In the often dull Gestalt of Canadian politics, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish background from foreground, but every so often a light goes on and shadows spring to life. Shadows we would fain deny, yet dare not, to paraphrase Macbeth as he waits for battle. It is, perhaps, an apt example given that it is the military that so recently stepped into the media’s blazing sun. Soon to retire as the Chief of the Canadian Defense Staff, General Tom Lawson, in a widely watched television interview, said “Sexual harassment is still an issue in the Canadian Forces because people are “biologically wired in a certain way.” http://www.cbc.ca/1.3115993 And this set off a national forest fire that has yet to be extinguished.
This is not unexpected in light of a recent report on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces issued by former Supreme Court Justice, Marie Deschamps who suggested that sexual misconduct in the Canadian military was ‘endemic’. http://www.cbc.ca/1.3055493
And then, predictably, this was espoused by members of parliament –all, not unreasonably, wanting to reflect the mood of their constituents. http://www.cbc.ca/1.3117281
This is as it should be, of course. Neither sexual harassment nor sexual misconduct are tolerable –especially in a military setting where power inequities are inherent to its structure and therefore largely inescapable. The creation of an ‘independent centre for accountability for sexual assault and harassment outside of the CAF with the responsibility for receiving reports of inappropriate sexual conduct, as well as prevention, coordination and monitoring of training, victim support, monitoring of accountability, and research, and to act as a central authority for the collection of data’ as the third recommendation of the Report suggests, would be an important first step in addressing these inequalities. And for those who are not certain of whether to bring it to the attention of their superiors, another of the recommendations: ‘Allow members to report incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault to the centre for accountability for sexual assault and harassment, or simply to request support services without the obligation to trigger a formal complaint process’. And if this seems inadequate, or difficult -perhaps because the offender was a superior officer- another of the Report’s ten recommendations, no doubt for emphasis, also mirrors this: ‘Allow victims of sexual assault to request, with the support of the centre for accountability sexual assault and harassment, transfer of the complaint to civilian authorities; provide information explaining the reasons when transfer is not effected.‘ In other words, the ability to be heard. Noticed. Helped. It would be difficult, indeed, to find fault with any of the recommendations as they seek to change attitudes in what, for millennia, was an all-male club. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2070308-era-final-report-april-20-2015-eng.html -or for a more succinct listing of the recommendations: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/military-harassment-report-10-recommendations-1.3055935
And General Lawson did later apologize for this ‘awkward characterization’ as he termed it on a subsequent CBC interview: “I apologize for my awkward characterization, in today’s CBC interview, of the issue of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. Sexual misconduct in any form, in any situation is clearly unacceptable,” the statement said. “My reference to biological attraction being a factor in sexual misconduct was by no means intended to excuse anyone from responsibility for their actions.”
His original ‘biologically wired’ comment, in the cool light of retrospect, was bound to attract attention of course –especially given the sexual misconduct report and his position as chief of the defense staff. It was a poorly conceived and not terribly clever analogy -definitely not Pulitzer Prize material… But all the same, I worry about the reaction it engendered -the media seemed to focus only on the ‘biologically wired’ part. Context, it seems to me, was either lost or misconstrued -his message was interpreted as naïve at best, camouflage for inaction at worst. And yet, awkward or not, I would like to think the general was not attempting an excuse, but merely an explanation of something that, were we able to say it without fear of backlash, should be evident to everyone. Like it or not, there are biological differences between the sexes, and the military was perhaps the last remaining refuge for unadulterated testosterone -a place where actions truly spoke louder than words. We see some of those actions now as unacceptable -not only ill-considered, but even criminal. Fair enough; I certainly agree. But I also think it is reasonable that I expect, and am willing to tolerate, different behaviour from a soldier than, say, my doctor. I would not accept ethical or moral perfidy from either, and yet each protects me from different things in different ways -and presumably with different world views. Different sensitivities. Let’s face it, those people who decide on a career in which armed combat is a distinct possibility, are not likely to be averse to confrontational situations. But of course, judgement is required: aggression can be multidimensional. Hydra-headed -and inappropriate. It is, I suppose, why there are chains of command: the need to superimpose order on chaos. Training –or should I say taming– those primal instincts.
Of course it will not happen overnight just because we wish it so; not all of the report’s recommendations have been accepted outright… Yet. Perhaps it was felt that there was a fine line to balance, even now. So the report from Justice Deschamps is a recognition of the current reality –the one that requires a Center for Accountability. But to pretend that there is only one acceptable way to talk about the root cause of the problem -one way to name the Devil- is not helpful. There are many ways to acknowledge a truth. Many paths to the sea… And we are en route -but still walking, not running. Maybe senior officers should all be taught communication skills as well as battle tactics. Readings on rhetoric as well as studies of SunTzu might be useful parts of their preparedness strategies. Shakespeare hints at this in Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries.