Leiden International Studies Blog

Break down the barriers @International Studies

Break down the barriers @International Studies

Barriers between us appear to have reached insurmountable heights. Whether we are talking about sex and gender, race and ethnicity, or other characteristics we all have, the world sometimes feels like a battleground.

Can we, as International Studies programme, still function as an academic community, amidst all the turmoil? Do we still trust each other enough to stand on each other’s shoulders, on the shoulders of giants, in order to see further? Or are we too busy stepping on each other’s toes?

Stepping on each other’s toes is probably too euphemistic a term to refer to recent events at Leiden University in The Hague where people felt they crashed into those barriers we build. A few weeks ago, a student wrote the first lines of an old Dutch hymn, Wien Neêrlands bloed, on a whiteboard. The first two lines read: Whoever has Dutch blood flowing in their veins, Free of foreign blemishes, accompanied by a Dutch VOC flag. It is not hard to see how this can be hurtful and make people feel excluded or hated.

We probably all agree that there is no place for exclusion at our university, but what does that exactly mean for instances like the above? And how does this relate to the university’s motto Preasidium Libertatis ‘Bastion of liberty’? Does that motto protect freedom of expression, including free speech that is hateful, or makes people feel excluded? These are questions we encounter these days when discussion incidents as the above. Who needs protection from whom, and what needs to be protected?

We could say that our liberty is what needs protection, as our university’s motto implies. However, that liberty does not just concern freedom of expression, but relates to anything pertaining to our functioning as an academic community. And if there is one thing threatening our academic community today, I believe, it is the barriers we have built and maintain between ourselves. And it is precisely because of those barriers that people hesitate to share their opinions, do not feel free to speak their mind.

But what can break down the barriers between us? And how do we respond when we encounter exclusion, or hate?

Attractive as it may seem to respond with hate when we encounter hate, wise men and women have pointed in the other direction. Buddha said that "hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule." Jesus similarly pointed at love as way of dealing with oppression: “but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And Pauli Murray, the famous American civil rights activist, who faced many instances of exclusion herself, described her response to it in her famous quote: “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.”

Is this really a plea for love in our International Studies programme, our Faculty, at Leiden University? Yes, it is. Love has connected people across all boundaries for as long as we can remember. And I am not just talking about romantic love, even though that too can be very helpful in bridging gaps. I am talking about love as it was defined centuries ago by three simple words: Volo ut sis ‘I want you to be’.

This kind of love is the opposite of exclusion, it is the opposite of hate, which expresses ‘I do not want you to be’.

I believe the freedom we so cherish in academia is only sustainable if it is rooted in that love, in acknowledging our common humanity, or our shared spark of divinity, if you like. We can only maintain our motto Preasidium Libertatis, if we also adhere to Volo ut sis. Leiden University explains the motto Preasidium Libertatis on its website, and on that page refers to Nelson Mandela, who has received an honorary doctorate of Leiden University, as a true defender of freedom. It is this defender of freedom who, not incidentally, also writes about love:

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going.”

In the end, love is what keeps us going. We are free to discuss anything, but that is only possible in an atmosphere of love. Love creates trust. Trust gives hope. My hope is that even in our freest speech, we give primacy to love. We see further by standing on each other’s shoulders, not by stepping on each other’s toes, or by excluding each other. Let’s try to bring some more love into Leiden University, and in our International Studies programme.

Series on Belonging

This blogpost is the first in a series addressing the theme of “belonging” in International Studies. I do not expect to come up with any definitive answers, but I will share what I think is needed to move forward on this theme. Feel free to react by writing your own blogpost and send it to me, or to blogthisisinternationalstudies@hum.leidenuniv.nl.

As accompaniment to the articles, I give some suggestions for works of art on the theme. This week there are two obvious candidates: The message is love, by Al Green and All you need is love, by the Beatles. I can also recommend Liszt’s Liebestraum, (beautifully performed by Tiffany Poon). Enjoy!

Please send me your suggestions (music, poems, other artworks) and I will add them to this blogpost.

Recommendations I received from others:

Maria Gabriela Palacio Ludeña: The Ship Song by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds