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opinion

Letitia Meynell is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Gender and Women's Studies Program at Dalhousie University

The details of incidents involving the so-called "Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen" are, as in most cases of this kind, complicated and difficult to discern. At this point, we don't have many facts. Various questions remain unanswered. Were all 13 men active participants in the offensive postings on Facebook, or were they the Web-equivalent of 'innocent bystanders'? Are there others who actively participated in the Facebook group who are not among the 13 known to the University? What is the wider climate in the faculty, and at the university, that allowed the men to promote sexism, misogyny, and homophobia?

Answers to these questions are yet to be discovered and how they should be addressed is yet to be decided. It is increasingly difficult to imagine a resolution that leaves all of those involved feeling that they have been treated fairly and compassionately. At the very least, Dalhousie's complaints procedures must be followed and if they are ineffective or unjust they must be changed.

At the same time, ringing in my ears are the voices of many young women (and others) protesting on campus who are survivors of sexual violence. Their passion and anger appears to be anchored in a refusal to accept messages that subtly imply that the crimes against them don't really matter – not compared to a young man's career.

The big picture is easier to see. It is clear from Canadians' reactions to the "Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen" that most of us are simply no longer willing to regard this kind of misogynist, homophobic, and sexist behaviour as somehow inevitable or ordinary, let alone acceptable. Those defending the old view that "boys will be boys" are noticeably scarce.

Indeed, it's sad that in 2015 anyone is inclined to address this incident in such tired and unreflective ways. These apologists suggest that what is really terrible about sexism and misogyny is how they hurt men, particularly young, privileged men. Typically, these views are paired with variations on victim-blaming: if she enters a male-dominated domain…, if she wears a short skirt…, if she cries…, if she complains…, well then what does she expect? Can't she take a joke? The widespread anger about the "Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen" suggests that, by and large, Canadians aren't interested in such views. We recognize that they are damaging to both women and men.

We expect, indeed we demand, more from young Canadian men because we know they can be better than this. In fact most of the young men in our classes are deeply committed to gender equality and justice even as they may be unsure as to what exactly that looks like. They recognize that we must make our campuses safe and supportive learning environments for everyone, including women and members of other vulnerable groups.

Together, we make our society – our culture – through the living of it. Universities are places where many of the best and brightest of our young people – our future leaders – are given the time and the tools to reflect on what kind of world they want to live in and what kind of people they want to be. In faculties like dentistry, the values and norms of our professional schools become the values and norms of the professionals we graduate.

In this way universities have a unique role to play in the construction of a better future where misogyny, gendered violence and intimidation, homophobia and sexism are aberrations rather than standard practice. In the present we have a duty to provide safe and effective learning environments in which all students can succeed. For our future, we must refuse to accept anything less than this.