Campus 17 February 2021

Is there a cancel culture in Dutch universities?

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Cancel culture is becoming a source of considerable debate within Dutch universities. Why has it become such a topical subject, including at VU Amsterdam?
BY Nour Khamis PICTURE Berend Vonk

On the 12th of January, debate center 3D held what they refer to as a ‘courageous conversation’ on the topic of cancel culture. According to the program coordinator, there is considerable interest in this topic “and teachers in particular are concerned about it”. In fact, so much interest that the organizers had to hold a follow-up event. This raises the question of why this topic is so prominent within Dutch universities and VU Amsterdam. Is there an emergent cancel culture developing within Dutch academia?

Dawn Skorczewski is a lecturer at Amsterdam University College (AUC), as well as having taught at VU Amsterdam. Both she and her colleague Cor Zonneveld experienced what could be considered cancel culture on the course that they run together, which is detailed further below. Skorczewski: “I feel that cancel culture is kind of an exercise in prohibition of free speech in one way or another. Sometimes I think that is not a bad thing, but most of the time I think it has some deleterious effects.”

‘Some people get fired. Some people lose their ability to work’

Cancel culture can be defined in many ways, which contributes to the complexity of the debate surrounding it. For example, what some people regard as evidence of cancel culture is seen by others as merely stricter accountability. Generally speaking, cancel culture can be said to refer to various forms of shaming, exclusion or censorship. In my conversation with Grace Chang-Byrne (33), a research master’s student in Clinical and Developmental Psychopathology, she describes cancel culture as a form of publicly shaming someone in a way that has real consequences. “Some people get fired. Some people lose their ability to work. Some people have to move because they are threatened, or they lose their relationship.”

Controversial research topics

Discussions on cancel culture are far more tumultuous in the United States than they are in the Netherlands. A recent case involving the NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller sparked a prominent discussion among academics. He teaches a course on propaganda where he discusses a range of topics that lie outside of mainstream orthodoxy, which are sometimes labeled as conspiracy theories, and challenges students to research controversial topics of this nature.

During one of his classes, he spoke about mask usage during the Covid-19 pandemic, citing research which indicated that they are not very effective at preventing the transmission of the virus. While from his perspective he is trying to encourage his students to think independently and draw their own conclusions, not everyone views his classes as useful or harmless. One student posted on Twitter after one of the classes that Miller should be fired for telling students, among other things, that masks are pointless. Although several professors subsequently stated their discontent with Miller, he also received notable support in the form of 28,000 signatures. It is not yet clear whether he will lose his job, but he has already filed a lawsuit for libel.

Mild controversies in Dutch academia

There have also been some controversies in Dutch academia, albeit milder ones. In 2018, for example, Jordan Peterson’s appearance at UvA’s Room for Discussion was met with widespread criticism. There were calls from staff and student organizations not to ban him from speaking, but rather to have his ‘extreme right’ views counteracted by the presence of another speaker. While this is not outright cancellation, it can still be regarded as a form of it. Critics could surely ask whether progressive speakers should also be balanced out by conservative voices.

There are strong political undertones in contemporary conversations on cancel culture. Some on the right consider themselves to be its principal victims, with the left viewed as the primary benefactors. However, critics of cancel culture are a diverse group. Professor Loretta J. Ross, who has been a feminist activist for decades, publicly denounces what she sees as ‘call out culture’. She does not view publicly shaming people for their mistakes as being productive, suggesting instead that we should ‘call in’ rather than ‘call out’. ‘I think a lot of people derive a lot of sadistic pleasure from calling people out; they want to enjoy someone’s downfall, but all that does is make other people fearful that they will be the next target’, says professor Ross.

Cancel culture at VU Amsterdam

Is there a cancel culture at VU Amsterdam? When asked how she experienced cancel culture at the VU, Chang-Byrne referred to a professor who awkwardly posed a question about whether the case of a drunk girl walking through a dark park at night might have something to do with personal responsibility and intelligence. “He posed that question and was kind of thinking out loud. Immediately, you could feel the classroom go cold”, she said. “But nobody in the class spoke up. I did, proposing to phrase the question differently. I find it interesting that people did not speak up. It can be dealt with in the classroom. If you want to be treated equally, you act equally.”

‘Immediately you could feel the classroom go cold’

While Dutch academia has not witnessed comparable controversies to those seen in the United States, Skorczewski and Zonneveld possibly had their own run-in with cancel culture, albeit not about them per se, but rather with respect to a paper that they used in their class. Zonneveld recounted: “We discussed a paper entitled ‘Sins of the flesh: anorexia, eroticism and the female vampire in Bram Stoker's Dracula’, which analyses how Bram Stoker’s novel portrays female beauty ideals. Some students took offense to the paper, on the grounds of the term anorexia being used. The paper is not about anorexia, but rather about beauty ideals and certain words related to anorexia are used. There is also a metaphorical reference to rape when men stake vampires with a wooden pole.”

‘Suddenly, we got a whole bunch of students who wanted this off the reading list’

“Suddenly, we got a whole bunch of students who wanted this off the reading list. They demanded that we should offer alternatives, because they do not want to read about anorexia and rape”, said Zonneveld. He thinks a minority of students wanted this: out of the responses of 70 students, only 14 or 15 students actually wanted the paper removed. “This is an attempt to influence the curriculum because they did not like the paper on an emotional level”, mentioned Zonneveld.

Skorczewski explained that it was not possible anymore to remove the paper, as it was only being used for one day. The students had three choices to choose from and half of them chose to write about the paper on Bram Stoker's Dracula. “The conversation about this went on for weeks. A few students really did not feel that we knew what they were talking about. It was very painful for them that we did not seem to care about their feelings about the subject. We felt that we were trying very hard to be sensitive to them. So that was painful for us as well.”

‘Managing anxiety is a big part of their lives’

Although, ultimately, Zonneveld and Skorczewski have not been forced to change anything, they have already decided to be more careful regarding the papers they select if they give the course again. “I would never pick a paper like that for a first-year writing course at AUC. Because I feel like some of the students right now are potentially sensitive and on-edge, in part because of COVID and in part because of the culture. A lot of students experience anxiety. Managing anxiety is unfortunately a big part of their lives”, says Skorczewski.

“Whatever paper we choose, it is guaranteed someone will take offense”, Zonneveld adds. “Unless we give them something very dull to read. That’s my problem. We are looking for papers that talk about topics and about relevant problems in society.” He says that this leads to self-censorship and that he is now withholding more than he did before.

Being careful about how to be respectful

Cancel culture is occurring in parallel with manifold changes in society, including the expanding Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements. Zonneveld does see positive changes in society, noting: “We are witnessing a change in what is acceptable and what is not. By and large that’s a good thing. You can no longer say outright sexist things without encountering sincere and serious opposition”. His colleague Skorczewski agrees: “I think it is a great thing that students and teachers are now more careful about how they speak in the classroom and how to be respectful. It has raised their awareness about issues that students were not necessarily speaking about twenty years ago. It is both an important and good thing.”

Notwithstanding this, both professors are concerned that certain societal changes are moving too fast or taking a wrong turn. Skorczewski adds: “But I think it can have some policing effects within the university when people feel that they always have to watch themselves, because they can easily offend someone. It moves in two directions.”

By no means a new phenomenon

Cancel culture is timeless. Self-censorship in the face of exclusion and shaming is by no means a new phenomenon. George Orwell wrote about it in the 1940s and cancellation can even be traced as far back as Aristotle.

In the 1940s, George Orwell wrote about ‘the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech’, albeit in the context of publishing. ‘If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion.’ This was written in response to the fact that publishers were afraid to publish Animal Farm, because it was deemed to go against the prevailing views of the public at that time.

Banished from the city

However, as aforesaid, cancel culture goes back even further than this. Aristotle referred to ostracism in his writings on politics: ‘democratic states have instituted ostracism; equality is above all things their aim, and therefore they ostracized and banished from the city for a time those who seemed to predominate too much through their wealth, or the number of their friends, or through any other political influence.’ Through these words, Aristotle was highlighting the positive effect that cancellation can have, insofar as it allowed the masses to hold the powerful accountable. However, it was not necessarily used in that manner. As Aristotle noted: ‘The principle, however, has not been fairly applied in states; for, instead of looking to the good of their own constitution, they have used ostracism for factious purposes.’ In other words, Aristotle was claiming that people were more concerned with the interests of their factions than the larger society and its principles.

Social media: an enormous game-changer

If cancel culture has been around for all this time, then one might ask why it is any different now. Although student Chang-Byrne does not see cancel culture as an entirely new phenomenon, she sees several problems with its modern form. Social media is one of those problems: “You seem to have no reputation at stake when you go online and attack someone - the culture bubble that people live in on social media makes it seem like it is more acceptable. That has caused a situation in which people increasingly feel that it is okay to attack others, quite viciously. Whereas, normally, you would not be able to say such things in a civil conversation, social media makes it seem like it is more acceptable.”

‘I think this is changing society in a fundamental way’

Lecturer Zonneveld expressed similar concerns: "I think social media is an enormous game-changer, because of the number of people you reach and the speed at which it happens. I think this is changing society in a fundamental way as well as how we interact with each other, until we learn as a community how to deal more responsibly with these media".

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Door Biejan Poor Toulabi op 18 February 2021

This piece is about the (possible) emergence of cancel culture at the VU. Yet, it only refers to two situations that have little do with cancel culture.

One anecdote is about a lecturer saying something that could be considered insensitive which led to icy silence in the audience (and I imagine a mortified, rightfully so, lecturer). Were there any consequences? None. The interviewed student (Grace) even explicitly said that no one responded. In other words, this has nothing to do with cancel culture.

The second is about students voicing disagreement about the inclusion of a particular piece of literature in the curriculum. Seems to me like a good pedagogical opportunity (regardless of whether the lecturers agree and choose to not include it now or in the future). Surely, it's not the first or last time that students have had strong opinions about choice of literature (remember when a VU student voiced opposition to what she deemed the Eurocentric view of the minor 'Antieke Cultuur'?). Besides the fact that students are free to (vehemently) disagree with what we teach them and how, don't we want them to not only passively receive education but be critical? If yes, the inevitable consequence is that sometimes they will hold views or opinions that we disagree with (and which we can talk about, respectfully).

So, one example where the interviewee explicitly states that nothing happened. And, another example where students voiced strong opinions about the curriculum. Who was cancelled? What am I missing here?

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