6 December 2018 • Dave van Ginhoven
A Little Less (of a certain kind of) Conversation
By the time you read this, the Dutch St Nicholas will have returned to Spain, ending an important annual Dutch ritual of arguing about Black Pete. While we could look back on how that argument has escalated to egg throwing and death threats, I’d rather look forward and hope that when he returns to the Netherlands, Sinterklaas will leave Pete behind and bring us a gift we really need: a (steam)boatload of empathy and good sense.
I don’t want go into whether or not Pete is offensive. I think he is, but I also think that if you’re not convinced of that by now, there’s little I can do to change your mind. It’s actually the difficulty in changing minds that I want to talk about this week.
The other day, a student asked me for advice. He was upset because a class discussion about politics made him realise that he’d been wrong about a few things and it made him uncomfortable. I suggested that what he was describing has a name: personal growth. Since that’s the whole point of getting an education, I told him he should be proud to admit that opening his mind up to other perspectives caused him to question his own. That takes maturity and courage, especially in a world where so few are willing to do this anymore.
Pete is just one topic where I see the same patterns of behaviour, online and in the real world. It doesn’t matter if it’s about racism, sexism, Israel and Palestine, Donald Trump, Europe, immigration, Islam or whether or not pineapple belongs on pizza. I see people who don’t see the difference between understanding someone else’s feelings and sacrificing their own, forming tribes and going into battle, armed with slogans, a few fallacies, a lot of clever memes and some whataboutisms, intent on “destroying” the other side, even if they have no real idea where the other tribe is coming from.
I don’t see a lot empathy, which is needed for a meaningful dialog, where people listen to each other before coming to conclusions. I’d like to see more of that. I’d like to see more empathy for people who have no racist intent with Pete and just want to defend a cherished tradition, but I’d also like to see them show empathy for those who feel insulted by something that could be fixed with minimal effort – if we’re really going to tell the kid that Pete is black from going down the chimney, why not make him look a little more like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins and a little less like Al Jolson in the Jazz Singer?
I’d like to see more empathy in general, and to see people recognise that having a different political opinion doesn’t automatically mean you have to use Godwin’s law to declare your opponents Nazis or Communists instead of listening to them talk. You should always try to understand and empathise with your opponents and see if you can challenge their arguments with facts, logic and a little decency. Everyone deserves that. Except for those people who put pineapple on pizza. That’s madness.
But that’s just one guy talking.
Dave van Ginhoven is a senior lecturer at European Studies, which he’s happy to promote to anyone who will listen. Before that he used to be a journalist and a Canadian. He loves to talk, but don’t take him too seriously. He’s only one guy.