Black, White, or Shades of Grey?

My dad used to say that the message that is sent is often not the message that is received. It’s so true. Communication is tough. People can sometimes be in violent agreement, but arguing. It is as if they are speaking a completely different language to one another. Other times, their viewpoints may in fact be diametrically opposed. I have always considered my ability to communicate and mediate, to translate between the two differing points of view as one of my greatest strengths. I take a great deal of pride in that ability. I seem to be able to understand how or why someone is saying something in a certain manner, or putting things into a context that gives greater clarity. What that translates to is that despite having a very strong sense of right and wrong, and though I can be principled and passionate on certain things, I tend not to see things as black or white, and remain comfortably in the grey in most situations. That’s reflected in a many of the articles I have written over the past few years.

A clear example is in an article I wrote and shared on Linked In, “The Delicate Balance.” I say the following:

I long for reason to prevail, for the benefit of doubt to be given, for consideration of others to be a factor, for understanding or at least a willingness to be respectful of a diverging point of view. I tire of the knee jerk reactions calling for “change,” or “accountability” that are disproportionate to the actual incident itself. I find myself muttering “Why can’t we all just get along?” The world is a very different world today than even 15 years ago. We have made huge strides and improvements. But there is a flip side that needs to be examined and acknowledged as well. We should be cognizant that not all outcomes of advancement are positive. I would not want to see us keep striding blindly, without knowing where that foot is going to land. I worry that we could walk right off a cliff and end up in a less desirable position. I only hope that we have strong enough voices to cut through the white noise, people who can lead, and who can guide us across the tightrope we walk to keep us moving forward.

More recently I have been reflecting on this. I wonder if this is my strength, or is this my weakness? It was a question that was central to one of my earliest articles – “If it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander.” Was Madame Deschamps correct? Am I a part of the problem in that I have developed coping mechanisms that blind me to the gravity of problems? Has my ability to see both sides, to take into account context, skewed my ability to hold people accountable and allowed me to give people latitude and consideration where I should not? There were two concurrent events that I should delve into a little further to explain why I am questioning again.

I grew up in an abusive household. It wasn’t prevalent, and nor was it directed at me, but my parents’ relationship was not a healthy one, and nor was the relationship between my one brother and father. I think I am the way that I am right now – a peacemaker, a mediator – in large part because of my upbringing. I dislike conflict. I was never going to be the reason for another fight in our house, and it was in my nature to try to de-escalate. My other brother very recently decided that he needed to rally for change, to call out my father publicly. He doesn’t feel that Dad fully comprehends the wrongness of his behaviour in the past, nor the long lasting impact it has had on our family, in particular our other brother. It’s a complicated family situation for a multitude of reasons that I am not yet ready to write about, but needless to say, I was blindsided by my brother’s actions, completely. My brother did this the night before my father was coming to visit me, and the night before my Change of Command weekend. I felt as if he had pulled the pin on a grenade without warning me, and I was left standing in the rubble. I was reeling. But I had a change of command to get through, and the following Monday I traveled to Kingston for my civilian job for two weeks.

Immediately following, while dealing with my own turmoil, I had reached out to my each of my family members individually; we all had different reactions. My dad met me in Kingston for an emotionally draining afternoon. My work week went by, and in the evenings, instead of enjoying all that Kingston had to offer, I processed. I also caught a cold on top of it all. I was a bit of a mess frankly. And this was leading up to my birthday and Ex-Cadet Reunion Weekend. My brother’s 25 year reunion from RMC coincides with my 20th, and so he happened to be in Kingston and wanted to meet up with me for a coffee. I wasn’t certain I was ready to talk to him face to face. I was angry, but putting it off and not taking advantage of the fact that we could meet face to face vice talk over the phone didn’t seem like the right thing to do so I decided to meet with him. In that conversation my brother told me to stop talking like I’m at work, to stop being military and to talk to him like a sister. His comment infuriated me. I was deliberately being measured. I was avoiding saying anything in an emotionally charged state that I couldn’t take back. I was trying to make my brother understand that my perspective on things did not match his; though I knew he was did what he did with the best of intentions, it had unintended consequences that he had missed, and nor did I share his optimism that the desired outcome he wanted would be brought about by his approach. I ended up storming out of that coffee shop in tears. I then waited for my brother to come by the parking lot and pick up things I had for him. Once there, we talked some more, some more tears shed, he offered an apology, and we parted on good terms, but obviously still with a great weight on our shoulders.

In addition to how I was personally affected by my brother’s actions, I was, and still am, at odds with my family as to my outlook on our upbringing. While I don’t condone abuse, the context of the era, and being in a small rural community in Newfoundland, how equipped my parents were (or were not) to deal with the challenges of a young family and their emotional maturity, the role of alcohol, actions taken since my parents separated, all allow me to either compartmentalize or forgive because it is important to me that I have a continued relationship with every member of my family. 

At the same time that my personal life was exploding, as I mentioned, I was in Kingston working with many ex-cadets, and over the ex-cadet weekend. Kate Armstrong was scheduled for a book signing at RMC on the weekend. Kate Armstrong is the author of The Stone Frigate, The Royal Military College’s First Female Cadet Speaks Out. I posted on my blog following an article that she had published in the Toronto Star in May of 2019. I hadn’t yet read her book. But here’s what I posted:

It is articles such as this, “I was the first female cadet at Royal Military College. Decades later I realized I was never ‘one of the guys,’” that get me writing, often angrily typing on the keyboard.

I have no objection to people writing about their experiences, and far be it for me to deny their experiences. But at the same time, they do not speak for me and I therefore feel compelled to offer my views such that uninformed people can see multiple perspectives.

That said, I take exception to extrapolating from experiences in the 80’s and saying it is still the case now. Armstrong says that women are called on to sacrifice too much to fit in, even to this day. Really? Who’s calling on them to sacrifice??? Did they forget my number?

And what about her metarule? She says “So at RMC, we were developing a generation of leadership with the entrenched bias that it is culturally unnecessary to treat women as equals. That’s just as true today.” Really? Not my lived experience. I suppose it could be, because I’m not at RMC right now to offer a true assessment. But I am still serving, and see a lot of young officers who are recent graduates, and based on that, I’m inclined to disagree with her. Not to mention it’s a pretty bold statement to make on an institution that you have not been a part of in recent years.

So I guess this means I’m going to have to read this book. Not only that, I’m going to have to try to put aside my bias, and give it a fair shake. Consider it research for my next piece.

While in Kingston I had a few work colleagues, older graduates, ask me if I had read her book, and ask me a little about my experience. They also recommended I read it. I had enough crap going on in my life at the time that I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle that book, but I figured it was time. So I did. I had a similar reaction to her book as I had to reading Sandra Perron’s book, Out Standing in the Field: A Memoire by Canada’s First Female Infantry Officer. Reading Perron’s book brought about what has been my most well-received article to date, “I Am Equal.”  I again have circled back to that article a few times since reading Armstong’s Stone Frigate, and since my life exploded, questioning myself, my bias, whether or not my reaction is “appropriate.” Am I an enabler? Am I giving people free passes or get out of jail free cards by making allowances for bad behaviour? Is my inability to commit to seeing thinks in either black or white a problem? 

Armstong’s article in The Star takes a far more aggressive and negative position on RMC and gender integration than her book does, in my opinion. I still do not agree with her comments in the article. I think she overstepped her bounds when she extrapolated from her experiences in the 80’s to what the current day situation is.  I assume that she came to that conclusion in large part because of her lived experiences there. Here’s what gets me though, I had some very similar experiences, and my outlook upon them is vastly different. Maybe I do make excuses? What makes two people perceive and react to the same or similar situations so differently? Is there any one right way?

In my fourth year at RMC, I held the highest appointment an Officer Cadet can hold, Cadet Wing Commander. When recent graduates heard of that announcement in the spring of 1998, there was a ripple of shock with some as they could only recall me from my preparatory year where I was on a slightly different path, one that almost took me out of the military. My preparatory (prep) year was a little bumpy, to put it mildly. I’ll give you the coles notes version to my start at military college.

At College Militaire Royale de Saint Jean (CMR), in prep year, I was ordered to play soccer because it was a team sport and would develop me more as a leader, vice being allowed to do Tae Kwon Do. I was pretty choked about that because even though soccer was the sport I probably loved most, I was a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and wanted the chance to compete with the Canadian Military team. That lead to me having conversations with way too many high ranking officers and senior cadets than I cared to within the first few weeks of school. It was also the first glimpse at how quickly I could poison a room if I was disgruntled, and I was. The soccer team did not particularly enjoy having an angry teammate. The vibe rolled off of me. Eventually, a deal was struck and I was allowed to do both with priority given to soccer, and my morale improved drastically. I was also young and stupid at the time, and broke the odd rule here and there. I also got caught. I had been charged three times under the College Code of Conduct. One such charge in prep year was very similar to a situation that Armstong went through. I was charged with fraternization because I was dating a fourth year. To be clear, there was no incident to speak of. We were not caught together, or doing anything untoward. I’m not even certain it stemmed from being seen together publicly. But the relationship was known about, and that was enough to nail him and I. As it was my third incident, I was in front of the Lieutenant-Colonel Director of Cadets, not a senior Officer Cadet holding a cadet appointment. Thankfully, my fourth year assisting officer advocated well for me, realizing that I was on the brink of voluntary release, and I received only a warning for that charge. My boyfriend however was confined to barracks for 30 of the 35 days left to graduation. I should also add that just like in Armstrong’s situation, the Director of Cadets forbade my boyfriend from taking me to the Graduation Ball. And when my boyfriend raised the point that after he marched off the parade square he was no longer a cadet at the college, he received almost the identical response that Armstrong’s boyfriend received – as long as he was on these grounds he was going to be subjected to College rules, and I was not to attend as his date. By this point in time, I had already been diagnosed with mononucleosis and was struggling academically with Mechanics. With the diagnosis I was no longer allowed to do contact sports, and missed the Canada-USA Friendly Games for Tae Kwon Do. And that isn’t even going into the story of being strip-searched by the Military Police in my Squadron Commander’s office on Holy Thursday afternoon (yes, the memory is that vivid to me that I remember the exact day and exact circumstances) following lunch because my roommate had drugs in our room. Even though I didn’t know about the drugs, because they were in a shared accommodation, I was lumped in with her and subjected to the same treatment, only for them to say at the end of the day that the charges would be dropped against me. I was having a swell time in prep year….

I stuck it out, had a summer of Second Language Training, and then went to first year where I had a bit more of the stupidity. Charged again for stealing a laundry bag, a completely ridiculous farce that quite angered me at the time. I researched the Cadet Wing Instructions where I learned that when on charge and punished with extra work and drill, you only were in fact obliged to double (run essentially) the parade square, not everywhere, though that had been the practise.  Otherwise you were expected to march with your arms shoulder high vice being permitted to easy march. When I responded as much upon being queried as to why I was not doubling somewhere, I returned to my room to find a note that made it clear that regardless of what was in the Cadet Wing Instructions, I would be doubling everywhere. No big deal, I had a band of friends who opted to eat that punishment with me and ran in solidarity to me and in protest to the bullshit. That was the year that my Squadron Commander had me in his office and said, “Jen, people will follow you. But the problem is that they will follow you right off a cliff as well. You are great when you are on our team, but if you decide you are going in another direction, that’s trouble.” He was right. He wasn’t out of line in calling me out on that because it was true, and I was probably headed for a cliff.

All that to say, my first two years at military college were a bit of a gong show. Some of it stemmed from systemic issues, some of it was self-inflicted stupidity that comes with being young and immature in certain areas, and some of it I do attribute to the poor leadership or decisions of individuals. What I do not believe is true is that it is reflective of the institution writ large. I also do not believe that much of what went on with me had much to do with my gender, if anything. It had more to do with the fact that I was a leader moving in the wrong direction. It was that I challenged the system in a way that didn’t conform to what was expected of someone in my year. The fourth year who was my presiding officer when I was charged with stealing a laundry bag is a fantastic officer, and a great guy. He was not “out to get me” in an evil sort of way. He was under some pressure to try to get me on the correct path, and that was how it manifested. Was it right? No. Have things like that changed at RMC? Yes. First off, cadets are no longer tried under the College Code of Conduct. And here is where I risk getting branded as making excuses again, but I think it is worthwhile to consider that if I wasn’t resilient enough to see through that kind of adversity when I was at the College, then maybe I wouldn’t have been resilient enough to deal with some of the challenges I faced down the road in my career.

There are certain things that Armstrong was subjected to that I never had to deal with. There are a few things she mentions that are downright appalling, and wrong. Yet I still do not come to the same conclusions that she articulated in her article in The Star. That article was shared by a friend on Facebook. That is how I learned of it, and I posted a comment in response that was along the lines of my blog post mentioned above. My friend then made a comment about how the females in her squadron were encouraged to go on chit prior to the obstacle course, and then derided for not doing so. Her comment got me thinking. And once again, I was clearly in the grey. I couldn’t take a stance on how I truly felt about it. First off, I couldn’t relate to the situation, because I was never a part of it. I completed the obstacle course as a “gazelle.” At CMR Saint-Jean, where I did my obstacle course in my prep year, a male and female were chosen from each squadron to conduct the obstacle course solo as a competition against the other squadrons. And if my fellow recruits in my squadron were complaining about potentially slow members of our flight who were going to slow the group up during the team obstacle course, I was oblivious to it, or it was literally lost in translation as my grasp of the french language at that point was sorely lacking. Likewise, when CMR closed and I went to RMC in Kingston for first year, I was not part of their recruit term and did not get any exposure to any suggestion that someone not take part.  I chatted a bit about this with another friend, and she said that absolutely there was pressure. She recalls an individual from her flight who people didn’t really want to see compete in the obstacle course because of their physical abilities. 

Here’s where I might get myself in trouble … I’m not so sure that I see that as wrong.  There, I’ve said it. I’m not 100% in that camp, but I can see how and why it comes about, and I do not think it is all negative, nor borne of a bad place. Equally, I can see the flip side of things. Now hear me out before coming at me with daggers, accusing me of being the problem.

I understand and believe in team work. I also know that you sometimes do not get to chose your team, and the onus is on you as a leader, coach, team mate, mentor, whatever, to develop your team. I know the expressions: TEAM – together everyone achieves more, you’re only as strong as your weakest link, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, etc. I believe in those expressions. I also believe that we should be trying to be inclusive of all. I don’t like bullies, and I don’t like or tolerate people being intentionally hurtful to others. But here’s the flip side of the coin. I’m competitive. I like to win, may be not at all costs, but I like to win. More importantly, I’m also cognizant of what the ultimate purpose is for a military. As I said in another one of my articles,

“The military needs to be prepared to go to war, engage in combat, and execute lethal force where it is lawful to do so. To cultivate that will to fight, that willingness to apply lethal force, certain traits must be fostered – aggression, physical and mental stamina, mission before self to name a few. All of these traits must exist. They must be cultivated. It would be irresponsible and negligent to forget this.”

So I ask you this, in breeding a bunch of military officers who may one day have to go to war, who are gearing up for a competition of physical and mental stamina, is it completely unreasonable that they would want to have the strongest team possible for that competition? That if there was someone who was consistently holding them back for the six weeks that they would not be keen to have that person slow them down in what will be their ultimate test? I actually think it is a fairly normal reaction. How they approach it, what exactly they say and do to express that sentiment and how appropriate that may be is another story altogether, but I do not think they are evil incarnate because they have a desire to cut off dead weight. And bear in mind that the majority of these officer cadets are 17 or 18 years old with less than 4 months in the military, and the senior cadets only have a few more years than them, less than a Master Corporal in the military. Is it reasonable to expect that they all have the maturity and leadership to not be an asshole about things like this? I am not saying that bad behaviour should be allowed to go unchecked. But I am saying that not all bad behaviour is indicative of a more significant problem.

I’ve never really struggled in my career to hold soldiers accountable for their conduct and performance. I also still believe that I have a pretty strong and healthy sense of right and wrong. But nevertheless, I tend to remain committed to seeing things in shades of grey, and avoid seeing things as black or white. I recognize the risk with that. I see that it can frustrate people and I know that I can be considered a part of the problem. Maybe it’s naivete. Maybe it’s optimism. But humans are not infallible. I am most certainly not. I have made plenty of mistakes in my life. However, most of the wrong-doing or the inappropriate behaviour I have personally seen or dealt with in my life has not been a product of outright maliciousness. And if it isn’t coming from a place of evil, I like to maintain hope that it can be changed. It can be corrected, and it can be improved.

After these past few months, I have wished I was more capable of seeing things in black and white. It might be less mentally taxing, because dealing in shades of grey is exhausting. But it is who I am. So I remain at odds with some people I know, love, and/or respect because I see things differently, and that is okay, or it should be okay. When we can work through differences, co-exist and get along despite those differences, that’s when real change and improvement happens.