Are we living in a “post-PC” world? For years Political Correctness has been blamed on stifling freedom of speech and preventing people from saying what they’re really thinking. However, with the political ascendancy of Donald Trump in the US (not to mention the success of populist, anti-immigrant politicians across Europe), is it really accurate to say people can’t speak plainly? If anything, today’s politicians seem to be competing to be as offensive as possible.
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we have launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis is on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
Today, we are looking at Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The Dutch have their own blond-coiffured, un-PC politician in the form of Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV). However, his brand of politics has never had much traction in the Dutch capital. Amsterdam, like many European capitals, has long been a stronghold for left-wing political parties. It is sometimes referred to jokingly as the “Republic of Amsterdam” due to it bucking the national trend of right-wing populism, and the far-right Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) has never bothered fielding candidates there.
Amsterdam is a diverse, vibrant global city. Like all big cities, it faces enormous challenges in terms of overcrowding, congestion, crime, affordable housing, access to schooling and childcare, and so on. However, some people do not like the city Amsterdam has become and feel like they cannot voice their discontent openly without being branded a racist. What is the best way to respond to this charge?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Bernard, who thinks that anybody worried about refugees arriving in Europe is being labelled a “racist” by the media.
To get a response, we put Bernard’s comment to a Dutch journalist, Stéphane Alonso, who is the Foreign Affairs Editor for the popular newspaper NRC Handelsblad. What would he say to Bernard?
No, I don’t think so. Worries about refugees and more specifically about uncontrolled, chaotic migration towards Europe like in 2015 are treated very seriously in general. A lot of politicians, from all political colours, show a lot of understanding for the worries of citizens about certain trends and developments. In the Netherlands, a small and densely populated country, politicians ordered research on demographic trends for the coming decades, to see what policy and social implications these trends will have. So, there is a strong desire to take worries seriously and not simply label them as ‘racist’. At the same time the public debate about refugees and migration can quickly turn ugly and, yes, whenever this happens racism is never far away. There is a tendency, in some countries more than in others, to dehumanise refugees, which in my opinion is always worrying.
Next up, we had a comment sent in from a US reader (and Trump supporter) called Cheryl. She says that by the end of Barrack Obama’s presidency, she was genuinely worried about expressing her views in public. Then came the 2016 Election, and the rise of a candidate she saw as a brash, “totally un-PC guy” that she could tell “truly loves his country”. Unexpectedly, Trump won the election, and when she sees the media criticise him and his supporters because of their views and actions, she just likes him more.
To get a reaction, we put Cheryl’s comment to Casper Van der Heijden, Founding Director of the Sharing Perspectives Foundation, a Dutch NGO that works to “initiate, stimulate and facilitate international and intercultural dialogue and collaboration”. What would he say to Cheryl?
I’m not sure if her freedom of speech was under threat or whether that was her emotion. It seems that she really didn’t feel able to put her thoughts and opinions out when Obama was the President. She didn’t feel represented, probably. She didn’t feel part of the political establishment and felt left out because her opinions were different than, maybe, the progressive left or Obama. Now when somebody rises to power – Trump – that is less politically correct, there she really feels heard, feels represented and is part of that political system again. So I can imagine that, if then, people criticise Trump for not being politically correct, she recognises what she felt in the time of Obama. I think, in that sense, looking at that specifically, the fact Trump now creates representation at the political level for those who didn’t feel represented is very positive. It’s hard to judge Trump; it’s early in his presidency. I think we need to value somebody on more than just their words, but also their actions. We have to wait and see what comes out of it.
I think it’s hard to compare it to the Netherlands, in a way, because the political system in the Netherlands is so different, with a multiparty system and multiple parties that need to govern. What I do see is that in the early 2000s, we had a shift in the Netherlands away from politically correct debate. First with Pim Fortuyn rising in the polls. He was about to win the elections and then got killed by an extreme leftist. After that, we saw the rise of Geert Wilders, known to a lot of people, who is also very ‘politically incorrect,’ if you wish. He has a steady 10-to-15% of the Parliament vote over the past 10-15 years. It’s clear that he represents a certain part of the electorate that doesn’t feel represented. In his first election, I believe a large part of his voters were people that never voted before. So there is that element of represent that I think is fair. If we all try to continue to have these polished, politically correct debates, we’re excluding people we shouldn’t be excluding.
How would Dutch journalist Stephane Alonso respond to Cheryl’s comment?
Everybody has the right to express his or her views in public and the fact that Cheryl is worried about this is of course not a good thing. But freedom of expression to me is not the same as being politically incorrect. I would even argue that a certain amount of political correctness is necessary as it can serve as a vital lubricant in socially and culturally complex modern societies. It can actually help the freedom of expression and make sure that everybody, including minorities, have a voice in the discussion. The Dutch political debate lately has become very rough and rude, and I’m not sure if this is helping to solve real daily life problems. I would even argue that verbal roughness has led to a poorer debate and to worse policies, because politicians and citizens became afraid to express their views or started reacting themselves more aggressively to aggressive rhetoric.
Finally, we had a comment sent in from Alexandra saying that people who think they can’t argue their views on migration with others because of “political correctness” are also very likely people who are happy to be vulgar, racist, demeaning and offensive towards other people. She says it’s not about being politically correct, but rather about being a “decent human being”. In her words: “If you have some valid reasons and points that you can discuss and argue without downgrading another person’s value and their life’s value then you’re more than welcome to do so. If your only way of communicating is by doing the opposite of that then you are better doing everyone a favour and keep your opinions to yourself.”
How would Casper Van der Heijden respond?
I strongly disagree. I think it’s the opposite: I think it’s a very dangerous position. Alexandra argues that the only people that have a place in the debate are the people that adhere to ‘her’ rules of the game that are speaking her language. It’s only with those people that she wishes to engage in a debate and in a discussion. I think that’s dangerous because if we, by definition, by the way people express their feelings and emotions, exclude those feelings and emotions from the debate, we’re effectively silencing them. We’re ignoring these concerns. With that we only make them bigger.
I think it’s exactly the failure of reaching those people that aren’t able to express their emotions and feelings according to the ‘mainstream,’ or widely accepted means of speech, by ignoring, that you basically open up the political spectrum on either extreme sides to gain traction, to gain attention. I think that’s what we see happen. We fail to address these strong emotions that we might call ‘racist’, but that have a certain frustration underlying it that we’re not listening because we’re disregarding their means of debate. I think the only thing that we can for from people in a debate or discussion is that they also listen to you. But, with that, you have to make sure that you listen to them as well.
Do the media label people worried about refugees ‘racist’? Or are people using the excuse of standing up to “political correctness” to make their racist views public? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!