These questions need to have answers in advance.

There is a petition online (with over 49,000 signatures so far) urging these students be expelled. As justification it states,

Not one individual, regardless of sex, age or gender that participates in a group that condones violence towards women including rape, the drugging of females and other misogynistic attitudes should ever be placed in a position of trust.

We the signers also believe that all students should have the right to study in a positive environment that is free from the above attitudes; where every student feels safe to learn valued as a member of the School. We do not believe that allowing the members of this group to continue studying [at] the School promotes said environment for the females students, specially the ones named on the Facebook group.


Following the logic as presented, if these students must be expelled for the safety of all female students, it would then follow that these students must never be allowed to enter any educational environment where there are female students present. It is also then logical to assume that these students must never be employed where female co-workers or female members of the public are present, especially if any degree of trust is involved. So what future does that permit for these men?

We can hope that this petition is poorly worded, and that these extensions of logic are not intended. But these extensions of logic do matter. It has already been stated that these thirteen men must never be allowed to work in a profession where sedatives are available. That covers a large number of possible careers. So therefore, what careers are left, and does the matter of trust carry significant weight?

The goals of punishment as expressed, only pertain to the safety of the female students these males may encounter. While that is a laudable goal, that cannot be the only justification for any action taken. Actions have consequences, and yes, the male students involved should face some sort of consequence, but the actions we take against them will have consequences of their own.

And this is where it becomes troubling that there are demands for punishment, for justice, to occur when no breach of criminal law has been committed. A standard of behaviour has been breached. Against this breach of behaviour, justice is being sought, and so principles of justice must apply. The punishment must suit the crime. And this punishment will set precedent.

This is why it is important to define the goals of the punishment. If permanent expulsion from education and from the workforce is desired, then we will have thirteen very angry, depressed and revenge minded individuals. It is not fantastical to predict that one of these young men will seek revenge on campus in a very bloody manner. Even expulsion from Dalhousie carries this risk, especially if their names become public. Will any school accept their application to enter any other program? Will they be able to attend class without threats of protest, public shaming or other acts against their person?

We cannot deny these men participation in society. That would be a greater evil than the actions they took. Their only crime was to use words, on Facebook. That is not an evil that requires full expulsion from society. That is what a life sentence in jail is for, and that criminal punishment does not apply here. We therefore cannot allow a social equivalent of that punishment to occur.

Furthermore, it is critical the punishment not be seen as hypocritical. Because the phrases uttered by these men are not unique to these men alone. Their only sin was to get caught. That is how many will interpret this. The lesson many will learn is If you want to be misogynistic, make sure you do it in private.

I want to be very clear here. I am not endorsing what these young men said and I do agree that it is reflective of a larger social problem. It is commonly seen that these kind of comments are allowed, even encouraged. There is a social attitude of entrenched misogyny that needs to change. And again, it is important to reflect on the goals of the punishment that is sought. If these men are turned into pariahs, the goal of changing society will backfire. The Men's Rights Activists will have their martyrs, and these thirteen young men will become the celebrated heroes of their cause.

While these young men must face some form of punishment, of censure, this punishment must take the principles of reforming their behaviour into its core. We want thirteen valued members of society to result from this. Perhaps all goals can be achieved by requiring the students involved to restart their current year of study from the beginning. This is not a small punishment; it imposes a large financial penalty through tuition and the loss of one year of income. They will be one year behind their peers, their friends. There will still be shame and hopefully atonement. But they will be allowed to participate in society. Hopefully chastised, reformed and wiser. Isn't that what we truly all want?

We definitely do not want thirteen angry, isolated, revenge driven individuals. That will not serve society well.

1 Submission on Bill C-10 Safe Streets and Communities Act, The Canadian Bar Association.

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