Mark Mercer, Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary’s University

What would be the point of punishing, by expelling or through other sanctions, the dentistry students involved in the misogynistic Facebook postings?

From what those who advocate punishment are saying, I count four different answers. First, the point of punishing them is retribution. The students acted wrongly and deserve official sanctions. Second, they have shown themselves by their actions to be unfit to join the profession of dentistry. Third, punishing them will serve to reduce the likelihood of other students making misogynistic remarks, and that will, in turn, make dentistry school more hospitable to women students. Fourth, the point of punishing them is to rehabilitate the school of dentistry, to help it to reclaim its reputation as a place that treats women students well.

1) About retribution: Not all wrongs we commit are wrongs we should be punished for. In a free society, we should not be punished for our opinions, emotions, or values, or for expressing our opinions, emotions, and values. Our opinions might be false and our values unsound, and our expressing them disturbing or hurtful, but respect for each other requires that we apply no pressures other than argument and evidence to try to change opinions or values.

Canadian society, though, as many commentators have pointed out, is not a free society. We have laws against the expression of hate, and our defamation laws are strong and punitive. Too bad for us, I say. But even those who don’t mind punishing people for the content of their public expression should be uneasy when it comes to going after posters in the relative privacy of Facebook, I would think. Or is it only behind the locked doors of our houses that we can say what we want without worry?

But the case we’re considering is not a matter of law, one might respond. The school of dentistry is not a government agency and should be free to settle matters in its own house as it wants. Well, we don’t live in a free society even if the government isn’t involved in censoring and suppressing opinion, so long as other powerful institutions are taking up the slack. Moreover, consider that the school of dentistry is part of Dalhousie University. A university is a place of intellectual community, or should be, and intellectual community is sustained only if members of that community are free from institutional pressures to believe and value this way or that. Of course we want that we and others believe truly and value soundly, but we also want that we believe truly and value soundly for our own good reasons, not out of fear or hope of reward.

That, I think, is the main reason why the students should not be punished or even face the threat of being punished. Since they are university students, they are members of an intellectual community, and such a community is destroyed when members are directed to have certain beliefs and values, rather than allowed, through investigation and critical discussion, to come to their own beliefs and values.

2) About gatekeeping: The school of dentistry is part of a university, yes, but, one might add, it is also a professional school, training students to assume a position within a profession. As such, the school of dentistry has a responsibility to ensure that only people fit to join that profession are invited to do so.

This is a strong argument for expelling the students. It would be even stronger were there some good reason for thinking students involved in misogynistic expression would put their patients at risk of harm were they ever to have patients. (Is there any evidence to support that worry?)

One response is, again, that powerful institutions, such as schools of dentistry, should in a free society have great regard for freedom of expression. Another response is that because it is part of a university, the school of dentistry is a place of education rather than training and, thereby, should not be playing any official gatekeeping role at all. That role should be left exclusively to professional societies.

Maybe schools of dentistry shouldn’t be part of universities. Maybe their associations with universities should be much looser than they are, and their ties to professional bodies tighter. In any case, they cannot be both academic institutions of education and training centres that keep watch on the gates. If a school of dentistry wants to be a gatekeeper, it shouldn’t be housed within a university.

3) About making the school friendly to women: The threat of sanctions for getting caught making misogynistic remarks might well reduce the number of misogynistic postings on Facebook, and that would make for a more pleasant environment. And, yet, that more pleasant environment would be a result not of changed attitudes but of enforced manners. Manners cannot be enforced at a university, I argued above, without compromising that university’s status as a place of education. Here, though, I want to make the additional point that we’re aiming much too low if our goal is merely to create the façade of respect and good will toward women. Let’s be more ambitious, and try to create the real thing.

To create a place in which all students respect and help each other, we need candidly to discuss the attitudes people have that demean others and that lead to hurtful behaviours such as misogynistic postings. Punishment doesn’t change attitudes, but discussion can and often does. If the school of dentistry is to become a place in fact friendly to women, then it has to uncover through critical discussion alone the basic attitudes that make the school hostile, and attempt to change those attitudes through showing them to be pinched, narrow, and debilitating.

4) About restoring the reputation of the school: If the school of dentistry wants to have the reputation of both being friendly to women and being a place of education, it cannot resort to punishment in service of the former, for then it loses the latter. And because threats of punishment create, at best, merely the appearance of friendliness, the school will not gain a reputation for being friendly to women by policing bad behaviours. Its reputation will, rather, be that of a school where misogyny lingers just under the surface.

A fifth reason I’ve heard for punishing the students is, with the first, retribution, but the wrong to be made right by punishment in this case isn’t the expressing of false or obnoxious beliefs or values. The wrong, rather, is the violent assault on the women who were mentioned in the postings.

Yet posting something on Facebook cannot be an act of violence, even if it hurts and even if it harms.

Haligonian Barb Stegemann has been in the media a lot lately talking about her initiative to save the world one perfume bottle at a time by encouraging farmers to produce perfume ingredients for her company The 7 Virtues.

Having recently expanded into Rwanda, Stegemann emphasizes that, although she runs a for-profit business, not a charity, her efforts represent unequivocal progress for Rwandans. Members of the media appear uninterested in asking whether this is actually the case.

Though I fully support assisting people plagued by violence, I find Stegemann’s approach typical of situations when uninformed Western interests enter low-income countries like Rwanda.

According to Stegemann, for example, the country’s leadership is “extraordinary.” Yet a multitude of recent scholarship on Rwanda paints a dramatically different picture.

The current regime is authoritarian at best, dictatorial at worst. Predications about Rwanda’s political future range from quite cautious to downright pessimistic. One scholar sees worrisome similarities between the current leadership and those who ruled the country when violence erupted in the 1990s.

The country’s rural poor tend to view their government and its commitment to unity and reconciliation with suspicion. There is far too little sharing of political power, and economic resources are being concentrated in fewer hands.

Also according to Stegeman, Rwanda’s women have become pivotal in the political process. And this is exactly what the still male-dominated leadership wants outsiders to believe.

In reality, Rwandan women have worked hard and achieved some gains, including increased respect from family and community members, but there has been little in the way of improvement regarding formal political participation.

Women have better representation in government, but given the authoritarian nature of the state, they appear to have very limited power in these new roles. The legislative gains that Stegemann purports have been few.

And because most women who took such positions had previously been leading women’s civil society organizations, these once relatively powerful pro-women groups are now less effective.

The still male-dominated government, moreover, regularly uses the façade of a pro-women movement to gain support both internally and abroad to further its agenda of heavy-handed, elite-focused development as it harasses the media, suppresses dissent and crushes political opposition.

Stegemann appears to have big plans in Rwanada. During a recent interview, she explained that when she goes to “nations with serious war and strife,” her goal is to “shine a light on them and empower them.” A tall order, to be sure.

The anthropological perspective highlights that such an undertaking should be based on in-depth knowledge of a country. So, if her vision is more than marketing-speak, then Stegemann needs to know a lot more about Rwanda before deciding whether to play a role in shaping its future.

There is already reason to think that Stegemann has failed to recognize one major pitfall. Rwanada is a food-deficit country. It has great difficulty feeding itself, which is why chronic childhood malnutrition remains at 43 percent.

A primary cause of food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa is the use of productive farmland to grow non-food crops for export—the exact model Stegemann utilizes. As she explained in a recent CTV interview, Rwandans are better off producing patchouli for her than potatoes to feed themselves.

A bottle of “Patchouli of Rwanda,” furthermore, sells for $70 at Hudson’s Bay. What percentage of that likely ends up in the hands of Rwandan farmers?

I welcome a correction from Stegemann on this, but if I’m correct, anthropologists call this wealth extraction. Only the wage remains in Rwanda, which is meager compared to the global market value of what is being taken out of the country.

In short, the media’s adoration of Stegemann needs a little counterbalance. My hope is that readers will understand that good intentions are simply not enough when Western entrepreneurs take their ideals abroad.


Rylan Higgins is an assistant professor of anthropology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.


Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

All sorts of institutions get called universities these days, so the question isn’t whether an institution called Saint Mary’s University will survive. The question is whether it will remain a true university.

A true university is one committed to liberal education. An institution committed to liberal education will be marked by wide academic freedom for professors and wide freedom of expression and freedom of association on campus generally. At institutions of liberal education, students and professors congregate so that they might think for themselves. That’s why academic freedom and the civil liberties are necessary, for, without them, thinking can be molded by pressures to fit in and fears of punishment.

Saint Mary’s commitment to liberal education has been shaky for about a decade, but the Action Team on sexualized violence, formed to implement the recommendations of the President’s Council, threatens to dissolve that commitment altogether.

The President’s Council was appointed last year after the rape chant incident that occurred during orientation week. Its twenty-two recommendations combine a scant few worthy ideas and initiatives with many more draconian proposals for oversight and control of what happens on campus. The Action Team, as was made clear at a public presentation 27 August, is keen to remodel Saint Mary’s according to the most intrusive and repressive of the Council’s recommendations.

Safety, inclusiveness, and respect are the three core values the Action Team hopes to serve. Yes, we want our university to be safe and inclusive, and for people to treat each other respectfully. So how has the Action Team gone wrong?

Keep in mind that no evidence has surfaced that Saint Mary’s has a problem regarding sexualized violence. The rape chant incident was not itself an instance of sexualized violence, and little data exist that speak to the prevalence of sexual assault or rape on campus or by members of the Saint Mary’s community.

The Action Team intends to increase our awareness of sexualized violence by conducting climate surveys. But climate surveys gather perceptions and fears, not data regarding sexual assault itself. The Action Team, then, would remake Saint Mary’s culture on the basis of irrelevant and misleading data.

As far as we know, Saint Mary’s has no safety problem to address. In any case, if it did, it’s the police or security experts that the university should turn to, not a president’s council.

What about inclusiveness? Again, no evidence exists that people are being ignored or shunned because of discrimination based on prejudice. Saint Mary’s appears already to be a warm, welcoming, encouraging place for students.

When we come to what the Action Team wants to do to foster respect, we come to what is most distressing about the future of liberal education at Saint Mary’s.

The Action Team seeks to train people in the behaviours and, indeed, attitudes it prefers. It will require students to complete an online programme about consent. Forcing them to do this, when it is outside their academic programmes, is inconsistent with respecting their freedom to choose extra-curricular activities for themselves. Just as bad is that these programmes are not about inquiry and discussion, but about parroting the preferred correct responses.

The Action Team proposes also to write and implement a university-wide code of conduct. Codes of conduct, though, enforce behaviours with rewards and punishments. They do not promote unforced respect for others as fellow students and academics.

Now behind all this, of course, is the university’s desire that students do not engage in rape chants. No one wants to hear another rape chant, but we should want that we don’t hear one simply because no cares to participate in one. That is, we would like it that people were not callous about rape and suffering, and were not clueless about what their leaders are encouraging them to do. But we would also like that they acquire their attitudes for their own good reasons, not because they forced into them (or into pretending they have them).

Here we have the basic irony in the Action Team’s approach to respect. The Team would treat us, students and professors alike, disrespectfully—in order that we conform to its policy of respect.

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University
Halifax, NS B3H 3C3

Outgoing University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera distinguishes strongly between academic freedom and freedom of expression.

“Academic freedom is so hopelessly misunderstood,” she said, according to a report on the CBC News website, 29 May 2014. “Academic freedom is there for you to be able to speak about things you absolutely are an expert on. We’re talking about free speech, here.”

The “here” in that last sentence refers to professors criticizing the policies at their universities. For Samarasekera, universities allow professors to criticize their institutions not because those professors enjoy academic freedom, for academic freedom, again, applies only to professors when they are speaking as credentialed experts. Rather, universities don’t sanction professors who speak critically simply because universities value freedom of expression.

President Samarasekera is not describing the institution of academic freedom as it actually exists at her university; she is, instead, proposing that things be changed. The collective agreement at the University of Alberta affirms, under the heading “Academic Freedom,” that professors are free “to speculate, to comment, to criticize without deference to prescribed doctrine” (article 2.02.3). Nothing in the agreement restricts that affirmation to speculations, comments, or criticisms made within a professor’s areas of academic expertise.

Samarasekera is, then, telling us how things should be, and not how they presently are. Those who so hopelessly misunderstand academic freedom might not be making a factual mistake regarding policies currently in place. They are simply wrong about what utterances should be protected under academic freedom.

President Samarasekera is not alone in her view that much of what is protected in collective agreements under the heading “academic freedom” shouldn’t be included under that heading. It is safe to say that most university presidents in Canada share her view, for, in 2011, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), an organization of university and college presidents, adopted a new statement on academic freedom that conspicuously fails to include both criticism of the university and public expression. (The AUCC statement is now being cited by some universities in their bargaining with professors’ unions. These universities would remove from collective agreements freedom of expression protections professors currently enjoy.)

Should we, then, reform policies of academic freedom along the lines Samarasekera describes, removing the protection they give to professors who speak on matters outside their credentialed expertise?

Samarasekera’s proposal certainly raises a host of practical difficulties around how to determine a professor’s areas of expertise. But that’s not the real problem with it. The real problem is that it rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of academic credentials.

It is true that earning a Master’s or Doctoral degree in a subject makes one an expert on a topic or two. More significantly, though, one’s degree indicates that one has acquired a high level of competence in enquiry, interpretation, critical thinking, and expression. The competence the master or doctor has acquired is a general competence, one that can be exercised on whatever field or topic to which the person turns her attention. It also indicates an outlook, a fondness for enquiry and discussion. An academic degree is not the credential of a narrow specialist, as a professional title is; first and foremost, it announces one’s citizenship in the republic of enquiry and letters.

Academic freedom, then, on a correct view of academic credentials, is not an expert’s freedom to voice her expert judgement, but the freedom of a researcher, scholar, or intellectual to carry on as a researcher, scholar, or intellectual. (Since researchers, scholars, and intellectuals are skeptical, if not disdainful, of authority and expertise, they would be embarrassed to claim the authority of an expert.)

Now, although Samarasekera would restrict academic freedom to recognized expertise, she would also defend freedom of expression on campus, as she makes clear both in her CBC interview and in an article she published in the Globe and Mail, 28 May 2014. In that article, she writes, “Certainly campuses are places where free debate must reign, even heatedly, and this free speech—just like academic freedom—must be defended in the strongest terms.” (Unfortunately, Samarasekera’s defence of expression on campus isn’t, in fact, in the strongest terms. She endorses, in her Globe and Mail article, Canada’s laws against defamation and hate speech, laws that deform enquiry and discussion to a greater degree than they protect anyone’s wellbeing.)

On Samarasekera’s campus, then, academic freedom would protect only expert opinion, and freedom of expression would protect what members of the university community say outside their spheres of expertise. In the end, everything would remain protected. Apart, then, from the mistake of thinking of academics as experts rather than intellectuals, why bother to protect professors’ freedom of expression under the heading of academic freedom?

Prudence. When freedom of expression is protected under academic freedom, a whole faculty union may well mobilize in its defence should it be threatened or violated. On the other hand, words from a university senate proclaiming freedom of expression on campus will protect nothing should an administrator decide that a professor’s speech puts the university’s reputation at risk, say, or threatens the campus atmosphere of tolerance and respect.

A whole faculty union may well mobilize. Nothing is for certain, of course, and there are plenty of examples of faculty unions happily siding with the administration against talkative professors. Still, if President Samarasekera were to have her way, professors would almost immediately enjoy no more security of expression than their students currently do.

Originally published in the Prince Arthur Herald, 17 July 2014

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

The model in the ad in the bus shelter is emaciated, or she’s all of twelve years old in lipstick and silk. Or the ad is for a homeopathic remedy, or it belittles members of a vulnerable minority, or it celebrates consumerism. You’re moved to criticize the ad, to explain how it is misogynistic or otherwise oppressive, or that it promotes dangerous nonsense.

You could write a letter to its sponsor, but you want a wider and more open audience for your message than just company executives. Perhaps a letter to the editor would be better, or a blog posting, or an essay for a magazine or quarterly review. If you have the money, you could rent space for your own ad.

Each of these options is perfectly fine, but you want something more immediate, something that will reach the same people on the street who can’t help but see the ad.

And so you write or draw on the ad itself or affix a sticker to it. Your message might be short and catchy or long and argumentative, but there it is, right on the ad, talking back to it, available for anyone who looks at the ad to see.

Now you’ve taken care, of course, not to damage the plastic sheet covering the ad. You haven’t etched your message into the sheet, or used ink that won’t ever wash clean. Your sticker can be scraped off fairly easily. It’s okay to mark up the ad itself, if it’s not behind plastic, for it will be removed when its tenancy expires, leaving no vandalism behind.

Being conscientious about property as you are, you might have to return to re-instal your message should it be removed before the ad comes down. You’re conscientious by nature, certainly, but still you’re happy for people to notice your concern not to damage anything. They’ll mark the care you took.

Perhaps the ad made you angry, but your anger is not your message, or not your only message. If your anger were your only message, you would have affixed your sticker to the face of the model or written your words over the name of the brand. You would have tried to obliterate the ad. That, though, would have been to prevent the advertiser from getting his message out. It would be like shouting down a speaker rather than answering him in the discussion period or demonstrating against his views. Destroying the ad, like disrupting a talk, is not at all in the spirit of critical engagement or democratic action. Whatever a person who destroys or disrupts an occasion of expression might be trying to say, his or her central message becomes disdain for freedom of expression and the endorsement of authoritarianism that that disdain implies.

You leave your comment a bit off to the side, or work it into the spaces, so that the message of the ad is not obscured. Your comment speaks against something in the ad, rather than effaces that something. You have cost the advertiser nothing, at least nothing that he or she is entitled to, and yet you have made your point, and made it to exactly the audience you desired.

Should your actions count as vandalism? I don’t see why. You’ve merely turned a monologue into a dialogue or offered to a captive audience another side to consider. An act of vandalism is an act of ill-willed destruction, but you’ve been nothing but creative and public spirited.

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

One large obstacle in the way of defending graffiti is simply the dismal quality of the vast majority of the stuff. If most street artists were even only half as talented as Banksy, the task would be easier.

Yet isn’t the quality of the urban landscape often enough just as dismal? A crumbling overpass isn’t made any more unsightly by tags and scrawls, however stale or uninspired. When buildings are ugly and empty lots are surrounded by rough plywood sheets, insipid art doesn’t render the scene any less appealing.

Let’s just say, then, that there’s fault on both sides. If cities and landowners were to make their property attractive and interesting, the vandals would come to understand that they, the landowners, care about the visual environment. This might move the artists to find proper venues for their work, or at least inspire them to pick up their game. And if the vandals were to learn to draw, and were to develop new styles and fresh ideas, then we all would be more inclined to accept their offerings, perhaps even to cherish some of them.

Yet expressive vandalism remains vandalism, even if it marks up nothing worth looking at in the first place, and even when it marks it up well. How can that be defended?

To begin with, by emphasizing the “expressive” part. Graffiti and other forms of expressive vandalism are attempts at expression and we should all be free, and encouraged, to express our ideas, beliefs, and emotions. Life is awful when one is prevented from hanging oneself out for others to see.

But the walls, bus-shelters, and underpasses don’t belong to these people, one might object. Artists ought to rent space or buy property themselves if they want to display something, or submit their work to magazines or put it on the internet. Apart, though, from the fact that street artists lack the means to buy space, this objection implies that it’s the people with money who should determine how our urban environment looks. Well, maybe it’s your wall, but it’s everyone’s common space.

Many of the walls and telephone poles in our common space do belong to these people, though, for they belong to the public. Surfaces owned by municipalities and governments are a resource for artists and could be distributed as such, just as space for buskers is in subway systems. Moreover, people who own buildings can lend out walls for murals.

Of course, in the end, property rights must take precedence. But that doesn’t mean that property owners, including the city, should either deny artists venues or jealously guard their control over the visual environment.

To summarize the defence: much in our cities is already too ugly to be made worse by graffiti; graffiti enables impecunious artists to reach a wide audience; and it’s unfair that civic officials and property owners alone should determine the look of our streets. In the end, though, defending graffiti on these grounds will fail if the quality remains so low. Graffiti can be successfully defended only when people are happy to look at it. If you are going to grab surfaces, especially ones that aren’t yours, make what you do with them worthwhile. Then you can rightly claim to be improving the visual environment and enhancing people’s experience of the city. Your argument that it shouldn’t be only the owners who get to call the shots will acquire the authority of your accomplishment.

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, 7 July 2014