Doing more to help than harm

In the heat of emotion we ask for punitive justice, but it’s not the best way


The Dalhousie dentistry case is a very interesting one. There are tons of differently nuanced opinion and news articles online—after reading through them, I think I’ve seen photos of the dentistry building from every conceivable angle—although they broadly agree. The most recent development I’m aware of is the police’s finding nothing criminally pursuable in the offensive posts. I haven’t seen any commentary on that decision yet, but I’m sure it will represent, by and large, outrage.

And there should be outrage, of course, over the sorts of crimes these students joked about. There’s no question that it would take a horrible lapse of judgement to commit any of them, and that no decent person, let alone a professional, should joke about them in any context. The poll I found particularly vile.

But the outrage being shown is partly about the punishment chosen, and that’s where I’m not sure I understand where people are coming from.

Dalhousie at first said it would pursue a restorative justice route, with the implication that expulsion or suspension was not in the cards. There were marches, social media flareups like the hashtag “#dalhousiehateswomen”, and more to compel a “stronger” response from Dalhousie.

But action taken under the pressure of public outcry is rarely the carefully considered kind. It has nothing to do with the rule of law and something to do with vigilante justice. Out of curiosity, I took the opportunity to ask Premier Wynne her opinion while she was here on Thursday, and she rightly pointed out that where people raise an outcry, we should think long and hard about changes that “should have been made 30 years ago”. But she conceded that it can’t always reliabliy guide a just response. Emotion can be manipulated by rhetoric; a crowd can alternate between which debater it cheers for. Hence we sentence people in court, not in the court of public opinion—except when the offence is not strictly illegal and a university administrator is doing the sentencing.

As Wynne said, public outcry is a compelling indicator of the things we need to change. And as a Star article pointed out, institutional justice would have had a hard time providing evidence in cases like that against Jian Ghomeshi. But public outcry is not always right, and in this case, I’m quite puzzled by the outrage against the choice to use restorative justice.

Restorative justice is relatively new and doesn’t have the solid research to definitively support it, but to me at least it seems more promising than traditional justice. It involves education, constructive conversation, restitution more meaningful than just money, and so on. There are also good reasons to believe it reduces recidivism, the risk of reoffending. As long as we never risk the crime bring trivialized in our minds, there’s no real reason to refuse restorative justice.

Except, it seems, when outrage makes us cry for something harsher. But surely cool reason is better. In an article we ran last week, Amanda Havey pointed out that we normally “throw the rapist in jail for life”, as if that were the best we can do as a society. In one article I read, a Dalhousie alumna says that she will make “damn sure” her grandchildren don’t get treated by anyone from the class of 2015. Bad news: it’s not the dentistry class of 2015 at Dalhousie that’s the problem, it’s systemic issues that consistently produce saddening behaviour by young men across all strata of society. We can’t afford to perpetuate outdated ideas of criminality in which hurling an axe at someone fixes a problem rooted very deeply in our culture.

Similarly, some faculty at Dalhousie raised a complaint about the restorative justice plan, says a Globe and Mail article, arguing that it was “long, complicated, and not driven by a set of formal rules”. Well, unfortunately, solutions for sexual offence are not quick, easy, or listed in handy guidebooks. Expulsion would clear the current problem from the public table, but it would do less good in the long run.

When comments are offensive and troubling, we have more options before us than just attacking the person who made them. You don’t teach him a lesson very well that way. You get back what you put out, and I would hope that you teach a person to respect others by showing respect, at least better than purely by doling out force.

The Dalhousie students are getting both restorative justice in the form of a program, for their own good, and punitive justice in the form of suspension from clinical activities, for others’ good. As a response to their making unacceptable jokes, this is a fine start.