In the piece, Buijs presents himself as a whistleblower: “Of course I don’t mind if people disagree with me in the academic arena; that’s part of a healthy academic debate. But I’m increasingly being made to feel that I’m a ‘bad person’ who has no right to speak, despite the fact that I have scientific expertise, conduct research and publish on the positions I’m taking”, Buijs says.
Education and research at the UvA are said to be increasingly dictated by prescribed political views, in which a growing number of words are not allowed and topics are not discussed. So much so that Buijs – who once saw himself as part of the woke movement – no longer feels safe: a feeling that seems to be confirmed by the call for his resignation. Controversy and political infighting broke out on social media, fuelled in part by the parties Bij1 and Forum. When these kinds of Twitter conflicts arise, I tend to quickly disengage (this is also the reason why I’m not on Twitter). Still, the matter is relevant, if we want to understand where the unease comes from in the debate on woke culture and academic freedom.
‘Ontwaakt, verworpenen der aarde!’ is the opening of The Internationale, the old anthem of the social movement. ‘Awaken’ is often the first word in English translations. ‘Woke culture’ stems from these emancipation movements of workers and women. Part of that emancipation is claiming a place in society: a place for the words and the images that belong to your group. The freedom to be who you want to be. Buijs conducts research into diversity and inclusion and is part of this emancipation movement. At the same time, he says he wants to warn against a shift that has taken place: when ideas are being forced upon others – and those who think otherwise should lose their jobs.
Gijs van Oenen, a colleague at ESPhil, wrote a book about this shift titled Cultural battlefields: Philosophy of the culture wars. In the book, he describes how the emphasis on group identities – based on sex, colour, religion or origin – can lead to the exclusion of other people, and even to intimidation. Van Oenen explains how this is done by politicians on both the right and left. Woke culture could very well contribute to academic freedom, if it gives people the confidence that they too can make their voices heard. It can also threaten that academic freedom, when political views are forced upon others, or when people who express criticism are denied the right to speak. The university is a place for experimentation: where we do not judge each other’s politics, but give each other space.
Ronald van Raak is professor of Erasmian values.
Finally! As a sociology student I have been waiting for an article like Van Raak’s for years. Although social sciences tend to have a veneer of impartiality, in practice this mask slips off quite easily and regularly. Don’t get me wrong: I am delighted that people from marginalized groups now feel safe to express their opinions and share their experiences. And any scientist worth his/her/their salt should reflect on their implicit biases before conducting any research or expressing any opinion. The crux is that the woke ideology has overreached. No student, tutor or professor should feel comfortable dismissing someone’s opinion simply because they are a member of a group whose opinions are considered irrelevant or unwelcome. And simply viewing the world as a struggle between the oppressed versus the oppressors purely as a result of someone’s identity disregards any notion of individual agency and makes nuance all but impossible. The university should not allow professors to show visible disgust towards students simply because their political positions don’t align or to present only the scientific positions in their course that fit their personal beliefs. And students shouldn’t be so willing to disregard scientific positions simply because they don’t fit their world view. Any good faith discussion should be welcomed provided that arguments are substantiated and the participants are open to other opinions. We must be willing to accept a degree of unease when discussing difficult topics: if we don’t dare to be confrontational we are simply shooting the breeze or regurgitate the us versus them paradigm without looking for common ground or compromise. I am eager to hear how the university and faculty of social sciences will try to not only safeguard diversity in ethnicity or gender but also diversity of thought and political leanings. Science in general and social sciences in particular have come under scrutiny in the last few years because more and more people believe it is an ideological monolith. Let’s make sure we can prove those voices wrong or we’ll lose our last shreds of credibility.