Comparing apples and oranges: the power of bad argumentation

By Zoë Robaey

Thanks to his defensive tone, it is difficult to read through Dap Hartmann’s column and get his point. In a nutshell, he blames “rabid feminists and other troublemakers,” as well as social media, for the silencing of some (in case of his opinion piece: men) when they say things that are experienced as inappropriate by many. He describes these men in a position where they are victims of censorship and concludes with #JeSuisHerman (as a reference to a professor who had to apologize after calling a first year student who had a beard, a terrorist to get his attention while he was chatting with his female neighbor, and to the attacks of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in 2015 where 12 people died).

I take issue with :
– His parallel of #JeSuisCharlie to justify such behaviors,
– How he applies it to the context of education, and
– How by using manipulative rhetoric, he asks the wrong question allowing him to propagate his discriminatory point of view, and that these are published in the university magazine.

#JeSuisCharlie has to do with free speech. Journalists and satirists were murdered at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a magazine whose the mission is to make fun of everyone “with a punch in the face” by doing political and social satire. #JeSuisCharlie shows support to a society where free speech is necessary.

We are presented with two cases: a professor calling a student a member of ISIS because of his beard, and our former rector magnificus calling a fellow colleague pretty on the day of her promotion.
Are these issues of free speech on the part of the ‘joker’ or the ‘complimenter’?
Let us look at one important distinction in the comparison that Dap Hartmann makes: one takes place in an institution whose goal is to criticize by means of satire, and the other one is the context of university whose goal is research and education.
People can say what they want. However, where they say what they want, to whom they say it, and in what context matters and is no longer an issue of free speech but an issue of respect and fulfilling roles that they undertake in these contexts.

These comments are (whether wilfully so or not) judgements based on stereotypes. Men with beards are terrorists. Men cannot concentrate because women are distracting. Women, despite their achievements, are judged on their looks. Stereotypes are harmful, create discrimination and affect student performances (for instance, see https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1041608014000661).

What Dap Hartmann actually asks is the following: Is it appropriate for an educator and academic to impose and perform such stereotypes in the classroom or with colleagues, under the pretense of joking or complimenting? According to him, yes because FREE SPEECH, and anyone who says anything against it is a RABID FEMINIST!

Let me answer his question in an appropriate manner: The role of an educator and academic is to create and share knowledge, to inspire and support students and fellow colleagues as part of the academic community. Imposing and performing stereotypes on students and colleagues has nothing to contribute to that role. Also, educators and academics who want to use humor can do better than making fun of their students via stereotypes, or reducing their colleagues to physical attributes.

By comparing apples and oranges, Dap Hartmann actually manages to not make any solid argument, and even put himself in the position of victim of censorship. By doing so, he propagates ideas that it should be ok to call students terrorists, or maybe sluts, or maybe retards. TU Delta publishes this without a counter opinion, without answering Facebook or Twitter comments, because hey, it’s just an opinion.

To conclude, I would like my university to create a supportive environment for staff and students. I would like my university magazine to publish content that raises the right questions with solid argumentation. We cannot have an argument when the starting point is an attack. We cannot have an argument when distinctions are not clearly made on the topics we discuss. We cannot have an argument when we feel like the ground we discuss on is not welcoming of diversity.

__________

For further reading we recommend the open letter by TU Delft researcher Felienne Hermans : https://www.delta.tudelft.nl/article/letter-free-speech

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