On the Wonders of Solidarity @Maagdenhuis
This Saturday morning I take a break from the sizzling activism that happens in and around the Maagdenhuis and that I, as so many others, have participated in intensively over the last three weeks. As I am sitting with my morning coffee, I know that I urgently need this break, though I am still kind of sad that I do not join the breakfast and cleaning up with staff and students which is taking place while I am writing this.
Most of us, I suspect, are witnessing the political developments at the UvA with exhilaration and concern. Even if the CvB tries to do everything to keep their jobs, we do not know yet if we will be able to achieve anything tangible in the end. Will the committees that are now being formed reflect the movement and its will to change things and to bring the real problems to public attention? Or will they be pushed into adopting the CvB’s and maybe others’ idea of a Realpolitik that continues to sweep the most troubling things under the carpet in order to trade real change for cosmetic adjustments? Will the people who are going to sit in the committees have the courage to (continue to) speak out when it is needed? And if so, will their courage be successful? We do not know any of the answers at this moment. We have to live with what is unknown and uncontrollable. Especially the students have already impressively shown their ability to deal with this ongoing uncertainty since the occupation of the Bungehuis. A recent text that De Nieuwe Universiteit posted on its website (“Values that can’t be quantified”) is another example of this serenity that continues to astonish me.
As I try to look back and take in all the events of the recent weeks – all the conversations I had, all the texts and tweets I have read, all the faces I have seen and all the voices I have heard in meetings and rallies and public discussions – I am not embarassed to say that tears fill my eyes. Every time I see and hear people raising their voice for the first time as they take a stand, every time a student speaks up and formulates her point perceptively, every time I notice that a face of a colleague has lit up and changed from frustration to joy and enthusiasm after he joined the protest, this to me is an experience so powerful that it is difficult to put into words.
There has been much talk about the culture of fear these last days. It pops up regularly in public debates as people remind the academic community and the larger public that many colleagues do not dare to speak their mind as they are afraid of losing their job. It has repeatedly been observed that a considerable part of the “silent majority” is in fact a “silenced majority”. I will never forget the moment when I first saw the clip of an interview with one of the Bungehuis students, a young woman, who in her calm and self-effacing manner talked about the fear that she perceived was preventing many of her teachers from publicly formulating their worries and criticism. Her astute empathy mirrored what I knew was also part of my own state of mind. Her courage couldn’t fail to spark a light in me: if she was willing to face the police in order to make heard her worries about the state of the university, how could I hold myself back out of fear of inconveniences?
That said, I completely respect everyone who does not join in the ongoing discussions out of fear or simply because he or she struggles with an overwhelming workload in the face of an insecure job position and/or in the face of ever growing demands and pressures from above. In fact, no one who is politically active now is, I am sure, completely free from these thoughts and challenges. Overcoming fear does not mean that we are fearless all the time. The British writer Marina Warner has recently put into words how the current university management in the UK, which is sadly similar to the one in the Netherlands, works with this fear: “People open themselves to exploitation” she writes “when the sense of self-worth that derives from doing something they believe in comes up against a hierarchical authority that is secretive, arbitrary and ruthless.” The managers of such a system, Warner observes, count on the feeling of shame – in others, not in themselves.
Shame means nothing else than the excruciating and deeply human fear of being worthless, and it most commonly appears in the form of an inner voice with which we talk to ourselves. The voice has two messages and smoothly switches back from one to the other. Either it says “You are not good enough!” or it says “Who do you think you are?” If we buy into the rationale of profitability and efficiency (rendementsdenken) because we cannot bear to think that the current system acts indeed ruthlessly, we are trapped in these messages. When we struggle to keep up with the output expectations in everything we do, we are quickly paralyzed by the thought “You are not good enough.” If we try to break out of it, stick true to ourselves and to what we passionately believe in, the “Who do you think you are”-message will immediately step in to make us feel miserable and apathetic again.
The everyday spectacle of the protest, in the Maagdenhuis as well as in the faculties and departments of our university (and beyond), derives its power from the transformation of this fearful silence into the energy of an audacious and genuinely open and democratic discussion.The students have shown us the way and they continue to show us what being respectful of others really means. I have participated in three joint debates with RethinkUvA, DNU and Humanities Rally, one rather spontaneous meeting and two General Assemblies. Although there were so many different experiences present in the room and there was no guarantee at all that we would come to an agreement that was urgently needed, we succeeded to do just that every time. This was a result of collective intelligence brought about by people who honor the emotional challenge such a situation means for everyone involved. Nothing touches me more than those students who never fail to gently remind everyone to stick to the rules of discussion. They know how quickly a debate can derail because human passions and fears are running amok instead of being channelled into a productive form. They have understood that we have to protect ourselves by carefully fostering our civility. They have understood that we have to enact what we are striving for in order to achieve it: starting any discussion and any action with a genuine respect for everyone involved, including for ourselves.
As we head into the next and probably more confusing period of our political struggle, we should never forget the wisdom of this approach. Some people will get tired and will need to withdraw for a while to recover and eventually come back, and that is okay. We are not machines but imperfect human beings. Others will continue to step in according to their possibilities. If we continue to honor what we have achieved and how we have arrived at this moment, I am sure that – in one way or the other – the wonders of solidarity that we have discovered during these last weeks will continue to do their work.
Amsterdam, March 21st, 2015