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The touchy debate that just won’t go away

Is there a culture of victimhood at the University of Copenhagen? Oh, yes. But what this means is a lot harder to get a hold on. As no one wants to be the offended party.

If Henrik Wegener was exhausted after several months of debate about the university’s guidelines on offensive behaviour, he hid it well.

“It has been quite fun, but also important,” the rector said at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) when he toasted in the new year with administrators in the university’s ceremonial hall.

This was on 7th January. On this day, the country’s politicians had just finished talking about a Danish song with the title “The Danish song is a young blond girl”. The song was banned from the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) because it was deemed not inclusive. And it was only a few weeks prior that the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen had written about an awkward case of a UCPH associate professor who was called in for a disciplinary hearing at South Campus KUA to face up to allegations of eurocentrism. In this case, the associate professor had the backing of his trade union, the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM). Even a Mexican sombrero, which an associate dean had stopped a bunch of law students from wearing at an intro party, had been digested.

It has been quite fun, but also important.

Rector of the University of Copenhagen Henrik Wegener

But the rector had not yet escaped the offences. While he gave the toast, there was only one week to the news site Jyllands-Posten’s breaking story about a UCPH associate professor in biology Dean Jacobsen, who now ‘toed the line’ and would not use numbers of ‘men’ and ‘women’ as teaching examples in his statistics class. Students had allegedly complained that he did not consider that some people might not be this binary. “So you are not allowed to mention people as being ‘he’ and ‘she’?” asked Jyllands-Posten’s headline.

On the 23rd January, the staff collaboration committee at UCPH opted to have the rules against offensive behaviour rephrased at Denmark’s largest university. Perhaps a 1-0 to common sense. Or just a small intervention in the ongoing debate about what constitutes good behaviour in Denmark today.

The debate, roughly speaking, has been held between two teams. On the one hand there are those that – like the lawyer and freedom of speech activist Jacob Mchangama – argue that the university lost the plot when it adopted rules to pander to a segment of students who can’t withstand being offended. And on the other hand there are, well, not that many. Most people pointed to the group Front as their opponents. The group fights discrimination, but Front does not use the term ‘offence’ (Danish: krænkelse), and this is something that we will return to.

The sombrero was not the first case

The victimhood/offence debate, has been simmering for a few years at UCPH, so perhaps it should come as no surprise to management that it would explode in their faces. It has mostly been about the students’ internal relations, however, and not about the university’s official response to offensive behaviour.

Sexist intro courses at the political science department were, for example, a big deal four or five years ago, and law students had their controversy about a party where they ridiculed the homeless.

In the autumn of 2017, students of medicine continued a year-long tradition of a Jew-themed bar, which played on a prejudice of Jews as stingy. “We accept both shekels and kroner, when we exchange and trade Kahlua at very competitive prices in the best Jewish style.” It was stopped by the Dean of the Faculty, but a larger discussion of offences did not follow.

It was Karen Lisa Salamon, who in 2017 took the lead in the criticism of the Jewish bar at Medicine. She had already in 2015 discussed a similar, but even more extreme, intro course with blackface and ridicule of Jews at the Department of Anthropology, where she was associate professor. Now she requested a reflection in the University Post, from the university and the students, about the socialisation that takes place in academia. Salamon, who has since resigned her position to become an independent consultant, continues to be critical about racist stereotyping that unfiltered continues to be included in official welcome parties and public intro material, she says.
“After having contributed to the debate, I received enquiries from students who described a culture of silence and sometimes uncomfortable study environment at the Department of Anthropology,” says Karen Lisa Salamon.

The students wrote to her that they had unsuccessfully attempted to start a debate on whether it was OK to use the intro days on making caricatures of people that they later had to learn to study and research. Karen Lisa Salamon says that her impression is that the culture among a majority of students is not exactly considerate.

Both colleagues and students hear about things that are never heard by the rector, and which never come out in public. People don’t want to risk further social marginalisation, or putting themselves outside the existing pecking order.

Karen Lisa Salamon, consultant and former associate professor

“It is interesting that there has already been a debate in the student environment, before these things happen. And that these students, who are ignored by other students, in the first instance are not taken seriously by instructors or management either, and have to draw on help from the outside to be heard. Both colleagues and students hear about things that are never heard by the rector, and which never come out in public. People don’t want to risk further social marginalisation, or putting themselves outside the existing pecking order,” says Karen Lisa Salamon.

Safe space for the majority

The victimhood/offence debate is characterised by the fact that it is difficult to see when it is about basic matters of principle like academic freedom and freedom of expression, or about basic social ground rules between students and researchers. In an editorial, the Danish news site Information argues, for example, that “it is important to remember that the university is a place where adults are made. They do this partly by having their opinions challenged.” But is a Mexican-themed party a kind of academic theory, that you have to learn to understand with the risk of getting your worldview challenged?

According to Karen Lisa Salamon the discussion of the students’ activities and views is often at a superficial level. “The case of the sombrero was complex. It was included in an American or Trump’ian ‘white trash’ and ‘ghetto’ theme. If it was just a Mexican theme day, where you had to eat tacos and have hats on, the foreign students would probably not have reacted. But it was a theme party with a mocking gallery of all the groups which are already down and out in the United States. It has very little to do with legality; it simply kicks downwards and is a hurtful and problematic theme for a party that includes all kinds of people,” she says.

The discussion quickly ends up being about the existence of democracy and so on. It gets moved out of the workplace context where it takes place.

Karen Lisa Salamon, consultant and former associate professor

“It makes good sense to bring people together through fun and games. The issue is, to what extent should it be regulated when it takes place in a public educational institution. What is specific about the student parties and the case of the Danish song, is that it takes place in places of work and study where you cannot just walk out,” says Karen Lisa Salamon. “But the discussion quickly comes to be about the existence of democracy and so on. It gets moved out of the workplace context where it takes place.”

UCPH professor Christian Lund has criticised his fellow academics for their own lack of tolerance. In an opinion piece about the Danish song case he argues that the threat is not the allegedly offended party, that do no want to sing along to the beloved melodies of the majority, but the vast majority that will not allow the space for criticism of their own standards.

“If a little squeak from an instructor at CBS can trigger such a violent response from politicians at all levels, from the media and from quite a lot of academics, we should not be blind to the kind of nationwide safe space which we are in the process of creating, and to who and what it is we are keeping out,” Christian Lund writes.

It’s all about the framework, not the agendas

Just before the end of 2018, the University of Copenhagen hosted a large debate about offences, and Karen Lisa Salamon says that she was surprised to find “a very homogeneous scepticism about what is referred to as political correctness”. She says that the university is characterised by an “academic culture of machismo”, where hardening as an idea is made the ideal for students. “Perhaps they should focus on civilizing people instead?”

Seven offences

June 2018: UCPH gets new guidelines for handling offensive behaviour. The most controversial sentence is: “It is the employee’s or the student’s experience of being subjected to offensive behaviour which is the point of departure.” In the media coverage it becomes the butt of jokes.

September 2018: The Faculty of Law sends out a ‘recommendation’, that the tutors for the new students’ costume parties stop all costumes that “are based on stereotypes about, say, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion etc.” It is the case of the banned sombrero, and in the media, the consensus is that UCPH has gone completely nuts.

November 2018: Criticism has arisen from researchers about the UCPH guidelines, and at the end of the month, the university’s rector asks employee representatives for help in handling the growing problem of explaining them. “We need to help each other explain the guideline. We have a communication problem, that management cannot handle alone,” rector says in a request to the university’s staff representatives according to the minutes from a meeting of the General Collaboration Committee. The rector says at the same time, that he cannot understand that the guideline can be perceived as an interference in researchers’ freedom of expression and freedom of research.

December 2018: The Faculty of Humanities apparently calls in an associate professor for disciplinary hearing and sends him on a kind of re-education programme to become less offensive and ‘Eurocentric’. Even more widespread consensus that UCPH has a screw loose.

December 2018: At CBS (not UCPH, but this doesn’t matter now) a case pops up with an employee that does not like a song being sung at an event from the Danish songbook Højskolesangbogen ‘The Danish song is a young blond girl’. Management defers to the employee’s complaint. Politicians in Denmark go bananas over CBS’ submission to the ‘offence police’.

January 2019: A professor of biology can supposedly no longer talk about biological gender in his statistics lessons, because students complain about his lack of consideration for other gender identities. The major news sites all publish the same indignant article.

January 2019: UCPH starts formulating a new guideline for the handling of offences that is expected to offend fewer people.

Another key participant in the debate agrees. “Thing go awry, if we believe that the university should toughen people up,” says associate professor at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies Thomas Brudholm. “It’s not an army barracks.”

“I want the focus to be on the guidelines, because they help set the framework for our functioning as a workplace,” he says. He and others have argued so forcefully against the line of the current rules on offences that they are now to be changed. We should avoid, Brudholm says, that things develop like in the United States, where the dialogue between students, instructors and management at places like Reed College and Yale has sometimes gone completely off track. “Until this winter, my cases were from the United States, the UK and South Africa, but now Denmark is also a part of it,” says Thomas Brudholm.

I want the focus to be on the guidelines, because they help set the framework for our functioning as a workplace.

Associate professor Thomas Brudholm

“I’ve tried in my own teaching to discuss these things. And I can see the danger that if I, say, have 60 students, there will be two or three that have activist viewpoints. Then this can quickly turn into a discussion between them and me. I have to take care to ensure that the others are a part of it too,” says Thomas Brudholm.

“There are some students, say from Anthropology, who have told me that they can’t find their voice in a very tough discussion where they meet extremely activist students.”

It’s probably a coincidence that both Brudholm and Salamon refer to anthropology students, but they speak of surprisingly different things. Where Salamon finds evidence of a robust majority culture, Brudholm has heard examples of activist students domineering the others. The overall situation is complex.

“I have 267 on this year’s cohort that are now starting, and they are very different. However, we live, whether we are students or researchers, at a time when our concepts of hatred, taking offence, stress, trauma, prejudice, violence and discrimination is extended to cover more phenomena. Then it takes less before you believe that they are appropriate to use, and I think that it is both good and bad. Right now, I think that we with the guidelines have extended the concept of giving offence too far,” says Thomas Brudholm. “But what is just being oversensitive for some, is a struggle for equality and inclusion for others.”

She keeps a lookout for discrimination

Activist Tara Skadegaard Thorsen, who graduated in philosophy from UCPH this summer, does not talk about being oversensitive. Neither does she talk about offences. And this will surprise those who have got to know her from the Danish news site Kristeligt Dagblad’s portrait with the headline ‘Tara Skadegaard Thorson is on the lookout for offences’.

As a spokesperson for the student group Front, she has become the Danish debate’s incarnation of offence and victimhood culture. But she says that she asked the news site to remove a passage stating that she kept a lookout for offences, after which the editors made it the headline instead.

“We do not work on offences at Front, but we would like the universities to take on their societal responsibility,” she says.

Front is trying to reduce the negative impacts, according to Tara Skadegaard Thorsen. “What I feel personally does not mean much. It’s all about the right not to be discriminated against, and the question is whether you have a positive effect on the right to not be discriminated against. If it is negative, then this must be handled so that it’s about how companies and organisations assume societal responsibility with human rights as a principle.”

Thorsen denies that it would be a problem if the activists in Front domineer others by insisting on discussing discrimination in the university environment, as Thomas Brudholm describes.

I can’t help thinking that these have to be some good arguments, because otherwise the instructor would be able to respond to the criticism.

Tara Skadegaard Thorsen, master’s degree in philosophy and activist in Front

“I’ve never experienced it as being bad that students did the reading and committed themselves critically to their instruction. If a student comes and says, “I have read a text and think that it is quite applicable in this course,” he or she would normally be praised. But when it comes to discrimination and eurocentrism, it is suddenly a threat to the researcher’s academic freedom. I can’t help thinking that there has to be some good arguments, because otherwise the teacher would be able to respond to the criticism,” says Tara Skadegaard Thorsen.

So those that are most likely to take offence according to the media, are not interested in talking about taking offence. It is complicated. Maybe it’s not surprising that the debate on offences and victimhood cannot be conjured away by senior management with a bit of charm and some featured comments.

“These are some much more difficult problems than many people have wanted to realise,” says associate professor Thomas Brudholm, and calls the debate ‘greasy’. “The concept of offence is extremely complex, and there have been many agendas at play at the same time on issues such as sexual harassment, bullying and statements, as well as #MeToo and in academia.”

In addition, there are competing interpretations of the [Danish, ed.] krænkelse or offence as a concept. “We use it for, say, human rights violations, but also on the subjective sense of feeling offended,” says Thomas Brudholm, who is himself trying to cut a way out of the problem:

“I believe that, where it applies to the outer boundary of what can be stated in the university, we should just follow Danish criminal law. It is well thought out and tested, and there is case-law. If you offend someone by being in breach of the paragraph on racism, then those that are offended are in the right. This is illegal. There are criteria, case law and rulings, which together generate sufficient clarity about what is not to be tolerated. If we followed this, things would not be so difficult.”

Brudholm would, however, also like to see that people talk about what is in the grey area between illegality (zero tolerance) and what some people feel offended by, or do not like to hear:

“I believe that, where it applies to the outer boundary of what can be stated in the university, we should just follow Danish criminal law. It is well thought out and tested, and there is case-law.

Associate professor Thomas Brudholm

“This is where tolerances comes into play,” he says. “If an instructor uses the word ‘bøsselort’ (literally ‘homo-shit’, an idiosyncratic term not heard often, ed.) when he accidentally hits his leg, it is a stupid and mindless term of abuse, and you should, as a student, call them out on this. But you should not demand that the instructor be fired, and management should not start disciplinary proceedings.”

Could you just try and not be offended?

Somewhere in this grey zone of offensive hodgepodge we find student culture with its outfits and stereotypes, what Karen Lisa Salamon would call the carnivalesque. And when the student parties are criticised, the response from the students is that they behave like they do with the best of intentions, and that this is just play-acting and irony.

For the Front group, this is no defence. “I’ve seen it many times,” says Tara Skadegaard Thorsen. “I think that there is a conceptual misunderstanding, where people who are being criticised, think that it must be because the critics, say, do not understand the irony of dressing up racist, when you are not a racist. But the critics understand perfectly the ironic distance. Independently of the intention, it is still racist. Just like sexist jokes are sexist, even if they are jokes.”

No one wants to be the victim. This is why Front is painted as offended, when they are actually just committed.

Thomas Brudholm may well explain why you so often see many people rejecting those who dare to say they are offended.

“The offended parties, in particular those who insist on their grievance and persist in their intransigence, require something of us. And this is often uncomfortable, associated with guilt and shame, atonement and punishment, responsibility and redistribution. In addition, the offended party can be seen, for instance with Nietzsche – as hateful, sick, weak and hypocritical, a resentful human simmering in self-absorbed grudges,” says Thomas Brudholm.

And this pathologising of the offence is problematic. “It is important to take the moral experience that is in the offence seriously. But you can’t just say, I feel offended, or: I think that someone else will be offended. You need to explain why.”

And this is difficult.

Translated by Mike Young.

 

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