In one of the country’s most widely-read newspapers I recently saw a photograph of first-year-students sitting in those familiar multi-coloured EUR lecture-hall desks. The caption read: ‘During their studies they will discover that the university is no longer a place for free thought’.
The title of the accompanying article? ‘Self-censorship of academia’. Thanks to ‘the onward march of political correctness’ on Dutch campuses, academic freedom is allegedly under threat.
A platform for racists
The moral panic surrounding perceived political correctness at universities is a phenomenon imported from the United Kingdom and the United States. There, it is alleged that excessively militant (often left-wing) student groups want to silence their (usually conservative) professors. Many academics and pundits have denounced this development. And rightly so, you would think. After all, without robust discussions that push the boundaries, there can be no academic progress.
But a closer look at this issue shows that the advance of political correctness isn’t quite so bad. I mainly see organisations that act effectively for disadvantaged groups: LGBT people, Muslims, women, and immigrants. They expose issues such as sexism, racism and biased curricula, and they strive for equality. Moreover, many of the incidents decried in the Anglo-Saxon media don’t even involve instances of intimidation or banning free speech. They involve organised dissent and protests if a professor has made disparaging remarks about a minority group, or if a racist is given a platform to speak.
The newspaper article in question draws primarily on speculation and second and third-hand evidence coming mainly from right-wing academics. The only verifiable incident took place at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in Zwolle, where a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad was removed so as not to overly offend Muslim students. In response to this act the publicist Paul Scheffer cancelled his debate appearance at this institution. I wonder however, if Scheffer, known chiefly for his essay ‘The multicultural disaster’ (‘het multiculturele drama’), would show equally little understanding for potentially insulted or offended groups if it involved an ISIS flag or a Celtic cross.
I can’t shake the impression that we’re dealing with what is actually a cultural war. It is certainly no coincidence that many of these proponents of free speech are white, heterosexual men of a certain age. Because if you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
Giorgio Touburg is a doctoral candidate at the Rotterdam School of Management.