A debate between four well-known alumni and a room full of retirees yields high-calibre discussion and a number of remarkable insights. “People commit suicide after being pilloried by GeenStijl.”
Jan Uilenbroek is one of over 100 alumni, retired staff members and veterans of Erasmus University attending the eleventh edition of the Debate and Dies Lunch (2016), held on 8 November. The 78-year-old Erasmus MC alumnus looks forward to listening to Ko Colijn, Nout Wellink, Inez de Beaufort and moderator Frans Weisglas during this morning debate, which is organised for former EUR scholars and other retired staff members on the date of the University’s anniversary. Uilenbroek is mainly interested in acquiring new knowledge. But, as he notes with a smile: “It’s a race between learning new things and forgetting what I knew already. And I suspect I’m starting to lose that race.”
This year’s theme is ‘The World Today’. And if your first thought was that this is quite a broad topic: you’re right. Which is exactly what makes it such a great choice, according to Weisglas: “Most of you have a life’s worth of scientific research behind you, so it’s a good idea to adopt a fairly broad theme for a change.”
And ‘fairly broad’ is putting it lightly. In just over 15 minutes, Ko Colijn, the former director of Clingendael and professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, takes the audience on a whirlwind tour of more or less every aspect of the global geopolitical situation. And according to Colijn he can’t afford not to – because the world has become unbelievably confusing. “In the old days, you basically had six players in the arena: China, the Soviet Union, Germany, Britain, the US and France. They determined the fate of the world.” Nowadays, everyone is chiming in. Every single country; billions of people; every single NGO: “It has become an almost impossible situation.”
With military efficiency, Colijn guides the attendees past the key developments in global security in the most recent period. In a nutshell: it was awful back in the old days; ten years ago things seemed to start getting a lot better; and over the past few years, the situation has been deteriorating again. Moreover, around the world, people are losing faith in democracy and suffer from a sense of reduced freedom. The audience nods in agreement, until the professor begins to quote from the work of the – for outsiders relatively obscure – scholar Kishore Mahbubani. At this point, even the sharpest minds in the room start falling by the wayside.
GeenStijl costs lives
“I feel like a piece of cheese between two slices of bread,” says medical ethicist Inez de Beaufort of Erasmus MC, who still has to get used to her spot in the limelight between the two media veterans Colijn and Nout Wellink. In her mini-lecture, De Beaufort argues for less obnoxiousness in social interaction. She knows which crowd she’s playing for. Her references to voluntary euthanasia and the website GeenStijl’s campaign for a driving ban for senior citizens elicit a hum of approval. According to the ethicist, politically incorrect sites like GeenStijl even cost lives: “People commit suicide after being pilloried by that site.” The audience decides to turn a blind eye to the lack of evidence.
De Beaufort’s solution for obnoxious behaviour: the so-called ‘encomium of politeness’. In her view, this can be achieved through a combination of good intentions, rules and public naming and shaming. She concludes with a quote by Theodore Roosevelt: “Politeness is a sign of dignity, not of subservience.”
Moderator Weisglas makes a small gaffe in his introduction for Nout Wellink, presently found on the supervisory board of the Bank of China. “He also holds an honorary doctorate, although Nout told me to leave that out.” Nout nods: “That’s correct, because Tilburg awarded me that title.” In between the laughter, Weisglas manages to extricate himself from his faux-pas: “If you put on a good show today, you might even land one here too.”
And Wellink doesn’t fail to deliver – if only because his chosen theme may well be even bigger than we know: China. According to Wellink, this country will overtake the US in the near future, to become the most powerful country in the world. And this will have its consequences. “Things are on a completely different scale there. A water pipeline from the north to the south of the country costs USD 80 billion. This has an impact on how people think – something we tend to underestimate.” That’s why Wellink concludes with a piece of advice: learn to leave your own standards out of the equation when you look at China. Because what seems like a giant bubble to us, is a viable system for the Chinese.
After the audience is invited to participate, the debate once again centres on Grand and Compelling Themes (Weisglas effectively neutralises a fairly extensive monologue by one of the speakers with the remark “I am inclined to view your comment as a fourth, very interesting introduction – which I would like to leave it be for the moment”) until a former staff member of Finance & Control stands up. What she is interested in hearing from De Beaufort is her views on the obnoxious step to abolish student grants. “With three student children, I’ve grumbled about this decision too. But I believe this is more than simply a case of obnoxious behaviour. This is an ethical problem – one that centres on equal access to decent degree programmes.” Wellink doesn’t subscribe to this idea: “It’s a bad situation, but I wouldn’t call it obnoxious. That only muddies the water.” Nevertheless, De Beaufort has the audience on her side with her concluding words: “Equal access to higher education is a very important element of a civilised society.”
With his following statement, which is as remarkable as it is interesting, Wellink enters Godwin territory: what if, he wonders, excessively well-mannered public behaviour – like the behaviour encountered in Japan and Germany – actually engenders war crimes, since its practitioners lack other forms of release? De Beaufort: “Indeed, an overdose of politeness can arouse suspicion. But one can always turn to other outlets besides obnoxious behaviour.”
And finally: what is De Beaufort’s take on hazing excesses? “I blame it on a lack of civilisation. People are gripped by a curious form of herd behaviour, which greatly impairs their critical thinking. At which point ugly things can happen.” Weisglas decides to round off the debate with a defence of student associations: “When something like this happens, social media treat it in the most generalised way. As if all student associations and hazing rituals are absolutely horrendous. There’s no room for nuanced discussion. That’s what is so sad about these times. Everything’s reduced to a binary.” He falls silent for a moment, and then turns on his microphone again: “It may not be the most modest thing to say, but I think this makes a nice final thought.”
After each of the panel members has been applauded (and the attendees have received detailed instructions regarding how they – depending on their specific physical capacities and limitations – can best access the lunch area and secure a suitable chair), Uilenbroek looks back on a successful morning event. He informs us that he immensely enjoyed himself: “Quite high calibre, wouldn’t you say? You won’t find this kind of thing in the papers. You can count me in again next year.” On his behalf, we hope so. God willing.