These are people who assess texts in advance, not to eliminate awkward sentences and careless language errors, but to highlight ‘sensitivities’. There might not seem to be much wrong with this at first glance, because why would you want to offend people unnecessarily? Nevertheless, this advance censoring touches on academic freedom and can stifle public debate. Whereas academics should actually be initiating discussions.

Sensitivity readers were first used in the publication of literary works, as a way for publishers to hedge against possible criticism that a particular text might be offensive to a particular group of people. It wasn’t all that long ago that the stamp ‘politically incorrect’ was a boon to an author – and helped sales to skyrocket – but publishers seem to be more scared or more politically correct these days. The children’s books by Roald Dahl are a well-known example: the classic works were recently taken to task by sensitivity readers, after which characteristics such as ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ disappeared and ‘small men’ suddenly became ‘small people’. The exaggerations that made Roald Dahl so enjoyable were suddenly no longer deemed acceptable.


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It is very common for academics to judge each other’s work. These ‘peer reviews’ form an integral part of academic research. These reviews mainly examine whether an assertion is scientifically sound and not whether a text is socially desirable, as is the case with a sensitivity reader. Moreover, a peer review always takes place by recognised colleagues and not by a reader who has little substantive knowledge of the subject matter. I am currently writing a lecture and a book on Erasmus and the current discussion on values. Here, I quote from works by Erasmus such as In Praise of Folly. A wonderful and provocative book, which is still being read today and in which he deliberately seeks out sensitivities.

After the death of Erasmus, his books were placed on the index of prohibited works as a result of censorship. It feels strange that 500 years later, I have to consider once again whether some of today’s readers might regard certain texts as sensitive. I would find it unacceptable for a sensitivity reader to start scribbling all over my work in advance. I would certainly like my research to be assessed, to see whether it is tenable and how it could be improved, but this is not what sensitivity censorship does. It mainly looks at whether a text complies with the assumed status quo at a given moment. The current way of thinking and the current status of the debate, which academics are actually intended to open up and advance. It is precisely this open debate that sensitivity readers threaten to stifle.

Ronald van Raak is professor of Erasmian values. On Monday 15 May, he will give the Rotterdam lecture in Arminius.

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