The university as a haunted house

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Everyone at the university is welcome and allowed to be themselves, according to the symbolic rainbow-coloured bike path the Utrecht Science Park just got. To environmental philosopher Floris van den Berg, this discourse sounds much better in theory than it is in practice. What about people whose cultural background is homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic or anti-democratic? What about those who come from an extreme right/left background? He thinks there are limits to diversity.

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I applaud the rainbow bicycle path in De Uithof. Wonderful! Homosexuality was taboo for far too long, just like other forms of gender diversity. It's great that Utrecht University shows that it is tolerant towards people regardless of their sexual orientation (although practicing paedophiles and rapists are not included). The bicycle path is a clear signal that UU stands for individual freedom and equality, and that this tolerance should not be questioned. In the hymn of diversity, critical thinking is unfortunately sometimes suppressed. Diversity is often a good thing, but it should not become an umbrella term that encompasses intolerance:

“We want to show that everyone can be themselves and is welcome in the Utrecht Science Park,” says the Diversity Officer. “Everyone, regardless of colour, sexual orientation, cultural background, but also regardless of your disability or your parents' income. We prefer to look at the human being, with everyone's own talents and qualities, and how we can further develop them.”

At first glance, that sounds wonderful and tolerant. But on closer inspection, something is wrong: what if your cultural background is homophobic or anti-Semitic or misogynistic or anti-democratic, or if you come from an extreme right-wing/left-wing background? But cultural background says nothing of course: you are responsible for your own opinions and behaviour and you cannot hide behind your cultural background.

Advocating a segregated society
‘Everyone can be themselves’, writes the Diversity Officer, but is that really what she means? Are neo-Nazis or ISIS followers with accompanying paraphernalia welcome at UU? Isn't it true that UU propagates liberal democratic values in which not everyone can be completely themselves, but only insofar as this is in accordance with the liberal democratic rules and UU's rules of conduct? For Salafists who advocate a segregated society, for example, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be oneself at UU. UU should not adapt to everyone who asks for it, but only if that adaptation fits within the liberal democratic framework, such as more facilities for people with disabilities.

No safe spaces
If students feel offended (perhaps because of their cultural background or political ideology) by what lecturers or fellow students do or remark, then both the students who feel offended and the lecturers or fellow students who made these remarks are still welcome, but the university usually does not have to adapt.

The university is not a safe space: ideas are questioned - including cultural ideas. No view is a priori exempt from criticism. Compare it to entering a haunted house: if you bought a ticket, then you can get in and risk being scared. Nobody is forcing you to enter the haunted house. There is no point in complaining afterwards that you were frightened. It is the same with the university. The risk of your ideas being criticised is scary. But you knew that beforehand.

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