Mission Success or Warm & Fuzzy?

Jul 15, 2015

Is the paramilitary culture and its inherent warrior ethos incongruous with today’s society?

Many generations of Canadians saw the red-coated Mountie as a symbol of virtue and patriotism. That image has now been tarnished by a flood of allegations of harassment from female officers and civilian employees. The RCMP have already taken various measures to address the problem, including increasing the quota – or “target,” as the force calls it – for female recruits, with the aim of increasing female members from the current 21% to 30% by 2025. Other measures include expediting the complaints process. Critics, however, say more radical changes are needed to root out harassment and bullying, which, they argue, are ingrained in the RCMP’s paramilitary culture. That culture is “just not consistent with the way society has evolved,” said Senator Grant Mitchell who, along with MP Judy Sgro, released a report on harassment in the RCMP last year.

“The idea of a tough, harsh, suck-it-up kind of culture, in my experience, seems to create a culture that is vulnerable to harassment, and that’s just not acceptable,” said Mitchell in a phone interview. “Women should be able to feel safe working in the RCMP, and so should men.”

Some women have come forward with allegations of appalling behaviour, including rape. However, although the issue of sexual harassment has dominated headlines, the majority of complaints involve other types of allegations, such as bullying, unfair treatment, gender discrimination, and a sense of being humiliated or disrespected. More than 360 female officers and civilian employees asked to join a class-action lawsuit to deal with allegations ranging from rape and physical assault to sexist comments and gender discrimination. David Klein, the lawyer representing the women, told the Canadian Press in June that some of the allegations “are too small to warrant individual litigation.”

A 2013 report by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP found that, out of 718 workplace harassment complaints between 2005 and 2011, about 90% were allegations of bullying, while 4% were sexual harassment. Out of the 1,091 harassment complaints received from 671 different complainants between 2005 and 2013, 598 involved “interpersonal deportment,” which includes demeaning comments and bullying; another 427 concerned abuse of authority; 40 were discrimination, and only 26 were related to sexual harassment.

Senator Mitchell’s report, which outlines testimony from forums held in Ottawa, Vancouver, Edmonton and St. John’s in 2013, includes some troubling allegations of assault. However, most of the accusations involve lower-level complaints, including “receiving crass and inappropriate emails regarding the participant’s sexuality” and “being on the receiving end of practical jokes.”

When RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson suggested in 2013 to a Senate committee that some allegations were “outlandish,” he was rebuked by Senator Mitchell. It is worth noting, however, that much of what goes on in a military or paramilitary organization could be perceived as harassment and bullying. “Boot camp,” as it is colloquially known, is practically synonymous with a drill sergeant screaming obscenities in recruits’ faces.

In one high-profile lawsuit, a B.C. Mountie said she suffered from post-traumatic stress and bulimia as a result of being subjected to humiliating and offensive comments, which began during basic training in 1989. Her statement of claim, filed in 2012, alleged that she had to go on ‘fat parade’, where corporals told her she was fat. If she selected a dessert in the cafeteria, she was yelled at, the statement said.

Ron Lewis, a co-founder of the RCMP Veterans Women’s Council, acknowledges that that sort of treatment has always been a normal part of basic training – indeed, he says he went through far worse during his own basic training in the late 1960s. However, the fact is that women are more sensitive than men, Lewis says. “That’s why they talk about cultural change. Because the culture is rough-and-tumble and harsh and in-your-face, and that has to change when it comes to women.”

Men who have been in the army often tell stories about the lewd insults that their corporals and sergeants screamed at them – particularly during basic training. However, while men tend to find this aspect of military culture humorous, many women are deeply disturbed by it. Lewis recalls, some time after the first women were admitted into the force in 1974, one drill instructor who found himself the subject of complaints from female recruits because of what he yelled on the parade square: “When I say ‘attention,’ I want to hear 32 pussies snapping shut!”

“Many women find the use of such demeaning language offensive, humiliating and denigrating,” said former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps in her recent report on harassment in the Armed Forces. The report, commissioned by the Chief of the Defence Staff in the wake of disturbing media stories about sexual assault and bullying in the military, echoes the criticism of the RCMP.

After consulting with 700 people, Deschamps found that the most common complaints are related to what she describes as “a hostile, sexualized environment” within the Armed Forces, “characterized by the frequent use of swear words, […] discriminatory comments with respect to the abilities of women,” lewd behaviour, and unwanted touching. Deschamps recommends sweeping measures intended to move the Armed Forces away from its macho military culture. Leadership, she says, should crack down severely on the use of offensive language – “a critical step in reforming the culture.” To help achieve this, the report recommends broadening the military’s definition of sexual harassment, so that it includes “sexual comments or jokes that are not necessarily addressed to a particular person, but which create a negative sexualized environment.”

Most men in the focus groups thought the idea of enforcing politically correct language in the military was “ridiculous,” Deschamps noted. Indeed, efforts to police language and re-educate people often create resentment and can appear ideologically-driven. Last fall, about 1,000 undergraduate students at the Royal Military College were ordered to attend a workshop on sexual harassment during a weekend day off. The lecture was delivered by Julie Lalonde, a self-described “social justice activist” and “feminist buzzkill.” Lalonde complained that she was laughed at, disrespected, catcalled and whistled at. One third-year cadet told the CBC that, when pressed, Lalonde maintained that if a man and a woman got drunk and had sex, the man could be accused of sexual assault. “At this point all respect for the presenter was lost, and she struggled to carry on with the presentation in the face of people ignoring her,” the cadet was quoted as saying.

A number of people interviewed by Deschamps said sexual assaults are more likely to occur in barracks. It follows that sex-segregated barracks should significantly reduce the incidence of assault. However, Deschamps dismisses the idea of making such changes, saying “incidents of sexual harassment do not appear to be limited to particular locations or hours.”

One common-sense step is to impose moderation when it comes to the consumption of alcohol. Until recently, navy ships and submarines allowed access to beer, wine and soft alcohol during meals while at sea. Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, head of the Royal Canadian Navy, ended that late last year and took other practical measures to discourage excessive drinking. “In 95% of the cases where people get into trouble, they have been drinking to excess, so there is a relationship there,” he told FrontLine Defence (2015 #1) during a comprehensive interview about the sweeping reforms of cultural rules and expectations within the Canadian Navy.

Shortly after taking office, in a July letter sent to all members of the Canadian Forces the new Chief of the Defence Staff, General Vance, said that although individual commanders are already taking action, these efforts need to be co-ordinated in order to implement all of the Deschamps recommendations. He is calling the new focus on ending sexual harassment “Operation Honour.”

These actions on the part of military leaders indicate a reformed culture is being strongly promoted from within, but what about the law enforcement sector?

The Mitchell/Sgro report on the RCMP draws similar conclusions to the Deschamps report. Among other things, it recommends establishing a civilian body to supervise and govern the RCMP, setting up an ombudsman to investigate complaints, and developing indicators to weed out potential recruits who may be sexist.

It also recommends the force “modernize” its strategic vision, mission statement, and statement of diversity awareness, to promote “an environment of inclusion and equality.” Officers’ attitudes should be monitored throughout their careers, and leaders who believe in “outdated notions of paramilitary authority […] must be identified and corrected,” the report advises.

Debate over the wisdom of such measures has been non-existent in the media. Most fundamentally, from a mission-success perspective, there’s no logical or practical reason to see paramilitary culture as outdated and, in fact, evidence suggests it is as relevant now as ever. From an evolutionary perspective, the paramilitary culture is an adaptation to the kinds of threats such organizations exist to eliminate.

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote: “A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” At a time when enforcement officers are confronting terrorism, gangs, active-shooter events, and increasingly well-armed petty criminals, the idea that it would be helpful to abolish the force’s paramilitary ethos is questionable.

The demand for cultural transformation tends to rest on the assumption that military or paramilitary culture specifically picks on women. Reality may be less black-and-white and not strictly gender-based.

Critics point to higher rates of attrition and PTSD among female officers, as well as the harassment allegations, as an indictment of paramilitary culture. However, even among the general population women have a higher prevalence of fear and anxiety disorders. A meta-analysis conducted in 2006 by researchers David F. Tolin and Edna B. Foa found that women are twice as likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, even though men experience more events that are potentially traumatic. Further, even when isolating specific categories of trauma – combat, assault, disasters, fires, accidents – the results showed a higher risk of PTSD among female participants and a greater severity of symptoms. The report, published by the American Psychological Association, analyzed 290 studies conducted between 1980 and 2005.

Dr. Anna Baranowski, founder of the Traumatology Institute, based in Toronto, believes men suffer just as much from PTSD – it’s just that they tend to hide it because of the way they’re socialized.

“Women are designated certain roles in this culture, one of them being that of a care giver. Men have a different kind of role that is culturally engendered, [which includes] being able to just bear it and not complain about it,” Dr. Baranowski said. As a result, a sense of shame compels men to hide their suffering, she added.

However, research in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology suggests that gender roles have a basis in biology and evolution. For example, in a 2007 study, neurologist J.J. Wang and other researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that men’s and women’s brains react differently to stress.

In women, stress induced the “tend-and-befriend” response, with increased activity in brain regions involved in emotion. In contrast, men reacted with a “fight-or-flight” response. Prehistoric men may have had to confront a threat either by fighting it or fleeing, whereas women may have responded to adversity by nurturing offspring and affiliating with social groups that maximize the survival of the species, a Penn Medicine news release explained. As a result, says evolutionary psychologist Mark Van Vugt, men have evolved a “warrior psychology,” which makes them, more so than women, inclined towards competition, aggression, hierarchy and group loyalty.

For many people and soldiers, aggresive slogans such as "we take what we want" are meant to help them mentally steel themselves for extreme danger.

That may be so, says clinical psychologist Caroline LeBlanc, but women still have qualities that are beneficial to policing. “Their skills and the abilities they present are phenomenal because they do have empathy and interpersonal skills more naturally,” said LeBlanc, who works with officers suffering from PTSD in Charlottetown.

However, it is in the nature of police work that officers confront potentially traumatizing events. Traditionally, the blunt toughness of paramilitary culture functioned to condition officers – both physically and psychologically – to endure such events. It also functioned to “weed out the weak.”

The sweeping changes recommended for the RCMP and the Armed Forces will bring those institutions in line with political principles of equality and fairness. Whether or not this squares with the imperatives of policing and mission success is a question that should be vigorously debated.

Kevin Hampson, a journalist and freelance writer based in Mayerthorpe, Alberta, earned a BA in history and political science from McGill University.
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