Woke culture may very well contribute to academic freedom, but it can also threaten it, argues columnist Ronald van Raak. The university is a place for experimentation, where we do not take political measure of each other, but give each other space.
A group of students at UvA is demanding the departure of Laurens Buijs, researcher of diversity and inclusion at this university. The reason is an opinion piece he wrote in the university magazine Folia - which became national news: 'Woke culture threatens academic freedom at social sciences.'
Buijs casts himself as a whistleblower: "Of course I don't mind people disagreeing with me in the academic arena; that is precisely part of a healthy academic debate. But I am increasingly given the feeling that I am a 'bad person' who has no right to speak. And that while I take positions on which I have scientific expertise, that I research and that I publish on."
At UvA, teaching and research are said to be increasingly dictated by prescribed political views, with more and more words not allowed and topics 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 confirmed by the calls for his resignation. Outcry and political infighting broke out on social media, fuelled in part from the Bij1 and Forum parties. When this kind of Twitter conflict arises, I usually drop out quickly (it is also the reason I am not on Twitter). Still, the matter is relevant if we want to understand where the discomfort comes from, in the debate about woke culture and academic freedom.
"Awaken, outcasts of the earth!", is the opening of The International, the old battle song of the social movement. 'Awaken', is often the first word in the English translation. 'Woke culture' stems from these emancipation movements of workers and of women. Part of that emancipation is claiming a place in society: of the words and images that belong to your group. The freedom to be whoever you want. Buijs researches diversity and inclusion and is part of this emancipation movement. At the same time, he says he wants to warn against a reversal that has taken place therein: when ways of thinking are compulsorily imposed on others - and those who think differently have to be dismissed.
Gijs van Oenen, a colleague at ESPhil, wrote a book about this turnaround, in Culturele veldslagen. Filosofie van de culture wars. In which he describes, among other things, how the emphasis on group identities, of gender, colour, religion or origin, can lead to the exclusion of other people - even intimidation. How this is done by politicians both on the right and on the left. Woke culture can very well contribute to academic freedom, if it gives people the confidence that they too are allowed to have their voices heard. It can also threaten that academic freedom, the moment political views are imposed on others, or when people who are critical are denied the right to speak. The university is a place for experimentation, where we do not measure each other politically, but give each other space.