Je Suis the 13 Dalhousie Dentistry Students


By Scott van Dyk, 2L

A crime has been committed. The perpetrators, 13 men in their fourth year of the Dalhousie Dentistry program, have been separated from their classmates and suspended from school.

Those suspensions effectively entail a number of things: it means that the wrongdoers will not be able to graduate – after each spending $130,000 in tuition alone and 4 years of their lives working towards their degrees. They will not be able to practice dentistry – individually costing them hundreds of thousands more in lost marginal salary, not to mention the personal costs of not practising their desired careers.

What crime was committed that warrants this punishment?

They told crude jokes to their friends in private.

For the unaware, these students were in a closed, 13 person Facebook group. They made a series of misogynistic jokes about women in general and some specific classmates. I’m not here to argue about proportionality (although by any analysis, the response is certainly disproportionate). In addition, analyzing whether a closed Facebook group should be considered private is essentially analyzing whether to attach a technical label. This avoids the substance of the matter. Rather, I am saying that the act of punishing these students at all violates our ideas of free expression.

It’s almost banal to say in discussions about free expression, but it warrants saying: Only offensive speech needs protection. To protect only common, trite speech reflecting majority sentiment is to remove entirely the content from the right to free expression.

In other words, if it doesn’t rankle someone, it doesn’t need protecting. It’s why no one has ever called for a ban on weather reporting, but there have been calls for bans on criticism of religious groups.

The refrain, “free speech is okay as long as it doesn’t offend others” misses the point of free expression entirely.

Freedom of expression demands a principled approach. Do-gooders always cite reasons for banning controversial speech. But here’s the thing: If by case-by-case exceptions are granted, then all speech which is offensive to someone will be banned. Only dull speech is left. Freedom of expression will have been completely neutered.

The alternative is to only grant some exceptions, but then we would be privileging some people over others. It wouldn’t be rational either. It would be based on arbitrary factors like which voices are noisiest, or who happens to be in a position of authority at the time.

Dalhousie has decided that their role is to be the arbiter of speech and humour. They will decide which groups are privileged. They will also decide what students are and aren’t allowed to say – even in the confines of their own lives. Further, they believe that students are too sensitive to hear certain speech. It’s best to have authority protect students from themselves.

The appropriate response by Dalhousie isn’t to punish or to “rehabilitate.” It’s to let these students simply be known as the assholes that made inappropriate jokes.

The attempt to chill speech with threats of formal punishment occurs at UBC too. See: appointing a “referee” at the Guile Debates. I.e. a literal arbiter of humour.

Again, if someone wants to be racist or vile in public, then simply let them be known as racist or vile people. Universities don’t need to violate principles of free expression. The students harmed themselves already.

In the recent aftermath of the Charlie Hedbo attacks, many Canadians defiantly stated “Je Suis Charlie.” They proudly said they will not be intimidated into restricting freedom of speech. Canadians are now proving they are Charlie only if they happen to agree with the speech. If they don’t agree, well… just look at what happened to the Dalhousie Dentistry students

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There is nothing that will force you into the unexplored recesses of your lump of neurons and assorted chemicals as a delayed flight. For me, this is in part due to the fact that my phone doesn’t charge properly, so I have no mindless diversions from the firm floor that is currently acting as my resting ground at 3:30 am. Somewhere in-between the stage of extreme exhaustion, law-school hangover, and lively, whirring thoughts, I do what someone will hopefully be paying me to do one day: think. “If you can’t work with your hands, then you better use your brain “, echo the words of a concerned mother.

Back to the phone. Some time apart from this expensive Facebook machine has forced me to amuse myself like people centuries ago did: doodling on paper, asking people if they want to play a game of cards, and so on… There really is a world outside of this smart device. Unfortunately this can’t be true if everyone’s eyes are locked onto a screen looking for things to do, because then you realize you’re the only one free from the matrix. Reaching around for someone to have even a trivial conversation with can be challenging when everyone is plugged in.

I’m not about to turn this into some old school speech about the nuisance of modern technology, because I love technology, probably more than most. But I find it hard to swallow that people are unable to even dare setting aside their phone, which acts as their shield from having to interact in sinister places like public transportation.
The point I want to make is this: technology is evolving exponentially, and if you are like myself, you love delving into it and are amenable to getting lost in a world that is not one of greenery and shrubs. There are immense psychological impacts and influences to be researched in the area of social media, which I await with elation. The observation that has come to me now however, is that the technologies that are capable of overcoming us today are far more powerful than they have ever been. Similar arguments can be made about the newspaper decades ago, but the smartphone is different, because it is like an extension of the mind, plus an audience.

Your audience used to only extend up to your line of sight, but now the audience is either anonymous, or 500 people connected to a similar program, or the whole internet itself. This might explain why we shun the people on the tedious commute in preference for the mind in our hand. By flipping on the phone, we get instant reward, much gratification, and a forum on which to share information, which activates the reward centers in our brains. No one said pleasure and ‘happiness’ are bad things, but the question is what kind of values are we instilling?
Are we becoming more awkward? Are we encouraging the taking of appropriate risks, or a life of safe, instantaneous gratification? Are we encouraging cooperation, or secluded individualism? Are we developing individuals closely in-tune and sensitive to the environment around them? Wherever we are going as a society with this, do not neglect the significance of the flow of human consciousness. As Hesse says, “the river is everywhere.” And as such, we are the wielders of its direction and flow. Would it not be such a beautiful thing to merge into the sea?

Confessions of a Facebook Fugitive

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For one reason or another, people are often surprised to find out that I don’t use Facebook (anymore). Usually, this surprise stems from the fact that people fundamentally misunderstand my conscious decision to stay off “the Book”. Of course, there are many valid motives for deactivating a Facebook account. For example, you may notice your friend count mysteriously thinning out around exam time, only to flourish again once the end-of-term party has occurred – after all, everyone wants to get up on tagging all those pics and swapping holiday stories. However, my motives are slightly more complicated than a complete lack of impulse control coupled with a heavy tendency towards procrastination (although I suffer from that as well).

I’m a relapsed and rehabilitated ex-Facebooker in that I kicked the habit once in 2011 and returned in 2012, only to kick the habit again in 2013. In this day and age, quitting Facebook cold turkey is not by any means an easy thing to do. Internet addiction is an actual phenomenon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook addiction doesn’t soon become one as well, if it’s not considered one already. In the depths of my struggle, I would reactivate my account at off-peak hours, quickly catch myself up on the comings and goings of my various friends, acquaintances, and enemies, and then quietly deactivate again after 10 minutes of frenzied creeping. Rinse and repeat.

Eventually I managed to wean myself off of the monolith of social networking for good. I stayed off of it for over a year, and was pleased with my successful recovery from Facebookaholism – until I went on an extended travelling stint. Meeting people from all corners of the globe under short-term conditions unavoidably makes staying in touch a bit of a challenge, and Facebook suddenly became something of a necessary evil. So I was back, but not quite with a vengeance. I limited my friends list only to those people who I didn’t have a legitimate, alternative means of contact with, set my privacy settings to tin-foil hat mode, and would sign on only intermittently. Then I started law school, and as you are probably well aware, the snowballing Facebook friend explosion is practically a rite of passage during the initial excitement of orientation and the weeks beyond. For some, deleting Facebook is seen as akin to committing social suicide – after all, there is seemingly no better way to stay dialled in. So why did I do it? I have a few reasons (of which I will only touch on a few, for brevity’s sake).

For one, Facebook promotes a very particular kind of communication, and one that I don’t necessarily sanction. I’m old-school in that I still write pen and paper letters and/or maintain email correspondence with my friends in faraway places. In these messages, featuring actual sentences and paragraphs, I ask them about their jobs, and their families, and their significant others. I update them on my life and they update me on theirs in return. We swap stories. There are a handful of people that I care enough to do this with, and they represent only a tiny fraction of the amount of Facebook “friends” I had accumulated at my peak. Ultimately, I got tired of trading quality for quantity.

Relatedly, Facebook makes it a lot easier to be harassed, and I speak from experience. Blocking someone is a hopelessly ineffective technique, because despite Facebook’s prohibition against creating multiple accounts, it is way too easy to neatly evade this supposed rule. Facebook is the communicative medium of choice for a lot of people, and given that I’m very selective about who I give my contact information to, it was essentially the easiest way to get in touch with me for a lot of people who I didn’t want to be in touch with, even after I had made that latter fact explicitly clear. Not only could these people get in touch with me, they could keep getting in touch with me, far past my limit of wanting to deal with them. See: modern-day cyber-bullying as another, far more vivid illustration of this point.

Finally, I have serious concerns about Facebook’s use of my personal data. Things didn’t always used to be so shady, but in recent years, Facebook has been rolling out a lot of various changes to their privacy policies that are highly troubling. If you’re like most people, you probably don’t think twice about what you say or do on Facebook. I’d wager that at least one message thread, picture, or tag of you on “the Book” could possibly be incriminating or, at the very least, highly damaging to your personal and/or professional reputation. It’s unnerving to think that messages between individual users or photos uploaded and set to be viewed by “my friends only”, for example, are potentially not as confidential as you think they are, but that’s a reality you should be prepared to face (unless you’re staunchly in the “ignorance is bliss” camp).

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has recently begun an inquiry into whether Facebook has violated a regulation whereby they were required to get the explicit consent of users before exposing their private information to new audiences. In both Canada and the United States, Facebook has been the defendant in class action suits brought by users who are upset by the fact that their names and photos were used without their consent by advertisers to endorse products in Facebook ads circulated to their friends. With these class action suits, the stakes are high – as they always are when dealing with large groups of people and huge amounts of settlement money – but somehow it seems even more significant when privacy and civil liberties, which are arguably beyond price, are also on the line.

Given the ubiquitous nature of Facebook in modern life, it’s kind of crazy to think that all of us once lived in a world before Facebook – a world where we didn’t have instant access to what the vast majority of our “social network” was doing at any given time. A world where our fingers didn’t immediately poise themselves over the f-a-c-e keys (and the rest left to autofinish) as soon as we opened our internet browsers. A world where we didn’t have to worry so much about the ominous implications of what corporations are doing with some of our most personal data.

Further, studies about the effects of Facebook usage have already started to crop up, and in the coming years, will undoubtedly multiply not only in number, but also in scope. Go to Google Scholar and type in “facebook” as a query – you’ll get some very interesting results, some positive, and some not so much. For example, there has been a demonstrated correlation between Facebooking and narcissism – surprise, surprise. Facebook has also been connected to increasing levels of dissatisfaction with one’s own life. After all, when you’re only seeing the highlight reel of other people’s lives, the fact that you’re sitting at home in sweatpants eating a microwaved meal while skimming through pictures of a group of your friends jumping on the beach in Maui suddenly seems way more depressing than it actually is on any objective level (although that’s perhaps a bad example, because that actually sounds really depressing).

I hasten to concede that Facebook is not entirely a bad thing, and that it essentially does a bang-up job of what it’s supposed to do – allow you to “connect with friends and the world around you”.  But if it’s true that nothing in life is free, at what price does that connection come?