Would it be right to Host Putin in Wijnhaven?

On the 29th of November, Dr. Stanislav Vassilevsky, Counselor at the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in The Hague, met with students of Leiden University in Wijnhaven to discuss the current political and economic situation in Belarus, as well as his own personal experience as a diplomat. The event, organized by the BASIS academic committee, was however criticized by students, as well as Dutch newspapers, for giving a representative of an increasingly authoritarian regime a platform to share ‘propaganda’. Others criticized the physical event since hosting an official under Lukashenko was considered an act of support towards the Belarusan regime. However, the event was framed by the organizers as being aimed at “creating a dialogue with a representative from this secluded nation”.

How can students have a constructive discussion with representatives of a non-democratic country, while at the same time avoiding the problem of giving legitimacy to ‘dangerous’, or authoritarian, ideas? 

I understood the depth of this dilemma after attending the event “When Thinking Critical Goes Wrong: Civic Reasoning in a Polarized World”, where Dr. Jill Jeffery, professor of English and the minor Disinformation and Strategic Communication Leiden University, gave a very interesting presentation regarding Critical Thinking. She introduced Civic Reasoning as a way to think about critical thinking, a strategy to make sure that students can join fruitful, democratic debates. Critical Thinking ‘skills’ are dependent on specific dispositions, namely an awareness of one’s own bias, an awareness of one’s own reasoning processes and mechanisms, a coping disposition in complexity, a disposition for difference, and a willingness to accept being wrong, followed by the reconsidering of one’s own position. These dispositions need to be learned through practice and through a discussion based on good-faith and empathy. In this process, we can overcome the key obstacles to Critical Thinking: our negativity bias, the attention economy of online information, and our heuristic thinking. In order to avoid these obstacles, universities are responsible  of creating a ‘safe space’, a model for cognitive apprenticeship where one can think aloud about one’s own reasoning process, a place where the “vegas rule” (no photos-no videos) applies, a place where ‘voluntary restraint’ assumes that peers are judging in good-faith, engaging in empathic listening aimed at prompting self-reflection.

Dr. Jeffrey explained how Critical Thinking is important for Universities in liberal democracies. Critical Thinking is tightly connected to democratic principles, as it ensures that students can freely exchange and express ideas. Thus, the dilemma: How to ensure an empathetic, free, dialogue, if the ‘other’ does not share the same values regarding freedom of expression? Would it be right to invite a dictator to Wijnhaven, say Putin, or one of his associates, and start a dialogue, even if we know that there are not many possibilities for an open debate? What is the boundary of academic freedom and critical thinking here? I asked these questions to the Chair of BA International Studies, Dr. Giles Scott-Smith, in order to start a discussion between students and professors about this important topic. 

A conversation with Dr. Giles Scott-Smith: How about inviting Putin over?

Drawing on what Dr. Jeffrey explained regarding Critical Thinking, do you think that it is possible and/or desirable for students of, for instance, authoritarian politics, to have an ‘empathic’ dialogue with a dictator? 

“What struck me in your text [referring to the introduction above] is the word empathic: What are the goals behind inviting someone like that? What do you want to achieve? I think that that is the first question to ask, because the danger is thinking ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool’ or ‘Oh, this is provocative’, or ‘Oh, this is something that no one else has done, so let’s invite that person’. But that’s not really enough self-reflection. That’s just trying to gain publicity and create an event and not really reflect on what is the purpose of organizing it. If you think that there is a clear goal, then I do feel that you need to set up the event very clearly. Dr. Jeffrey gave a clear explanation of what Universities are for. They are spaces for open dialogue, but they are also ‘pillars of democracy’, they have certain functions in society, so there is no point in setting up an event that is going to undermine the very purpose of the university. That is the first thing to take into account”

About the example of the Belarusan embassy official presentation, what could have been done better?

“If you want to invite someone who you know is directly challenging the purposes of the University, into the University, for an open dialogue, then you as a university have the obligation to make sure that you set up the terms for that dialogue, and that the person coming into the University environment has to meet those terms. If they don’t, as far as I am concerned, then they are not welcome. And that is a kind of ‘bottom line’. You can go in other directions, by saying for example that the person is a mass murderer, or responsible for a massive oppression of people, and decide that that person is not welcome. That is a different moral judgment. But if you do want someone to come in for an open dialogue, then I think that you have to set that up in the best possible way. In terms of the Belarusan embassy official, I would not invite such a person on their own to come and talk. I think you would also need to have someone like Dr. Matthew Frear, or someone from the staff who knows a lot about Belarus. In this way you are claiming this space, you are indicating your version of open dialogue and how it is gonna be, and they [guest] will have to accept it or not. So that is the kind of thing you need to do. Don’t simply leave it to a student audience to ‘push back’, because that is too much for a student audience.”

You mentioned that there is a difference between inviting an intellectual who studies an authoritarian country, and an official representative from that country. However, since sometimes in authoritarian countries the independent agency of pro-regime intellectuals is in doubt, is it possible to draw a line between the two, and have an empathetic conversation with them?

“In this case I do not think that you need to be empathetic. Even if you are a student of an authoritarian regime, you should be always holding to a sort of objectivity – you are not studying an authoritarian regime because you want to become more supportive, but because you want to understand it better, I would hope. So empathetic is on the borderline between saying that ‘I want to understand how an authoritarian regime thinks’, but without ending up associating with how they think. So you need to draw a line there. If open dialogue is the goal, then you really make an effort to introduce opposing opinions. If you have someone from the Belarusan embassy involved, then you also have someone representing the Belarusan exile organization to come in, and give their view, and here the embassy would maybe refuse to turn up. And that is their problem. But at least you are indicating that you want to hear from all sides, without just claiming the truth.”

How about students of area studies, for instance Russian Politics, who are obviously informed about domestic Russian politics in a critical way, and they host, in the extreme case, the Russian ambassador, who would not allow an open discussion but only a speech. Do you think that this would be useful for these students, as a sort of first-hand analysis of state propaganda?

“I do not think so, because we already have enough of that in the media. Here you really have to think about what is the purpose of this event, and weigh who is really going to benefit. I think that in this case the ambassador is going to benefit more [than the students], by for instance posting on VK saying ‘look, I was invited by Leiden University’, which is going to benefit the Russian official position more than it is going to benefit the students.”

So the bottom line here would be to ensure that there is always a fact-checking person, an expert in the field to ensure an open dialogue?

“Yes. One of the key issues of the Palestine Panel Discussion was ‘why is there one rule for one crisis, and one rule for another crisis, and together this doesn’t add up.’ I think that we all have cultural biases, and there is a sense that this leads to unclear or bad decisions. But I think that this is a useful guideline to go by. If there is a question mark of the integrity, or shall we say the moral standing of the speaker, but we still want to hear from that side, then there should be an effort to counter-balance. At least you are recognizing that there is a question mark. And it doesn’t matter that there is a question mark, but you need to kind of balance it with something else. So should every event have a balanced view? No – but there’s no clear line on when yes and when no either. We have to work that out.”

Is there a line between defending democratic values and protecting “the oppressed”, and having an empathetic conversation with a representative of such regimes? Does the fact that universities are ‘bastions of freedom’ influence our ability to have a conversation with people associated with regimes that assumingly upheld antithetical values?

“That means raising a very important question for world politics today. Human Rights are presented as universal, but you have plenty of cultures and authoritarian regimes who do not accept that, see China and plenty of others. So then you have the dilemma: which deserves more respect, the Human Rights system or Cultural Relativism? I think that that is a clear choice, and everyone needs to make their own choice. Would you rather live in a Chinese system, or in a system that does, at least on paper, respect Human Rights? That’s a fundamental point to reflect on. I think that if you put yourself in that position, then things become quite clear.”

And it would be interesting in this sense to host a conversation in our university, including both panelists who support cultural relativism in Human Rights and those who do not. Do you think that that would be possible within our university, or would it be ‘canceled’?

[Smiles] “No, I don’t think it would [be canceled]. Take for instance the brilliant debate between Chomsky and Foucault that you can find on youtube. That kind of meta-philosophical discussion is really worth watching. That is what universities are for. And it is a valid discussion, as most of the critique on the Western promotion of Human Rights is that Western violence has done the most to undermine Human Rights instead of promoting them, so it’s a system with fundamental contradictions, it is not a perfect system by any means. So as long as you take that into account, then you are coming across as too ‘holy’. That is important because at least China and other nations are pretty upfront about who has rights and who doesn’t, they are not pretending.”

We discussed the current issue and the necessity of having some sort of broad guideline to organize events within our University. What is your hope for the future? 

“I have hope and I am positive about the reaction since the Palestine event, because the leadership of the University are responding to clarify this issue, they are looking to develop a clear statement on what academic freedom means in Leiden. I do not think that that will satisfy everybody, I also wonder if that will be applied to every single case, we will have to see what it says and how it is practiced. But I think that there was a recognition that some serious efforts had to be put in this issue, and that some serious dialogue had to be begun with students and others who were involved in that event to overcome some rather awkward decisions. If the University had simply said ‘that’s our decision and it cannot be changed’, I would have been very concerned, but there has been at least a recognition that that is not enough. There needs to be a clear message. I think that is very timely and positive, so I’m hopeful.”

Concluding thoughts
Without being immune to the logics of the ‘attention economy’, I decided to deal with the complex issue of academic freedom by asking Dr. Scott-Smith the provocative question in the title regarding the possibility of hosting a dictator such as Putin in Wijnhaven, which would obviously be an extreme – and undesirable – case. But, as Dr. Scott-Smith explained, the issue at stake here is more nuanced than that. In order to avoid that our academic events are canceled on dubious grounds, in order to avoid unfortunate polemics after a certain event, students and university staff need to come together with a shared understanding of academic freedom, which takes into considerations empathy and respect, but also academic rigor and factfulness. Thus, thinking about what might happen in the extreme case, can be a reason to do more self-reflection and improve our current rules. And this cannot be a top-down effort, as confirmed by the Chair of International Studies: “You cannot just solve this issue from the top, that’s not enough, you need to recognize exactly where the tensions are to address them properly. So I remain hopeful, but it is going to be something that will need to be worked out year on year, I feel. Every new generation of students coming in is going to have a slightly different kind of worldview, and that will create a new set of issues and tensions somewhere along the line, so you need to be flexible. As we know, any legal document needs to be interpreted, you can’t just read it and then everything is sorted out. So it’s going to be complex. But we can do it.”

by Federico




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