Keep the discussion going

Controversy is more than antisocial behaviour (and a great song by Prince)

If you are a Dalhousie student, you have a share in your student newspaper, and there is no better time than now to help build the Dalhousie student voice.

Let me explain.

If you are a new Dal student, you may have already come across Dal Student Life’s blog for incoming students and its June post titled “Social Media 101.”

Within this article, under the header “The fine line of freedom of expression,” lies this piece of advice:

“Social media is a way to have a voice on a range of topics, but don’t post     derogatory, degrading, controversial or overly personal comments about yourself, others, or the university. Trust me, you won’t make any new friends, you’ll annoy people, and you may harm your reputation (which will follow you for a long, long time). Your best bet is to focus on the exciting aspects of university life that lie ahead instead.”

In 2015, to say that someone should not make controversial comments online is to say they should not make controversial comments offline. The public exposure of private comments is an ever-present topic in our 24/7 news cycle, and people are understanding what little difference there is between online and offline behaviour.

While our culture of self-censorship, surveillance and public shaming is a popular topic of discussion today, judging by the way this Dal Student Life blog post frames “controversy,” you would think that controversial behaviour is always antisocial.

It’s important to remember how controversy frequently provokes important social changes, how students have often been instrumental in these changes, and what Dal students have accomplished in the past year through controversial behaviour.

But let’s go back to 1991, first.

In March 1991, the Gazette republished an article printed the previous week in the Muse, the student newspaper at Memorial University, titled A gay man’s guide to erotic safer sex.

The story used explicit language and featured brief narratives of gay sex while describing how to reduce the risk of HIV transmission.

Outrage ensued – the then-president of Memorial, Arthur May, told Newfoundland’s largest newspaper the article was “pornographic.”

May said the issue of the Muse containing the guide could raise tuition fees by hurting alumni donations, and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary launched an investigation into the article.

Out of an interest in reducing HIV transmission rates by means they believed to be effective after learning the same techniques had found success in other communities, the Muse published a very controversial article.

In solidarity with the Muse, the Gazette wrote a story about the challenges facing the newspaper and reprinted the guide.

Within the month, students upset with the Gazette’s printing of the guide led to police investigating the Gazette and two fraternity brothers campaigned for the Dalhousie Student Union to cease funding to the Gazette and fire the paper’s editors.

In the end, the DSU continued to support the Gazette and the editors were allowed to stay – but only after weeks of discussion, public meetings and national press coverage.

Out of the outrage that came from the Muse’s controversial publication of material intended to decrease HIV transmission rates came a national discussion on serious messages about how marginalized groups may have greater health risks because of social stigma.

Today at Dalhousie, respect and active efforts towards inclusion of marginalized communities are prominent topics.

The Backhouse report released this June in the aftermath of Dalhousie’s dentistry scandal – more on this next week in the Gazette – details a structure of systemic racism and sexism within Dal’s faculty of dentistry, and Dalhousie president Richard Florizone says the university has committed to meeting all 39 of the report’s recommendations.

But Dalhousie only paid a task force of committed individuals outside of the university to investigate discrimination in the dental school after students repeatedly pointed out ways in which the university’s handling of the situation seemed inappropriate and asked for an external investigation.

The students who protested administration’s handling of the dentistry scandal behaved controversially, and it resulted in Dalhousie promising to act on important discoveries about mistreatment of staff in the university’s dental clinic.

So consider the advice offered in the Dal Student Life post cited above, and ask yourself: would you like to be part of a student body that “focuses on the exciting aspects of university life,” or a student body mature enough to handle serious discussions about the inequities that result in repeated incidents of violence and discrimination on our campus?

Dalhousie cannot commit to a “Culture of Respect,” as administration titled the campaign to address public concern about the dentistry scandal, unless Dal also commits to a culture that prioritizes students speaking openly about the issues we face.

For example: why did the DSU food bank see its busiest season ever this summer?

Should students who rely on food banks believe there’s a stigma against this behaviour and feel ashamed, or should they feel like they’re part of a community mature and respectful enough to listen to them if they want to explain why so many students remain hungry?

It’s clear that a good way to encourage stigma is to warn students they may isolate themselves and hurt their reputations by sharing controversial content.

Instead, we need to cooperate in building a mature culture that allows for honest, open discussion without judgment.

The gains won by controversial speech show this is the path towards a real culture of respect.

Over the last year, Dalhousie has continued to face scrutiny over controversial events at the university covered heavily by the national media.

We should not remain silent or be ashamed of this attention, but instead use the discussions surrounding our university as a starting point for change.

The Gazette can have a powerful role in influencing the public as we share the Dal student voice. All Dal students pay a small annual fee to keep the Gazette running, and it’s our mandate to report on the Dal community responsibly while providing training to new journalists.

The next year will see the unraveling of complex trials involving Dal students, a federal election, changes coming out of Dal’s Backhouse and Belong reports and the likely possibility of tuition adjustments.

We want to cover these topics and more while doing everything we can to keep new students involved in campus media.

Anyone interested in getting involved with the Gazette is strongly encouraged to attend our first general meeting of the year on Sept. 15, at 4:45 p.m. in room 224 of the Student Union Building.

Check out our Contribute page for more information on our many opportunities – the world needs more 19-year-old wine columnists – and I look forward to seeing your name in these pages soon.

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Jesse Ward

Jesse, editor-in-chief of the Gazette, is a fifth-year student of journalism at Dalhousie and the University of King’s College. He started university with three years of experience writing for Teens Now Talk magazine, where he is now copy editor. Before writing a story Jesse likes to think about how his metal detector could finally be useful in researching this one, but there is never a way it could be. Jesse has produced writing and interactive features for Globalnews.ca and The Chronicle Herald. He may be followed on Twitter, @RealJesseWard, or from the Gazette office on Mondays around 8 p.m. to his home in West End Halifax.

Email Jesse at editor@dalgazette.com.

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