[Letter] Yes, free speech

Last week, TU Delft researcher Felienne Hermans wrote a letter on this website stating that she is proud to work ‘in a place where students point out racist and sexist speech and the university takes note and action’. PhD student Sander Konijnenberg believes the words ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ should be used with caution.

After Dap Hartmann expressed concern about the decision by TU Delft that professor Herman van Bergeijk should be suspended for making jokes that were considered racist and sexist, Felienne Hermans responded to Hartmann with an explanation of how freedom of speech doesn’t protect you from your employer. In my opinion, this misrepresents viewpoints and fails to address the real issue.

Firstly, Hartmann objects to TU Delft’s decision, but he does not seem to claim that TU Delft’s decision violates the Constitution. Therefore, Hermans’ comments are a rebuttal to an argument that never seems to have been made. Secondly, her comment that satire is intended to ridicule the people above you and not below you I find debatable, but more importantly, it’s irrelevant since Van Bergeijk’s joke clearly wasn’t satire and nobody defended it as being such.

At the end of her piece, Hermans recalls an incident where she was criticised for addressing a student in an inappropriate manner, after which she tried to improve. This completely misses the point: the issue in the case of Van Bergeijk was that there was a mob of people who decided they could be offended on somebody else’s behalf, and this mob put pressure on TU Delft to take a certain decision. None of this was addressed in Hermans’ example. A more relevant hypothetical scenario would be one where an angry mob would call for Hermans’ suspension because of her hurtful, engineerophobic insinuation that engineers tend to be less aware of context and nuance. I would like to know what Hermans’ response to that would be.

‘Free speech is required to articulate prob­lems so that solutions can be sought more effectively’

So let me try to explain what I think the real issue surrounding free speech is, and how the incident with Van Bergeijk relates to this. When I’m wielding the ‘free speech sword’ (to use Hermans’ terminology) I do not intend to imply that one can say whatever they want without any consequences whatsoever, nor do I think it absolves us from our personal responsibility to be decent and respectful. What I do think is that one shouldn’t use facile accusations of sexism, racism, or Islamophobia, for example, to stifle important discussions on feminism, immigration policies, or religion, for example.

Free speech is required to articulate prob­lems so that solutions can be sought more effectively. I wouldn’t defend Van Bergeijk’s jokes on the basis of free speech. What I would say though, is that the response to Van Bergeijk’s jokes demonstrates how a radical minority (amongst which I would count the TU Delft Feminists) desperately tries to bolster their victimhood status, which they use to, as Hartmann correctly notes, silence those who think differently to themselves. An example of this is the TU Delft Feminists’ attempt to censor ‘The Red Pill’, a documentary that includes criticism of the feminist movement.

At the end of her piece, Hermans notes that she’s ‘proud [to] work in a place where students point out racist and sexist speech and the university takes note and action’. I would like to know what the words ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ mean nowadays. Previously, ‘racist’ used to refer to the belief that one race is inferior to another, or that one race should have different rights than another race, or that a certain race doesn’t even have the right to exist. Are we really going to use such a loaded term to describe bad jokes that involve one’s ethnicity? Similarly, ‘sexist’ used to refer to the idea that women are inferior to men and that they should be denied access to certain jobs. Is somebody sexist nowadays if they believe that men and women are not entirely the same?

I would like to know whether Hermans truly believes that Van Bergeijk’s jokes constitute ‘racist and sexist speech’, and whether it was okay for activists and the TU Delft Feminists to get involved in an issue which, in my opinion, should’ve been between the students in question and the lecturer (just like in the case of Hermans’ example).

Sander Konijnenberg is a PhD student at the Faculty of Applied Sciences.

Opinion / Our platform is open to well written and well argued opinion articles written by students and employees of TU Delft. The maximum word count is 700. Email us at delta@tudelft.nl.

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