The second half of 2014 has highlighted an issue that has been happening time immemorial. With recent news of CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi’s assaults on women, Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults on women and then the 13 Dentistry students of ‘The Gentlemen’s Club’ at Dalhousie University who posted violent, sexist and homophobic comments about women and their female classmates, it is clear that misogyny is thriving in our society. Misogyny is “the hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women, or prejudice against women.” These men committed acts that violated the basic rights, safety and dignity of women.
In the case of the Dal Dentistry students, you might say that as students they have no power, but I would argue that as soon as a student is accepted into fields of study such as dentistry and medicine, there is instantly a sense of entitlement and power. In addition to the high social class status they receive, doctors and dentists in Canada have the potential to earn hundreds of thousands a year. Jian Ghomeshi assumed power beyond his title at CBC, and let’s not talk about Bill Cosby’s earnings and entitlement through fame. Their disrespect and violence against women is a reflection of what is happening in society at large, in schools, universities and the workplace.
What can be said about the upbringing and early childhood experiences of these men? This is part of the equation explaining actions of misogyny. Are we as parents teaching our sons to respect women? Are we as women walking out of relationships that prove to be harmful to us? Are we sending the right messages to our children who see us tolerating, making excuses for, and living in abusive relationships? Are fathers showing their children how their mother should be treated? Are mothers showing sons how they should treat women? Such practices over time have resulted in people growing up thinking that the subjugation of women in society is the norm. This thinking has to change. The power of education in nurturing young minds to be open-minded and critical so that bias, prejudice and unjust practices towards women are minimized needs to be taken seriously.
The starting point for administrators and educators is to acknowledge that misogyny exists. Responses such as ‘boys will be boys’, ‘it’s part of growing up’, ‘they’re just goofing around’ or ‘remove yourself from that space’ are irresponsible responses that send messages that such behaviour is okay. However, those responses are not okay. They destroy lives. The lesson is to stop rationalizing abusive behaviour and oppressive norms. The idea is to teach behaviour, to practice and live it at home and in society, and to stop any and all forms of abuse when it occurs. People (both men and women) who witness such behaviour or know that it’s happening need to be responsible and take steps to report abuse, and respective authority figures need to be responsible in addressing these concerns immediately and appropriately.
Speaking of the Dal Dentristry case, Francoise Baylis, a Bioethics professor at Dalhousie University said, “All students have a right to an education free of sexual harassment. We, as the university, have an obligation, a duty to ensure equal access to a safe and supportive environment.” I would add that the provision of safe environments must extend to all people, including women, a population that has been and continues to be marginalized and oppressed. The school has the potential to shift the norm in changing the way girls and boys think about issues of gender bias so that all children grow up into strong men and women who insist on equality.
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