I became Dean in 2017. At that time, I stopped writing my column for Observant: as an administrator, you must above all be open to criticism yourself and I found that incompatible with the role of columnist. But recently things have happened that I, as a member of the UM community, cannot keep quiet about. I mention three of them. First: in its last meeting, the University Council refused to condemn the cowardly (and punishable) DDoS attack on Observant, which brought the journal’s site down for three days. Second: I hear that some UM colleagues no longer wish to speak with Observant because they experience the journal as ‘transphobic’ and hateful. By this they refer to the refusal of the editors to write about “menstruating people” instead of “women who menstruate” in an article about the deposit of free sanitary towels in the UM toilets. Third: last year a meeting was held at UM about the phenomenon of Zwarte Piet, at which all white attendees were asked to leave the room.
This is not the university I stand for. Contrary to what the University Council seems to think, the issue surrounding the DDoS attack is not about Observant. It is, as in the other two examples, about the values of our university. My university is one in which everyone feels free to say what they want and in which this can be refuted by others without hindrance. This is the core of the academic and open climate we must stand for. This climate is under threat. Not by restricting freedom of speech, but by self-censorship. Who dares to speak out against woke statements if you are immediately labelled a racist or a transphobe? Let us avoid a situation in which we no longer know how to disagree with each other, a situation that is already occurring at many American universities – only read Haidt and Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind.
To be clear: I do believe the critical attitude of wokism is fantastic. The constant questioning of others – and certainly of the establishment – about how inclusive and fair their language or views are, is very welcome. I myself studied at a time – the 1980s – when that happened far too little. But this does not mean that anyone who has a different view should not also feel free to express it.
Perhaps I should be more explicit on one point. Cancelling language or dissenting opinions does not – contrary to what some people think – contribute to creating a safe environment or ‘safe space’. Especially at university you need to hear opinions you disagree with. Not in order to offend others, but to initiate discussion. Is that not also the core of ‘global citizenship education’? Those opinions may then be contested with all the arguments you have, but you cannot order the other person to stop expressing them. The only real safe space is the space where we can disagree with each other. The university's task is to create the conditions for that space – both literally and physically. This is not done by excluding people, but by listening and giving space, also to what some people experience as ‘dangerous’ opinions or ‘dangerous’ words. And of course: everyone is free to also criticise my view on this – I am after all a white middle-aged man who scores dangerously high on the seven ticks list.
In its next meeting, the University Council has a new opportunity to condemn the (again: criminally punishable) DDoS attack against Observant – and thus against UM. I assume that this will happen. But it is not enough. Let us have a broader debate within our university about how we deal with other people’s opinions.
Jan Smits, Dean Faculty of Law