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Social Science Matters: Wokeism

Minister of Justice Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius recently warned against "wokeists" demanding "safe spaces at universities. Speaking at the annual HJ Schoo Lecture, she said wokeists exclude any form of confrontational knowledge, making freedom of expression subordinate to emotions. This puts enormous pressure on academic freedom. How do our social scientists view this? Do they feel their academic freedom is threatened by woke culture?

Judi Mesman

Does woke culture pose a threat to academic freedom?

- Judi Mesman, Education and Child Studies

What an annoying question: insinuating, stirring up suspicion and fear-mongering. Let's be honest: any scientist with ambition has more to gain from conforming and preserving the status quo than from critically questioning the customs of academia. Paraphrasing Doris Lessing: ‘What you are being taught here is a representation of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. (...) You are being taught by people who have been able to adapt and thrive in the existing system that reproduces itself.’ It would take a very impressive newcomer with a woke agenda to question ingrained norms and customs while safeguarding their salary and academic future. This is surprising given that good science thrives on questioning what seems self-evident. To paraphrase Paulo Freire: ‘Change comes from people who are not afraid ‘to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled’. This is a call for trading conservatism for a rediscovery of healthy doubt and curiosity as the basis for truly innovative science. As Bas Heijne wrote (freely translated), ‘the “ghost of woke” can be invoked against anything you are too lazy to think about.’

Tom Legierse

Wake up: it’s not wokeism that’s the danger!

- Tom Legierse, Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology

It is ironic, to say the least, that Minister Yeșilgöz has launched an attack on ‘wokists’, who she sees as a danger to democracy because of their alleged strong aversion to ‘knowledge that is confronting’. The terms ‘woke’ and ‘wokists’ are primarily used in public discourse to discourage the critical participation of young people, people of colour, women, genderqueer and other minorities, and to dismiss them as ‘thin-skinned clamourers’. So it is not wokism, but intolerance for other ideas and groups of people that constitutes a danger to democracy – and to academic freedom.

In Cultural Anthropology, we often explore sensitive topics in depth with our students. Anyone who looks beyond the passion the students bring to these debates sees something perhaps even more valuable: not an aversion to knowledge that confronts, but a confrontation with knowledge. Students are not content to neatly colour within the lines, as society has taught them: they question those lines. Without that confrontation, science and also the rule of law will not progress.

Freedom of speech is a sacred value, but we must be vigilant to ensure that it does not become an umbrella for intolerant and discriminatory views. The misguided dismissal of critical citizens as a threat to that freedom encourages precisely the kind of intolerance Yeșilgöz believes she is trying to prevent. This attitude makes societal problems unmentionable.
Many people find vehement discussions about ‘sensitive topics’ uncomfortable and undesirable. ‘You can't say anything these days’ is a maxim repeated just a little too often in this context. After all, discomfort and emotion are an inevitable part of putting societal issues up for discussion. And this is precisely what Yeșilgöz needs to learn to love about these ‘wokists’: they challenge us to participate in democracy not merely as a matter of course, or from habit, but in an active and critical way. That is something we should not discourage, but continuously nurture. 

Hans Oversloot

Not all diversity counts equally

- Hans Oversloot, Political Science 

In her Schoo-lecture, Minister of Justice and Security Ms Yeşilgöz-Zegerius expressed worries about democracy and the rule of law (but ignored the tension between both concepts), as well as the huge threat posed by drug related crime. What mass media picked up, however, was the fact that the minister also expressed a disgust of ‘wokeism’. Yeşilgöz-Zegerius noted that the struggle for ‘inclusion’ of minorities often leads to the exclusion of many. Increasingly, topics, points of view and opinions are being declared taboo, because of their supposedly hurtful nature. ‘Grow some balls’, Yeşilgös urged her audience, ‘and stand up to those wokists!’ Some remain silent in order to avoid conflict, some keep their mouths shut to keep their job. ‘Is this wokism getting hold of universities, too?’, I ask myself. ‘Perhaps also in Leiden?’

I have met Hendrik Jan Schoo (1945-2007), after whom the lecture is named, once. He held a talk for political scientists in The Hague and I happened to chair the discussion that followed. Afterwards, Cees van der Eijk, who was a professor in political science at the University of Amsterdam and later continued his career in Nottingham, complimented me and asked me why I was working in Leiden, instead of, for instance… Amsterdam. ‘Well, Cees,’ I replied, ‘when I was younger, there was no place for me in Amsterdam because I was not sufficiently left-wing. Later on, I could not be hired because I was not female enough.’ ‘Errr, okay’, Cees said, ‘that is different now, we no longer hire on the basis of criteria that are unrelated to professionalism.’ ‘Good to hear,’ I responded. ‘You seem to have made progress in this sphere, then.’ By that time, I had become attached to the Political Science ‘department’ (vakgroep) in Leiden. During my MA-studies in Political Science, I studies with a multitude of people. We were politically as diverse as one can imagine. There was a son of a reverend who was further to the left than Mao himself (he later became a high-ranking civil servant), a member of the youth organization of the (Calvinist) Anti-Revolutionaire Partij, a young activist of the (conservative, reformatory) Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij, some girls (though not that many), Gijs de Vries (who back then already was preparing himself for a future role as prominent liberal politician), some guys from The Hague (from the less well-off part of the city, that is), plus a student who did not want to belong to any group. This has become an important norm for me: our department and educational programme should embrace such diversity.

The department has become an Institute, primarily English-speaking, with some hundred colleagues in Leiden and in The Hague. ‘Diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ today are very important, according to the University board and the dean of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, of which we are a part. Actually, everyone seems to share this view; this seems to be a condition for being accepted as a member of the academic community. I do not know all my colleagues personally. Quite a number have studied in the United States. Not only our Americans, also many of our French and German speaking colleagues enjoyed a part of their education in the US. Various nationalities are represented, as well as colour and gender. (Some of my colleagues are even sympathetic.) But I am still looking for the son of a carpenter (or, of course, his daughter), or an iron weaver, cleaning lady or car mechanic. They are all children from the well-to-do middle class, whether they originate from Iran, Germany or Eastern Europe. You will not find a single what we used to call ‘working man’s child’ in our Institute. Apparently, that particular diversity does not count. In that sense, Leiden has not progressed. On the contrary, perhaps. In Leiden, members of the Minerva student corps celebrated the recent 3 October festivities dressed as ‘ar’, meaning arbeider (worker). So what would you expect?

Laura Hoenig

Woekism in Academia

- Laura Hoenig, Psychology

Some years ago, a colleague published thorough work on how receiving oxytocin (the “love hormone”) led participants to express more “ingroup love” as well as “outgroup hate” in laboratory experiments. Unexpectedly, neo-fascists went on to twist this work to defend that discrimination and xenophobia are “natural” and, therefore, acceptable. Their interpretation is far from anything that this work would imply, and the events underlined that with the research that (social) scientists undertake and teach, we carry a societal responsibility that goes beyond our desks.

Nature Human Behavior, one leading journal in social sciences, accentuates this by stating that “Academic content that undermines the dignity or rights of specific groups (…) or promotes privileged, exclusionary perspectives raises ethics concerns that may require revisions or supersede the value of publication” (see editorials from August and October this year). The journal’s statements provoked heated responses from some prominent social scientists such as Steven Pinker on Twitter, who subsequently vowed to never again collaborate with an “enforcer of a political creed”.

            If we think of public discourse as a public good in our society, experiments can tell us about potential differences in how people with different ideologies might treat this public good. At first glance, leftists—the group to which “wokeists” belong—seem to be only slightly more cooperative than rightists (Hoenig, Pliskin, & De Dreu, submitted for review). Looking closer, we find that leftists take into consideration whether a public good – e.g., the public discourse – benefits only some and harms others, or benefits all parties equally, and they cooperate much more when no one must be (dis-)advantaged. Rightists, on the other hand, do not differentiate between those cases, and do not trust that others will either.

This echoes some of the voices responding to the justice minister’s speech: ”Wokeists” do not, in fact, threaten discourse; instead, they value discourse that treats all parties fairly and with dignity, trusting others to do the same. Such an approach may, in fact, facilitate the expansion of free speech such that under-represented minorities will feel as free to speak out as those currently dominating the discourse.

Social Science Matters – a soapbox for social scientists

Social Science Matters is an online variant on London’s famous Speakers’ Corner – a platform for the researchers in the various disciplines in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to react to the news. This soapbox gives the social scientists of the faculty the opportunity to voice their opinions on current affairs from the point of view of their own areas of expertise.

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