How to stay engaged in toxic times

Last week I tweeted something – in my eyes – fairly innocuous about Roald Dahl. As you know, some passages in his children’s books are being adapted. For example, a child is no longer ‘fat’, but ‘huge’. I tweeted that texts are often changed, so I wondered why there would be such a fuss about it now. I actually didn’t even take a position – I just wondered why it’s now leading to heated arguments. Within a short time I was called a ‘deugneus’ (hard to translate, something like a ‘goody two-shoes’) and of course: ‘woke’. ‘Working at a university’, one person tweeted… ‘Well, then you already know what they’re like.’

I don’t know about you, but since the corona pandemic I’ve noticed that people are quick to anger. And not only when it comes to corona, lockdowns or QR codes; topics that have already been controversial for some time now bring emotions to a boil. Whether it’s about climate, black lives matter, queerness, the position of women, farmers, migrants, the war in Ukraine, etcetera. In the Netherlands, the atmosphere is tense, and frankly downright dangerous – look at how Dutch minister Sigrid Kaag (a woman, not coincidentally) was greeted with torches again recently. The ‘Kaag haat’ (‘Kaag anger’)  is truly incredible; someone compared it to a modern witch hunt, and I don’t think that comparison is unjustified.

The task of Studium Generale has traditionally been to facilitate debate and discussion. But how do you do that in an increasingly toxic atmosphere?

There are roughly two positions in political philosophy. The first examines how consensus and deliberation are possible – a position that the German intellectual giant Jürgen Habermas has made his life’s work. The other position assumes that such a consensus sounds nice, but in fact hides the fact that groups that are marginalized hardly get a say. That is exactly what minority groups have been saying for the past two decades: liberalism and progress may seem important values ​​in the West, but our wounds are barely mentioned. It takes conflict to claim a voice. The Metoo and Black Lives Matter movements are examples of this. This position is called agonism (from the Greek agon: struggle), and the political thinker Chantal Mouffe is an important representative.

For Studium Generale, that claim of minority groups is important – a university (the name universitas says it all) is inclusive by definition, so the voice of people who claim to be excluded must be heard. At the same time, we are not activists; we create space for debate and discussion – a task we take very seriously. How big should that space be? Is freedom of expression unlimited? And what form can a discussion take?

Tomorrow we will organize an SG Academy asking whether scientists can actually be activists, the same question that SG itself struggles with.

In addition, we are organizing three events in a row in the city of Delft early next week – think of it as a small festival about the emotions of our time. The first is a theater performance by Max Wind, in which he stages a fictitious debate evening with five actors that gets out of hand. But the evening must and will continue. What now? The second is an evening devoted to the beautiful documentary Remember What You Forgot by Clarice Gargard about the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in the Netherlands, with an introduction by Naomie Pieter. The third is on International Women’s Day – and is about how equal men and women are behind the front door, where feminism comes down to who does the vacuuming and who takes care of the kids. All three use a special form: theatre, film and a serious game.

For anyone who is fed up with today’s toxic atmosphere, but also doesn’t want to give up. My advice: Go to all four!

Leon Heuts – Head of Studium Generale