Illiberal Liberalism

By Valérie Heinz

– Is it possible to be liberal, but be illiberal at the same time? Can one have a constructive conversation with someone whose opinions are the complete opposite of one’s own?

Yes, to both, say Benedict Hamlyn and Thomas ter Reehorst, writers and producers of a small Amsterdam-based podcast series, that goes by the name “Illiberal Liberalism; Disagreeing with Respect”. The first episode “The future of Europe; Brexit and Beyond” of the podcast was released in March 2019, and featured two speakers with opposing views on Brexit. According to Hamlyn, the podcast is an attempt to halt and reverse the increasing polarisation within our society.

The idea for the podcast was born after the two second-year Social Science majors had visited a discussion event held by the journalism platform Are We Europe, in February. According to Hamlyn, most attendees agreed on all the discussion points throughout the event, until one person dared to voice a different opinion. The speaker who voiced his critical view on the role of religion in today’s society was shut down by other participants in the discussion. “People were saying, ‘You can’t say that’,” Hamlyn recalls. After the event, the two young men agreed that the discussion had been rather boring since there was little room for opposing opinions.

“This is when we said, ‘Let’s do a podcast where people actually disagree with one another, to get the communication going’,” says Hamlyn.

They proposed their idea to Are We Europe, who agreed to promote their project and support them in getting the process going. From there Ter Reehorst and Hamlyn got busy with writing and recording the podcast, as well as searching for speakers.

According to Hamlyn, the aim of the podcast is not to make people agree, but to initiate discussions that are elsewhere often shut down in the very beginning. Hamlyn argues that everyone should have the right to express their opinion: “The minute you say ‘You mustn’t say that’, you haven’t changed their opinion, you just silenced them.”

Ter Reehorst and Hamlyn say they do not only see this as a problem in public opinion, but that they have observed this sort of behavior at AUC too. “People at AUC want diversity, but it comes across as un-diverse,” says Hamlyn. According to the two young men, it sometimes seems that everyone at AUC has a similar mindset and that it is not always easy to have opinions that are different from the mainstream. Hamlyn says he sees a tendency among people, at AUC and beyond, to arrange their academic views and their social life around like-minded people, creating echo chambers.   

According to ter Reehorst, they had no problems in coming up with topics that could be discussed in the podcast. The main challenge, however, was to find speakers that agreed to participate in a discussion with someone who had a radically different viewpoint. Upon inviting a representative from Greenpeace to talk to a nuclear scientist, they received a negative response stating there was no room for the middle ground.

The first guest speakers were Hamlyn’s and Ter Reehorst’s older brothers, a British Brexit Voter, and a Dutch pro-EU Activist. Hamlyn and Ter Reehorst served as moderators during the discussion. Both observed that despite having drastically different opinions, the speakers identified the same problems within the debate. However, each of them offered different explanations and solutions.

Ter Reehorst stated that the feedback on their first episode was rather positive with the main point of critique being that it was a bit too long.  According to Hamlyn, a pro-EU friend of his, approached him after the release of the podcast. Hamlyn recalled that even though they had not changed their mind, they said that they had enjoyed hearing sound arguments for a Brexit.

Ter Reehorst and Hamlyn will record the second episode of “Illiberal Liberalism” in June. It will feature the former personal advisor to Kofi Annan, Cees Hamelink. Hamelink will attempt to explain why people have the tendency to surround themselves with like-minded people, offering an explanation to the observations made by Ter Reehorst and Hamlyn.

Editor’s note: This news story is part of a collaboration between The Herring and AUC’s journalism course. The story was entirely reported, written, edited, and fact checked by members of the journalism course. Some material may have been altered by The Herring’s editors to fit its style guidelines.

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