Let's Talk - But How?
We invite all readers to join us on Wednesday, April 21st, at 7pm, to collectively tackle the questions raised in this essay - and beyond. The zoom link will be accessible via our Instagram page: @collxctive.euc and/or can be sent via email upon request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In November of last year, thebrokenprinter published a column arguing the need of “shifting the debate right” at Erasmus University College (EUC). It stated that EUC is a left-leaning institution and, as such, holds little space for students and staff members with conservative views. These students and staff members would not feel free to express their opinions within our community.
Around the same time, the Collxctive started hanging posters around the EUC building, posters which visualised the stories of students and staff members who do not feel safe within our community. Their stories touch upon instances of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination that happened on campus. The posters, then, were meant to make visible that the structural inequalities affecting society today, exist in the supposedly ‘liberal’ space of EUC as well.
It could seem as if the column and the poster campaign come from different perspectives; one is concerned with protecting freedom of expression and the other with addressing discrimination, two causes often juxtaposed along political fault lines (Brown, 2017). We, however, believe they are pointing towards the same problem – that EUC is a community of difference without the space to relate across differences. Different people make up our university, which inevitably raises the question of how to be/think/learn together. This rather abstract question intersects with more concrete issues, such as where do we draw the line between “free speech” and hate speech? What matters are political, and thus up for debate, and what are indisputable “matters of human rights”? And how do we respond when someone does deny others’ human rights? Can we call in the person, that is, can we call out their harmful behaviour in a way that does not “cancel” them, but instead opens them/us up to dialogue?
Answers to these questions have to be found collectively, that is, by engaging with each other, in critical and constructive conversation. Yet this rarely happens at EUC. We hold debates, yes, but they tend to skirt the tensions inhering in a community of difference. It appears that EUC’s ‘critical world citizens’ can “unravel today’s complex scientific and social issues” so long as those issues do not affect our own community. For if the issues do affect our community, would talking about them not be divisive? We think not. In fact, we from the Collxctive believe differences turn into divides when they are not discussed. That is why we consider the lack of spaces for open, respectful and, on occasion, uncomfortable dialogue at EUC to be a most pressing problem. Thus, the most crucial question becomes how to foster such spaces where students and staff members can relate across their differences. This essay takes up that question, offering reflections which will hopefully serve as the starting points of a larger and long-overdue discussion among the EUC community.
Against Institutional Silence
The first step towards relating across differences, is to recognise these differences. That also means recognising the ways in which differences are “misnamed and misused in the service of separation” and oppression (Lorde, 1984). Here, our institution is already lacking, with silence being its automatic response to any and every discriminatory abuse, like a reflex almost. We formed the Collxctive in response to a particularly painful example of that silence. Two years ago, an EUC student reported to management that she had been sexually assaulted by a peer on university grounds. However, this was not clearly communicated to the community. It left several EUC students feeling very frustrated. So, we created our own spaces for sharing; we met in an empty PBL room or lecture hall for one to two hours every week, just to talk. Our first conversations were about how angry we felt with the way the managing team had ‘handled’ the alleged sexual assault. Those conversations led us to remember other times when we had experienced or witnessed discriminatory abuse and (representatives of) the institution had remained silent. Unwittingly, we were building a record, story by story, of the systemic violence present within EUC and perpetuated by our university’s failure to actively address it.
One of the latest events to be added to this record was the lack of a positioning statement from EUC concerning the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. A letter calling for a reaction was sent out at that time and received little following. In February 2021, a second letter signed by more than 100 EUC students and alumni was published, this time answered by the dean herself. The reply recollected a list of the most recent initiatives taken in and by our university, aiming at “a truly inclusive” EUC community, including the revision of the curriculum, the nomination of a diversity officer and the dean’s denunciation of racist slurs shared through Whatsapp. There is no say that these moves are not valuable. Yet, the ‘good will’ of EUC should not be used as proof of diversity and inclusivity. Such an attitude furthermore minimises the structural roots of experienced prejudices (ableism, xenophobia, classism, sexism, racism, and so forth) - insidiously continuing institutional silence.
The problem of silence in the university has, in fact, also been pointed out by our dean, who articulated an inverted worry about the communication struggles between the institution and its students. In several appeals for community-wide conversations (“Let’s Talk”, “Not Funny”), she addressed students’ muteness about the issues touching our community, and asked to hear more critical voices. These statements, from which transpires an apparent will for true cross-positional conversations, nevertheless obscure the emotional work of many who, over the past years, vocalised the issues they observed (both at EUC and beyond). Moreover, there appears to be an underlying blame towards students for the missing exchange. The demanded open and constructive critiques, however, can hardly emerge without the experience of a ‘safe space’ inside the university. Incidentally, the Collxctive (a body of students) has tried to open up such spaces over the past two years. But only so much can be done without support from the institution.
This year, attempts to bridge the gap between the administration and students have been initiated at an institutional level through, for instance, bi-monthly town halls or the ECLAS lectures. As was highlighted by the dean, it seems though that there is not yet “active involvement” in these meetings. Thus, the structural reflection necessary for collective change-making is still missing. This brings us to the central question of our essay: How do we co-create the spaces necessary for this reflection, where to relate across our positionalities; our differences?
Towards Community Dialogue
It is ironic, maybe, that this central question comes up in the education system of EUC - theoretically based on discussion. The problem-based learning environment should indeed be able to host our differences and foster conscientious conversations if we are to engage and learn with each other truly and respectfully. This is also the aim of the Honour Code on which the EUC community is based, containing the four values of respect, responsibility, comprehension and commitment. Preserving this foundation should be strived for at both an institutional and individual level. Yet it seems that the Honour Code’s values do not translate into the actual debates taking place at EUC. In fact, we hardly discuss how to put them into practice.
At the moment, a certain discomfort tends to settle in a conversation whenever sensitive topics come up. We saw this after thebrokenprinter column was published, but also in the discussions following the Collxctive’s poster campaign. Difficult questions were raised here - questions which we would like to return to now, because they are integral to the EUC community of difference. One such question is that of the space given to emotions: in thebrokenprinter debate, some students highlighted the insensitivity of certain topics or the aggressive nature of some debates. It appears that, on the one side of the discussion, people don’t feel safe to speak, because their rights are being debated: the culture of academic ‘neutrality’ undermines their opinions for their supposedly too emotional nature. On the other, some students are reluctant to share their (often conservative) views in fear of being ‘cancelled’. When students don’t feel comfortable talking about something, a wedge is created between the two or more ‘sides’ of the topic. If we want to hold space for difference regarding these topics, we should stop trying to infinitely avoid these points of tension, since this is more likely to lead to polarisation than bringing the community together. It is important to consider how we can ensure an open environment regarding the shared experiences of all students - from ‘liberals’ to ‘conservatives’.
We suggest, for a start, that free speech can and should be embraced, but that it does not allow the negation of people’s right to existence. ‘Freedom of speech’ should not be used as an excuse for hate speech. This means holding each other accountable, but how do we avoid the pitfalls of so-called ‘cancel culture’? More and more it is being used as a way of publicly punishing people for their mistakes instead of holding others accountable (Ross, 2019). Another aspect to consider is the extent to which the notion of ‘apolitical’ should be applied to the university. So far, the manifestations of this stance have been troubling, for they mask the risk of labeling fundamental statements regarding human rights as political, as was seen in the brokenprinter debate. We have to acknowledge that such politicisation fosters insensitive, even violent, approaches: it allows people’s right to existence to become a point of discussion, a matter of opinion. Furthermore, the culture of desirable neutrality and/or objectivity that underlies this ‘apolitical approach’ is unattainable (Hooks, 1994). It is thus necessary to consider our positionality in contemporary debates, as it is not possible to be completely neutral - especially in social topics.
We think there should be found a meeting ground when navigating a conversation. Therefore, our essay is an open call for collective reflection on conversation spaces and rules at EUC. How do we create spaces together, across our different positions/positionalities as students, teachers and members of management? In this essay, we have tried to trace that question as it was raised several times over the past year. We hope that by narrating how it has unfolded within the current EUC community, we can make explicit the struggle of a community of difference lacking the space to relate across differences - because identifying a problem is a necessary step against silence. Now, let’s talk about it?
Eviane Feijts, Roos Volkers, & Viana Afoumou.
Ahmed, S. (2019, February 15). Damage limitation. feministkilljoys. Retrieved from https://feministkilljoys.com/2019/02/15/damage-limitation/
Brown, W. (2017, October 10). The big picture: Defending society. Public Books. Retrieved from http://www.publicbooks.org/the-big-picture-defending-society/
Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.
Jacobson, D., & Mustafa, N. (2019). Social identity map: A reflexivity tool for practicing explicit positionality in critical qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18, 1-12.
Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press.
Ross, L. J. (2019, March 21). Speaking up without tearing down. Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/spring-2019/speaking-up-without-tearing-down