An experiment gone wrong – Utrecht University, shame on you (again)

I am stubborn.

And stupid. Or maybe it’s just that I’m consciously testing reality in order to… Well, see for myself that the flames are hot and can get you burnt. Even though I know it already. I keep on poking. Poke, poke, poke, flame, show me you’re hot, show me you can really get me burnt, I cannot yet truly believe that you can, you cannot be that… hot… Can you?

And then I get burnt, and everyone around tells me „I told you so”, and they are right, and I’m getting out of another unpleasant dance with anxiety, and I reply „Well, at least I have more evidence now. At least I have it written black on white. At least I poked them enough to make them state all this openly”… Wait a second, I lost the flame analogy somewhere in this paragraph.

What is it in reference to? See for yourself. I wrote an article – just to see what happens. A piece I wanted to submit to Utrecht’s University newspaper (I know, right? It’s part of the experiment though):

__________________________________________________________

Utrecht University – was I really this unwelcome because of my nationality?…

…or should I explain my experience by some overwhelming ignorance of your professors, dismiss it by telling myself what I endured was not intentional, and accept my fate of a misunderstood international student?

I am going to do neither. I hardly believe I was intentionally bullied, not initially at least. However, I will not simply move on from what I have been through. I feel obliged to make an important statement:

Professors should not be ignorant.

If you aspire to be a part of an intellectual elite, you should live your life as a curious person. You should have basic knowledge that lets you make sense of the world around you. If you aspire to be civilized, you should be respectful. If you work in an international group, you should be inquisitive about other people’s experiences and perspectives, especially if they are dependent on you as juniors.

Without understanding reality, the word „professor” is just an empty pretense.

I have recently quit my PhD proceedings at UU, for after my experience I couldn’t work or imagine defending my thesis in Utrecht. Those who knew me would probably defend the institution by saying my research output was inadequate, and they would be right – after a passionate start, I have experienced a serious burnout that couldn’t be healed. However, I did try to communicate my issues in hopes for resolution – each attempt was ignored. I did need to have a conversation about what happened in my group – I reached out to no reaction. After playing Sisyphus, I decided to take the final step of respecting myself and distancing myself from a place that is not going to take me seriously. These years were too suffocating for me, and – worse of all – I did feel unwelcome because of my nationality.

No, I do not believe anyone consciously thought „let’s bully her out because she’s Polish”. For this, some subtle knowledge is required – the kind of knowledge professors in my group were shockingly lacking. What probably happened is… they were ignorant. And in their ignorance, they assumed everyone breathes and thinks like them. That the experiences of people around them are no different to theirs, and – obviously – everyone has the same outlook, views or even religious beliefs. Such unconscious assumptions has lead to disrespectful, hurtful behaviour that they couldn’t recognize due to their own lack of sophistication.

This is not how elite behaves.

And if they are considered elite in today’s word, it just proves the massive inflation of what the meaning of „elite” entails.

I came to the Netherlands after finishing my degrees in Poland, a young, naive and passionate being aspiring to be a scientist simply because geophysics is so interesting. I was innocent and joyful.

Soon I discovered that the openly Marxist provocations during coffee breaks are not some weirdly sardonic jokes, but they are made seriously. To some of you, this may be a simple slightly inappropriate political debate that tends to happen every know and then at university. Nothing too serious. Why would anyone care?

Not to me. It’s not political to me. At least not those instances in which my interlocutor has been ignorant about XX century history… the part of XX century history that junior high school kids in my hometown have to know. The part that was censored during the Cold War. The part that our families still have to live with up to this day. Why? Because someone went missing after World War II and was found in a mass grave far to the east 50 years later. Because you were not to speak about his mysterious death during the Soviet occupation. Because your grandfather or grandmother were tortured in the late 1940s or early 1950s in a state prison and were pardoned only in the 1990s or later.

When it’s you who suffers, you need others to know. You need this to be mainstream and canon. I thought I could not pay attention, but soon I started to experience nightmares with my great uncle’s bones hidden in a forest mass grave, saying that… they should KNOW.

Let’s be serious, I do not expect and I have never expected people to have the same knowledge or sensitivities as I do. We work in an international environment, where everyone has a story. What did I expect though? Some basic education, curiosity and respect. Probably. While the details of what Poland or any other country has been through in the last century are just that – details, and each one of us should know their part, the fact that a totalitarian state encompassing one third of the world has won World War II and imposed a bloody and manipulative regime onto its satellite countries is by far NOT a detail. The fact that it is responsible for a number of genocides, also on their own people – is NOT a detail. The fact that for those who did not have the Dutch luck of being freed by the US the fight for freedom continued far into the second half of the last century – and has been excruciating – is NOT a detail.

And anyone holding the title of a professor, or even anyone graduating from high school, should be at least vaguely aware of these basic facts. If they are not, I suggest to revise the education system in the Netherlands. Especially now, when we live and work together in Europe, we should be open and respectful towards our experiences.

What was my story instead? I have witnessed students openly and consciously displaying hammer and sickles on their clothing. No, I do not think this should be forbidden by law, but I do think it should be regulated by manners and education. That such clothing should be disturbing to witness, for it’s like wearing a swastika. If this is not in common knowledge, it should change, for it is disrespectful to millions of victims of communism.

Even more shockingly, the issues that I had were not understood by faculty at all. Senior researchers, members of the Dutch Academy, thought it is just a „hippie sign”, not realizing the amount of death associated with this symbol for a Polish person.

I had a professor saying „What can you know about the seventies”…. To a person from the other side of the Berlin Wall.

I had to endure some weirdly ignorant Eastern Germany jokes. Or jokes about the clothing situation.

No, they were not funny, even though believe me, I like a sardonic joke more than the next person. They were not funny because I felt unacknowledged. My own experience and suffering was invisible. And this is why I felt unwelcome because of my nationality. This is why in the end I couldn’t work here.

And to read student’s writing on how „Marx is sexy”? Believe me, leaving house at 2 am to get food is not sexy. Having someone killed and then having people lie about it is not sexy. Witnessing kids your age being beaten to death by militia is not sexy. Having to go sell anything on a flea market in Yugoslavia just to get by – even though you’re a doctor – is not sexy. And neither is hiding forbidden books or living in fear of your own neighbours.

I know, some will soon start talking about „theory versus practice” problems, which is beyond the scope of this piece, but honestly… If your philosophy gets human nature wrong, it will inflict suffering. Every single time. So take a few steps back, think about other people’s experiences… And think.

I only ask for a little bit of respect towards the suffering of others.

As Milan Kundera wrote, „The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”…

Could there be something you may be too comfortable to remember?

_______________________________________________________

That was my piece. I was… I think… Trolling in a way. I know that „university” and I wanted to see what happens if I submit it.

Well, initially, I was surprised by their positive reaction. They said they want to do an interview with me… Wow. I agreed. They talked to me for an hour. Then this email followed (I left out the name of the little girl who talked to me):

_____________________________________________

Hello Agnieszka,

How are you? Hope you had a lovely Easter.

(…)

In order to talk about the fact that certain symbols, topics or books are more sensitive to certain nationalities than others, requiring those in an international setting to watch out for their assumptions and behaviors, as well as being more open and flexible (a very relevant topic, indeed), we think it would be best to find other students (not necessarily from Poland) who are also bothered by this and feature you all together in the same article. Then it would be more about the issue than about you. However, so far I don’t know anyone else with the same complaints, so I cannot promise you anything at this moment. It looks like this will be a long-term project. If you know anyone who fits the profile, has an interesting story and would also be willing to take part in such an article, please feel free to send their contact details.

I’d like to once again thank you for your interview and also for the extra e-mails you’ve sent.

All the best,

M

__________________________________________________________________

Well, I immediately understood they want to include a hammer and sickle in some kind of exotic myriad of symbols that are „not so cool” to those weird non – Dutch people, including probably blackface and other curiosities. Like an animal in a zoo. „Look at her, she doesn’t like hammer and sickles, we have to be extra careful around her, but we don’t understand why, because we never learned what we should in high schools”…

No.

Just no.

I waited for a week in order to carve a reply. I wanted the initial anger to melt away, because I still thought (did I really though?) that there is something to win here…

_______________________________________

Dear (…),
Thank you for your reply.
(…)

However, regarding the second paragraph of your email, I think there has been a misunderstanding. Part of it could be my fault, as maybe I was too subtle with what I was saying.
You write
” In order to talk about the fact that certain symbols, topics or books are more sensitive to certain nationalities than others (…)”
That is a very vague statement, and it was not my intention. „Certain symbols” sounds like an understatement, or even a euphemism.
What I wanted to convey is that a hammer and sickle stands for genocide, and that generally educated people should know that.
If my material is to be used, I want it to be used in a separate article considering the treatment of victims of communism. I understand why it would be optimal to talk to more people than just me, but I want the material to be about one symbol – the hammer and sickle, and how much human life has been claimed under it, and how much suffering it inflicted.
This is the only way in which I can see it being used. And in this case, I will try to get some diverse contacts for you.

I hope you understand
All the best
Agnieszka

______________________________________________________

Now get ready for the grand finale:

Hi Agnieszka,

I’m afraid the angle you would like does not fit DUB’s editorial line. We cannot state that the hammer and sickle “stands for” genocide, period. The hammer and sickle is more complicated than the swastika because communism started as an economic theory/proposal, which was then adopted by the Russian Revolution. What happened later in Russia and the USSR is not necessarily proposed by communism, the theory. Stalin’s gruesome actions are not part of the economic theory many people agree or identify with (and therefore end up using the hammer and sickle as a symbol of proletariat union). Similarly, many academics adopt a Marxist perspective in the sense of seeing the world or analyzing societal issues through the lens of class struggle.

To you and other people who were victims of violence during the existence of the USSR, it is a symbol charged with a somber and painful connotation, so it’s important that others understand that before carrying or reproducing it. It is important to start a discussion, especially in an international academic environment. But, at the same time, it is understandable that, given the flaws of capitalism, some people will look at communism as a valid alternative, separating it from the USSR experience.

We can ask people to be mindful of how sensitive this can be for people from Poland and the former Iron curtain countries (which would be the intention of a possible article), but we cannot state that the symbol means just one thing (genocide) as it clearly means different things for different people.

Please give this a thought and we’ll stay in touch.

Very best,

_____________________________________________

The Beast has spoken.

I just wrote this:

Dear (…),

During the 1930s, many academics also analyzed the world through the theories of Nazism. Including biologists.
What you write about academics and communism today is no different than that.
The only difference is that Germans got their Nurnberg trials after the war, and communists did not. Which later gravitated towards pop culture and resulted in your gruesome email.

The only result of carrying out communism in practice is what you have witnessed in history, because the theory gets both human nature and economic calculation painstakingly wrong. It is not an opinion, but a fact. It has been analyzed for a century now, and the calculation debate is over. Lange’s defense doesn’t hold anymore.

And it is a complete lack of respect to reality, to the victims and to history to claim otherwise.
The crimes of communism is not just Stalin.
It’s everything that happened before him, after him and in a number of other countries.
It is appalling that – due to what today’s academics also do – nowadays children in Venezuela die of starvation.

The thing is, it should not mean different things to different people just like swastika doesn’t. Period.

Your treatment is exactly why I had to quit my PhD in Utrecht and why I have to take medication now. I want to use this email in communication with Polish embassy and in other publications, because I cannot believe it.

Please get rid of the interview, because I do not want to have anything to do with that newspaper.

________________

And… Curtain down.

Or is it? Is the curtain really down?

Seems the Curtain is still up, and no voice can pass through it…

(PS: while I was editing the blog post, I got a reply:

Hi Agnieszka,

I’m just trying to adopt a nuanced perspective, as it is my job to do so. I meant in no way to disrespect you or any victims. In fact, this is a really radical view of what I said in my e-mail.

I wish you all the best in life and your future endeavors,

(…) – so.. it was radical. Saying that a hammer and sickle is sensitive to people from behind the Iron Curtain is „really radical”…

Saint Michael the Archangel…)

Opublikowane przez agnieszkakonstancja

Freedom, not manipulation.

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