Sunday, September 13, 2009

Deterring misconduct

Rules are ubiquitous and inescapable. This is what Serena Williams discovered in her semi-final match against opponent Kim Clijsters.

Trailing in what turned out to the final game of the second set, Williams was serving when she committed what the line judge determined to be a foot fault (and because this immediately followed a previous serving fault), she lost the point. This brought the score to 15-40 and match point for Clijsters. Williams argued with the line judge and then returned to the line to serve. However, she returned back to apparently express a few more words to the line judge. This entailed shaking the ball in the judge's face and apparently threatening her.

As reported in the New York Times:

Reporters who were courtside said that Williams approached the line judge and they heard Williams shout profanity at her. Holding a ball, Williams said to the lineswoman that “you don’t know me,” appearing to inject it with profanity. Then Williams added that the linewoman was lucky that Williams was not, according to The Miami Herald, “shoving this ball down your throat.”
After this altercation, the Chair Umpire called the line judge over to her chair to disclose what just transpired. The Chair Umpire then determined that Williams would be assessed a one point penalty for a code violation - "unsportsmanlike conduct". This ultimately resulted in Williams losing the final point of the game and finally the match to Clijsters.

What we observe (as if it weren't evident already) is that different institutions and entities within civil society have applicable rules for human conduct and modes of enforcement over whom they have jurisdiction. While most people don't attend court proceedings, many are often spectators and witnesses at popular cultural and sporting events such as tennis and hockey. Spectators witness how "disputes" are adjudicated by "parties" to the game - in the case of Williams-Clijsters match, enforcement of the rules can lead to an anti-climactic result in an otherwise entertaining and dynamic match.

The dispute that took place at the end of the Williams-Clijsters match was particularly interesting from the point of view of the application of the rules to player conduct. Normally, if there is a dispute in tennis about a technical violation and a judge's call on the violation, there is recourse to technical assistance - i.e. computer-generated reconstructions to assess whether the ball was in or out. Here, there was a dispute over what Williams actually said to the line judge. In ruling against Williams, the Chief Umpire opted to believe the line judge's account about what it was that Williams said. Williams could be overheard imploring the umpire that she didn't threaten the line judge's life. The Chief Umpire's decision to positively view the line judge's credibility was probably helped by the threatening gestures Williams had made toward the latter as she was threatening her (not to mention a reputation for losing her cool on the tennis court).

The episode demonstrates the speed at which justice can (and probably needs to) be dispensed at a live sporting event and the serious consequences for a top-seeded player - both with respect to winnings that can be potentially earned and the prestige to be gained from winning the US Open. As in all systems, some rules are designed to encourage or discourage certain types of conduct - for example rules punishing unsportsmanlike conduct. Whether this will ultimately deter Williams or other players with anger management issues, time will tell. But for now it seems to illustrate that tennis has a type of legal system in operation and it is enforced in such a way as to fell one of its foremost athletes at a critical moment of a match.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Truth and Treason

As with many artistic mediums that we explore on this blawg, theatre has been no stranger to themes of law, politics and resistance. One Montreal-based theatre company in particular, Teesri Duniya Theatre (Third World Theatre in Hindustani) has tackled many such themes over the course of its close to 30 year history. Its latest production, Truth and Treason, written by Teesri's artistic director and playwright Rahul Varma is no exception. Set in Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of the country, the play examines a variety of issues that stem from the invasion and occupation - many of which implicate the law (particularly the laws of armed conflict, treatment of civilians as well as corruption) into the matrix. Rather than spoiling the play by inadvertently revealing too much information, I provide a brief synopsis of the play here, furnished on the Theatre's website:

At a checkpoint in Iraq, a 10-year-old girl named Ghazal is shot by an unidentified U.S. soldier. Behind the checkpoint, a conference on rebuilding Iraq – attended by high-profile Iraqi and American delegates – is underway. The girl’s condition is critical. Captain Edward Alston, the officer in charge of the checkpoint, learns that Ghazal has a rare blood type and requires an immediate transfusion from her father, a jailed Iraqi writer. Captain Alston tries to arrange for a transfusion. He is also about to let the girl’s distraught mother Nahla, a Canadian woman, go past security to be with her daughter when he is overruled by his superior, Commander Hektor Frank. Why? Because the girl’s father Omar, imprisoned for his writings by the now-overthrown dictator Saddam, is classified as a terrorist by the U.S. government. While the two officers argue over the father’s alleged terrorist history, the girl dies in U.S. custody. A complex story arises involving characters in tension with each other and themselves: Nahla, who can use her Canadian passport to free Omar, but only if he stops threatening to avenge Ghazal’s death; Omar, whose family’s survival is threatened by his activities but who feels bound to serve his troubled country; Captain Alston, who must reconcile his duties as a patriot with his conscience; Commander Frank, who harbours a secret past and can’t take any chances; and the clergyman who turns a personal tragedy into a public fatwa by calling upon Muslims to kill Edward for ‘preventing a mother from seeing her child.’ Truth and Treason invites us to discover the real truth behind the war on terror…

Amidst the political statement(s) against the war, about the lies that led to the war in Iraq and the tragedies that have ensued as a consequence are some interesting legal issues that emerge from the play. In connection with the theme of resistance and the law that I have written about on this blawg, one of the legal themes that arises is the conflict that develops between Captain Alston and Commander Frank over the mistreatment and killings of Iraqi civilians by US soldiers - murders that are covered up in order to avoid bringing the military presence into disrepute or to impose liability on those who perpetrated the acts. Alston's efforts to uncover and reveal the extent of the killings and their cover up leads to his disobedience of Frank's orders to remain silent about what is transpiring. Like many resisters, Alston is confronted with the stark choice of being perceived as a patriot or a traitor for his critique of the military's treatment in Iraq.

Confronting unlawful actions advocated by and sustained by military superiors is very real and challenging, whether it is an American soldier in Iraq (or in an earlier period in Vietnam) or other military personnel in various conflicts. As many studies point out, there is a tendency towards obedience, even when such obedience leads to the commission of crimes or their facilitation. Many such individuals face a court-martial, prison and limited career prospects after their incarceration for their disobedience. Some flee and seek asylum in other states only to be denied. Truth and Treason provides a sense of the intense internal struggle one undergoes in challenging their own state and superior officers, particularly when doing otherwise might not only mean a contravention of law, but a violation of one's own moral code.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cultures of (il)Legality

This December will mark the 20th anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique massacres that took place at the University of Montreal and resulted in the murder of fourteen women and injuries to fourteen women and men at the hands of a disturbed misogynist, Marc Lepine. A film was recently produced, simply called "Polytechnique" that recounts some of the narratives about and surrounding that day. One of the thematic narratives at play in the film is a culture of illegality out of which Lepine emerged.

The obvious epicenter of the illegality featured in the film is the actual murders and injuries inflicted - fueled by an unyielding hatred against women who Lepine deemed to be feminists unworthy to be studying engineering. Yet what the film seems to suggest is that the misogyny that prompted the killer's rampage was but an extreme manifestation of the discrimination experienced by women, particularly in a field of study and profession that looked negatively upon their presence (as has been the case in most traditionally male-dominated white and blue collar professions).

This was strikingly illustrated in one particular scene. Valerie, one of the central characters in the film (who was later shot by Lepine) attends an interview for a very lucrative internship position with an aeronautics firm. During the interview, her male interviewer overtly communicates his skepticism and surprise that Valerie, as a woman, is interested in pursuing her studies and a career in mechanical engineering, rather than a seemingly less demanding career as a civil engineer where she could more easily pursue a family life. The underlying assumption being that all or most women are driven by some primordial maternal instinct to have a family and raise children. Ultimately, we learn that Valerie is offered the internship position but only after affirming that she does not plan to have children, thus making her more acceptable. The hiring or refusal to hire someone on account of their potential decision to one day have children is patently illegal under today's legal norms (see for example - the Ontario Human Rights Code s.10(2)).

This scene, coupled with the more gruesome shooting sequences illustrates a larger culture of illegal discrimination that once existed (and arguably still exists on some level). While Lepine's shooting spree targetting women was exceptional (in the manner it was carried out), violence against women still substantially continues today in private spheres (as it did then). Furthermore, notwithstanding the legal system's formal intolerance of the type of treatment Valerie experienced during her interview, the attitudes that fostered that treatment still exist (in a variety of employment contexts) and become manifested in more subtle ways during interviews (and in other instances - not so subtly). More often than not, many interviewees will not pursue any action and thus such norms of discrimination and unlawful business actions can continue with impunity.

Interestingly, the interview scene also introduces (at least with respect to the time period of the late 1980s) the idea of an informal caste system where civil engineers appear to occupy a lower status in the engineering hierarchy, a caste which women are expected to occupy because of some presumed desire to have children. Further above is mechanical engineering, which appears to be less amenable and open to women and dominated by men. In order for Valerie to be accepted into this male-dominated caste, she must accept the (arbitrary and discriminatory) norms imposed, as enforced by the male interviewer/gatekeeper. The most blatant norm seems to be that in order to accepted, Valerie must diminish if not eliminate one of the markers that distinguishes her as a woman from her male counterparts, her ability to bear children.

Ultimately, the film attempts to demonstrate that such killings don't transpire in a vacuum. What existed was a(n) (il)legal culture of discrimination that tolerated a certain degree of discrimination against women that Lepine took to an extreme.