The Military: the Perfect Storm for Harassment

Okay, so last week the head of the Canadian Armed Forces said, basically, “Boys will be boys. Harassment is a fact of life.” He got severely trashed for this bit of wisdom. I think it was unfortunate that he did not have the courage of his convictions. Instead of using the media attention to straighten the public out on what is actually happening in the military, he apologized for getting himself in political hot water.

What General Lawson actually said was,

“We’re biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others.”

The media response took the statement out of context and added a bunch of inference, and took it that he meant that all men believe it is reasonable to press themselves and their desires on others. Which he specifically did not say. The misinterpretation is what General Lawson should have expected. But he could have used the uproar to say something useful, like, “Thank you for finally noticing. Don’t you realize that…?”

Because the fact that he stated was correct, and the first step in removing the problem is to admit this, because until we do, we will never deal with it. What we have in the military, the police forces, and the fire halls of Canada is the perfect storm for sexual harassment to occur. Nobody should be surprised that things are worse, rather than better at the moment. It’s not that we haven’t made progress as a society. It’s that in a big rush, the worst perpetrators of harassment have been forced into close contact with larger and larger numbers of their usual victims. We were expecting a tea party?

The United States is facing exactly that same problem with race relations. Okay, they’ve got a black president. Yes, that’s a symbol of how far they have come. But there is still a confederate flag flying over the South Carolina state Capitol grounds. They have hate-filled white mass murderers of blacks who think they are doing the right thing. As President Obama said on Monday,

“Societies don’t erase overnight things that happened over two or three hundred years.”

In the case of gender inequality, it’s been going on a whole lot longer than that. Has Canada made progress? Of course. We’ve had women voting federally for 97 years. We’ve had women in the RCMP since 1974, and there are about 4000 in the force today. 21% of the ranks.

But we have learned that our problems are not over. In fact, we are at a rather nasty time right now. The Americans lived through similar agony when they desegregated their schools and universities. As long as these institutions were segregated, there was a sort of peace. It was only when attendees were forced to study with members of other races that the trouble started.

It’s the same way with workplaces like military, firefighting and police forces. Sure, it’s fine to make legislation to increase gender equity. But that only means that an enlightened number of Canadians are onside, and many of those legislators probably had other reasons for voting in favour.

People Don’t Change
The “good old boys” who have been the backbone of the traditionally macho occupations are not going to suddenly quit their attitudes, just because somebody says there is going to be a woman working next to them. In fact, they’re going to feel threatened, and they’re going to act worse. It’s no different with ISIS, Iran, and other repressive states. I just learned recently that in Iran women singers are not allowed to sing solos. You’re going to look for a long time before you find the basis for that in the Koran. The real source of the problem is our primitive, might-makes-right past, which we haven’t risen from as far as we’d like to believe.

Add to this the fact that the women are coming into the workplace at the lowest level, and the control junkies are all in positions of power. As General Lawson might have better stated,

“Certain people, due to an unfortunate twist of human nature, function solely on the exercise of power.”

Sexual harassment has little to do with sex and everything to do with a pre-emptive attack on what threatens the perpetrator. And when the leaders who are charged with making the change seem to shrug their shoulders and say, “that’s how it is, folks,” it demonstrates that we still have a long way to go, baby.

How Far Have We Come?
I have stated previously that it takes about three generations before the effects of a traumatic situation like sexual abuse or alcoholism are removed from a family. I’d have to say that it will take at least that long for the same development in the military. And remember that a generation in social terms is 20 years, because at the age of 20 a child can become independent of a destructive home environment. Also, that child moves out into a society where a great majority of people believe that the abuse is wrong. In the workplaces we are discussing, the offenders move higher and higher in the authority chain and continue their effects for the whole 35 years or so they work. Plus there is not universal acceptance of those egalitarian philosophies in the general public, no matter how much we would like to think so.
So to expect a major change in 40 years is pretty optimistic.

Where to from Here?
Let us not fall into the trap of saying “Oh, well, that’s what we should expect.” That’s not the point of this discussion. What we have just done is narrowed down the problem and focused on what needs to be fixed. Once we have that part figured out, perhaps we can allocate our resources in a better way to shorten the time period. A good step was in the news this week, where the leaders of the Army stated clearly that it was the responsibility of all officers to deal with these problems. Likewise, the Vatican stated recently that bishops were responsible for sexual criminality of their priests. Putting responsibility on supervisors is a powerful tool that turns the power imbalance of the hierarchy against the offenders, instead of having it work for them.

Working For Us
I had an interesting conversation this week with a former member of the Canadian Coast Guard. They integrated in the 1970’s, and she still tears up when she remembers what she calls “fighting that fight.” But she felt that she and the rest of the Coast Guard won. In her opinion, the Coast Guard succeeded in their integration mostly because they had buy-in from the top. The leadership believed, and acted like it. Everyone else followed.

Working Against Us
Our habit of allowing people to police themselves and investigate their own problems is a situation created by power junkies for their own benefit. It is a gross dereliction of duty by our leaders to allow it to happen. Police departments cannot investigate their own “excessive use of force” complaints, and industry cannot inspect its own pollution control systems; their motivation pushes them towards finding no fault. Likewise, no workplace supervisor can investigate complaints made against his own team unless someone else is looking over his shoulder saying, “Fix it,” and checking to make sure that he does. And ensuring that he isn’t the problem.

So by these recent changes we are making progress. By taking our heads out of the sand and acknowledging that the problem exists, and placing responsibility for solutions on the people who have the power to make changes, we should progress faster. After all, if you follow this logic, sooner or later we are going to hit a point where a functional majority of the problem workspaces are taken up by non-sexist women and their allies. After that, change should come with increasing rapidity.
Perhaps that’s what General Lawson was leading up to.
We can always dream.

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