28 September 2018 • Gideon Wille
Lecturers write a book about political correctness
Gert Jan Geling and Gerben Bakker, both lecturers in Applied Safety & Security Studies (Dutch) and researchers, wrote a book about political correctness. A thorny issue, in education too. How does The Hague University of Applied Sciences deal with political correctness? Can you say whatever you want to here?
Your book has attracted quite a lot of interest, with interviews in the AD and Volkskrant newspapers. Political correctness may be a very pertinent issue, but it is also a thorny issue. Did you manage to bring across your message?
Gerben: “It is sometimes hard to properly bring across the message of the book, which is quite nuanced. During the book launch in Rotterdam, the discussion was hijacked by Fransisco van Jole. I had underestimated that. I thought that we would be given enough space but instead, you hear ‘Geling and Bakker believe that we should put an end to political correctness’. But actually, we were not that outspoken at all.”
Gert Jan: “The media frames everything so sharply.”
Gerben: “In the TV programme ‘De Nieuwe Maan’, we were at the table with two anti-racism activists. The discussion was heated at first, but later we had a good discussion. There are lots of negative reactions, often from people who have not read the book, nor even read the interviews. But there are also positive reactions, from The Hague University of Applied Sciences for example.”
Thank you for that link. What is the situation of political correctness at The Hague University of Applied Sciences? For example, can you say what you want to say?
Gert Jan: “I have never felt constrained in expressing my opinion at THUAS.”
Gerben: “There is enough freedom to say things, but of course there are also sensitivities.”
Gert Jan: “Freedom of expression must always be a point of attention at universities and universities of applied sciences. You must be able to do your research freely, have debates freely, be free to teach the things that are relevant to your specialisation. You must not be hindered at all.
“We describe some cases where the freedom of expression in education is put under pressure. It’s not about systematic self-censoring, instead, they are often incidents. But that does not mean that they do not deserve attention.
“And you see developments abroad finding their way to the Netherlands. In the Anglo-Saxon world especially, there is greater emphasis on political correctness. Internationalisation is also having an impact on Dutch education. There are lots of very active student groups in America. At my old university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the USA, there are now rules because student activists regularly disrupted meetings. Our book is partly a warning – watch out.”
Gerben: “I once saw a list being passed round at THUAS on which you could fill in micro aggressions. This is an example of something that has come over from the Anglo-Saxon world. I don’t think that this is a big problem, but something like this could be a reason that lecturers are careful in expressing themselves or tend to temper their views according to what students think.”
Gert Jan: “In the issues that I teach like radicalisation, immigration, multiculturalism and social tensions, I see that students sometimes find it hard to express themselves in a large group. This applies both to students who come from ethnic minorities as well as students who are right of centre. In the latter case, this is because they move within a white, secular, progressive narrative that dominates academic institutions.”
Gerben: “It’s sometimes hard for us to know whether lecturers feel free to express their opinions. This is understandable though, you don’t just say something about something that you later wish you hadn’t said. Still, I think that there is something going on and this is what we wanted to say in the book.”
One of the issues touched on in your interview with the AD newspaper was again Herre Faber’s blog and the impression that he was not able to say what he wanted at THUAS. The Executive Board and H|Nieuws had no problem whatsoever with continuing his blog.
Gerben: “The AD had already reported on this and had taken a standpoint. We were dragged into it by the journalist.”
Gert Jan: “The case with Herre is a good example of the dynamics that student activist groups can generate. In our book we expressly state that The Hague University of Applied Sciences does not limit the freedom of expression. An institute doesn’t always have to be the problem.”
Gerben: “The problem for Herre is that too much negativity came his way.”
Gert Jan: “That is a strategy that we observe. If you dump a lot of negativity on someone, that person will withdraw. This could also be the case for small minority groups whose activism gets something put on the agenda.”
But how can you, as lecturers at a university of applied sciences with increasingly diverse groups, now work in the classroom vis-à-vis the freedom of expression and political correctness?
Gerben: “You see that some students mix up the subject that you teach with your personal views. I try to make it clear that the two are different things, but I do see that it can be difficult. By the way, in my experience, our students are quite mild.
“I tell my classes that you can attribute your morals to rational thinking as well as to books like the Bible or the Quran. If you want to attribute morals to a book, there is nothing wrong with that, but it is not what I think. I teach how you can use rational argumentation to arrive at moral considerations. You have to be honest in this, I will not teach ethics from the standpoint of the Quran. You make choices. You can’t be too relativistic about this.”
Gert Jan: “Several students react from their own identity and find it difficult to place themselves in the shoes of the other. The more diverse the university of applied sciences becomes, the more you will see this. This could lead to a clash. You need to have a debate based on substance and not on personal arguments. You must be able to underpin what you say, while various perspectives may arise in the debate. It could happen that one student offends the perspective of the other. In my class, you may take an extreme position as long as you can underpin it.”
How can the university of applied sciences avoid political correctness constricting one’s thoughts?
Gerben: “It is important to pay attention to the debating culture at THUAS. This means holding debates about controversial subjects too. We need to teach students to take the other side of the argument and learn to build up an argument logically.”
Gert Jan: “That could be part of the Academic Career Coaching. And you need to train lecturers properly in how to handle sensitive subjects in the classroom.”
Gerben: “It is important that there is a good platform to start discussions for students that want to think about society inside and outside school. And that there is free journalism in educational institutions. You see that it is scaling.”
Gerben and Gert Jan’s book Over politieke correctheid (about political correctness) is published by Boom Filosofie. Together with The Lighthouse, Gert Jan and Gerben will shortly hold a debate about political correctness. Keep an eye on the agenda for the date and place.
Gerben Bakker and Gert Jan Geling