By The Herring Team
— Less than half a year ago, the eruption of protests following the violent death of George Floyd also reached the AUC community. With the student body urgently asking for reforms, AUC’s dean and management team soon came up with a response.
In an email sent to the student body on June 5, AUC promised to “prioritise and persevere in our commitment to a curriculum that is free of colonial assumptions and that equips our students with knowledge about racism and the ability to call it out and make constructive change.” AUC’s student association (AUCSA) and AUC management also hosted a Zoom meeting to address student concerns, which was subsequently criticised by attending students.
Then, on September 14th, a critical internal letter expressing concern towards AUC’s diversity statements was circulated within the Academic core Management. The letter with its four signatories, themselves being part of the faculty, extensively questions whether AUC’s diversity statement is in line with “core values that need to be respected” in the process of tackling institutional racism. The signatories argue that the “moral outrage” of racism is best handled through “concrete actions that improve diversity”, rather than what they conceive as an ideological approach.
The letter expresses the view that AUC as an institute “should not adopt or endorse any ideology or political movement” in order to preserve its academic integrity. The signatories want to ensure that AUC will not become an “activist organization” dedicated to “educating social activists”, and that it will not impose such an ideology on the staff through the proposed diversity training. Supporting an ideology, from their position, would infringe on AUC’s duty to respect academic freedom and “approach truth from a variety of perspectives.” Referencing Dutch discrimination law, the signatories also hoped to confirm that AUC’s statement does not condone “positive discrimination”, which entails ethnic groups being held to different academic standards.
The letter further expresses concern that AUC’s statement will counteract a collaborative and inclusive work environment. According to the letter, this may happen if AUC decides to “frame particular groups of colleagues as ‘oppressors’ or ‘oppressed’”. Another worry is that members of the community accused of racist behaviour will not be granted the usual presumption of innocence, and that if actions are “experienced as racist” they will be uncritically regarded as such.
Only three days prior to the letter being sent, Dutch blog GeenStijl published an entry titled “Professor: ‘University College 020 plants anti-scientific diversity scan on all subjects’“. “020” refers to Amsterdam’s area code. The post leaked several emails sent by AUC’s core management to the academic staff and, additionally, an internally circulated “Statement on Diversity and Staff Precarity at Amsterdam University College”. GeenStijl is commonly known for its provocative tone and emphasis on political incorrectness. According to BBC, critics have accused it of spreading racist and sexist content and to offer “a place for pathetic people to vent their frustrations”. The emails and statement had been sent to GeenStijl by an anonymised member of AUC’s faculty.
In their message to GeenStijl, the faculty member said it is “scandalous that a training course at a scientific institute will be based on anti-science”. With anti-science, the faculty member referred to intersectionality, which is supposed to play a more important role in the redesign of AUC’s educational structures.
The faculty member refers to a book by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay titled Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody. The blog reads:
“The whole plan is based on Intersectionality. I just read Cynical Theories and knew that it was bad, but after reading it appears to be worse than bad.” The author further stated that “Cynical Theories clearly shows how anti-scientific and nonsensical the whole thing is.”
In an article analysing the main claims of Cynical Theories, Koko Christiaanse, The Herring’s current Editor-in-Chief explains that:
“Cynical Theories is a book centered around criticizing the “progressive left” and its alignment with Postmodernism. It claims that the rise of postmodernism, and the subsequent Critical Theories that followed, such as Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory, Postcolonial Theory, and Intersectionality, have caused society to shift away from ‘science, reason, and the pillars of post-Enlightenment Western Democracy.’ According to the author, Postmodernism malevolently disregards these values and replaces them a radical cynicism towards truth, a ‘mythology of systemic and structural problems inherent in society systems.’”
Dr. Lara Mazurski, who teaches a variety of Humanities courses at AUC and holds a PhD in Cultural Analysis, refers to the Sokal hoax to explain Cynical Theories’ rhetoric. The Sokal hoax was a parody paper written in 1994 by an NYU physicist, which was subsequently published in the journal “Social Text”. This text was intended to be nonsensical and therefore to undermine a wide array of fields related to cultural studies.
According to Mazurski, the Sokal affair sought to “humiliate, embarrass, and shame readers and authors as affective strategies and tactics to reduce fields they are critical of to suggest that knowledge they are not familiar with (…) is nonsense.” In this way it was used to perpetuate the “culture wars”, a term coined by an American sociologist describing the ideological battle to define America. Mazurski states, “I can never imagine reducing ‘Physics, Math, or Neuroscience to nonsense because I am not familiar with their dominant theories and methodologies’ – it seems unimaginable.”
Students have reported an instance of a portion of Cynical Theories being read aloud in the AUC course “Classical and Modern Political Thought”, which is currently taught by Dr. Melvin Schut. Schut states that he has no connection to the blog entry, additionally noting that the identity of the faculty member who wrote to Geenstijl is an “open secret”.
Schut defends using Cynical Theories as class material in a discussion about Postmodernism. According to Schut, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the ideas of Critical Theory, the book “will help you better understand the origins of it”, also presenting “powerful arguments” against it.
As a teacher, Schut does not regard agreement or disagreement with Cynical Theories appropriate. He says, “the spirit of a liberal education is to expose students to many different sides of an argument, in order for students to arrive at their own reasoned judgment. As a teacher I hence take my task to be that of an honest broker – not an advocate.”
Despite continuous action being taken by the school management, GeenStijl’s blog entry and the internal letter make clear that any planned steps are by no means welcomed by all staff members, which – proponents of the diversity plan fear – could significantly slow down AUC’s progress towards a more inclusive educational curriculum and structure.