Issues of Accountability in the Dutch Cultural Community: Questions for the Post-October 30 Era
Issues of Accountability in the Dutch Cultural Community: Questions for the Post-October 30 Era
This text was initially composed as a response to the essay Power Eroticizes: of Alpha Males and Victimhood Cults by Tara Lewis, published by West Den Haag on January 10, 2021 (English translation by Baruch Gottlieb) which has since been removed by West upon public reaction to its harmful content and the request of one of Andeweg’s victims. Following West’s short statement released three days later, this text developed into an inquiry about the place and practices of accountability in the Netherlands' creative and cultural sector. It then shifted towards being an open letter to West Den Haag as well as Mondriaan Fonds, which gave West Den Haag positive advice for three years of funding in their 2020 assessment for Kunstpodium Pro, which entails 175,000 euros per year as “contribution intended for a series of activities aimed at presentation, experiment, opinion and debate.”
I have eventually decided to allow the broadening scope of the conversations that emerged in the Dutch cultural community, especially following the NRC article by Lucette ter Borg and Carola Houtekamer dating October 30, 2020, to complicate this text further. It now includes questions concerning the nature of systemic response to harm and abuse within the Dutch cultural industry and judicial system; a response to Lewis’ forementioned essay; discussion of the problematic terminology often used in critique of call out culture; a defense of call outs; a critique of call out culture within the framework of transformative justice practices; an inquiry into the practices of transformative justice; suggestions for institutions that seek to be accountable; and lastly, to ask how we can navigate through all of this and where it is possible to go from here.
The NRC article titled How an Artist Makes a Career Under Persistent Allegations of Sexual Assault and Rape by Lucette ter Borg and Carola Houtekamer published on nrc.nl on October 30, 2020 is the backbone of this text; thus there are mentions of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, intimidation, theft, stalking and more - some with graphic details. There are also mentions of disregard from police as well as other individuals/institutions to such violence, and expressions of victim blaming. This content can be distressing/triggering for some folks for completely valid reasons, I therefore recommend caution.
The NRC Report
Since the first report received by the NRC in April 2019, the newspaper has conducted extensive research into the accusations of violent and sexually transgressive behavior of Dutch visual artist Julian Andeweg, speaking to eighty stakeholders regarding the case. The NRC article states that at least 20 women and men are known to them as victims of “...rape, sexual assault, assault, theft, stalking and/or intimidation...” by Andeweg. They have collected documents and witness statements including diary excerpts, photos, videos, call details of telecom providers, apps, mails, chat conversations and messages via social media. Statements from friends who were called the day after rape, parents who saw their child with a black eye and friends who witnessed the violence were also included; some statements, however, where excluded by the NRC due to lack of sufficient evidence. The allegations span a period of 14 years, during which at least five victims have filed complaints to the judicial authorities. Certain art institutions, gallery owners and educational institutions were also made aware multiple times of Andeweg’s transgressive behavior over the years, without satisfying response.
The NRC article is a detailed piece containing well-researched, important information. In order to use it as a basis for my arguments in this text, I will first present certain key information I have gathered from the article.
NRC states that in 2013 two victims made statements to the police of Den Haag about Andeweg; neither led to further investigation. One victim, who was assaulted and raped several times during her time at KABK, the art academy from which Andeweg graduated in 2012, took the courageous step to file a complaint to the police in 2018. The officer’s response to her emotional state was to advise her to seek therapy first. Another woman, who told NRC that she was drugged and raped by Andeweg, tried to file a report in 2019 but was discouraged by the police as her case was “very difficult to prove”, and that it was “his story against hers.” Another woman called the Amsterdam police in 2020 and was told that her report wasn’t necessary, since there were already many reports against Andeweg. NRC states that even though the official complaints date all the way back to 2013, only in the summer of 2020 did the police start an investigation.
White supremacy and patriarchy enables abusers to feel justified to cause harm without consequences. This is evident in Andeweg’s status as a white Dutch man with a successful career, whose privilege ensured that - even two and a half months into the publication of the NRC article - he only now is being officially considered a suspect. It’s not that I believe in the punitive justice system’s capability for bringing justice and healing for all parties involved; but that this fact alone makes it clear that the conditions that sustain the cycle of abuse are directly institutional.
In a state where countless data about individuals is constantly surveilled and stored, it is very interesting to see what remains “under the radar.” How is it that an artist officially accused of assault in 2013 can get their photo taken with the King of the Netherlands in the Royal Palace in 2018 (as seen in a photo by Julie Blik)? This is by no means a call for more surveillance, I am stating this merely as an indication of how deep the disregard of sexual violence towards women can go within state systems, especially if the person who caused harm benefits from the privileges granted from being a succesful White man. Meanwhile, the tax office of the very same state caused immeasurable injustice to over 26,000 families that they racially profiled, victimizing them financially and psychologically by wrongly accusing them of fraud using data based on the families’ ethnicities gathered by their surveillance technologies. This act of systemic racism caused depression, divorces and evictions, deeply harming the people subjected to it. This led to the symbolic fall of the Dutch government led by Mark Rutte on January 15, 2021. The question of accountability in Dutch institutions remains.
NRC Data on the Reaction of the Dutch Cultural Industry to Accusations against Andeweg
The fact that so many victims came forward with official complaints and interpersonal statements since 2013 didn’t stop Andeweg from having his work sold to the collections of De Nederlandsche Bank, ABN Amro, the Leiden University Medical Center and the Bonnefantenmuseum, or from receiving € 50,000 in support from the Mondriaan Funds in 2015 and another € 38,000 in 2017, as stated by the NRC. I do not claim that the mentioned private and public institutions were aware of the allegations at the time of their support, yet this picture still can’t be held completely separate from the infrastructures that enabled Andeweg’s success. These infrastructures are formed and upheld by many institutions and individuals in positions of power, some of whom actively decided to disregard the victim statements.
As stated in the NRC article, in May 2017 one of the victims sent an email to the director of the exhibition space Stroom in Den Haag, which would work with Andeweg that same year, reporting her own and others’ experience of domestic violence and assault by Andeweg. She asked the question “What perspective does Stroom offer on misogyny, if a person who is known by many as a woman abuser is offered a platform?”, only to receive excuses in defense of Andeweg that referred to him as a “complicated person.”
The “complicated persona” afforded to White men runs deep in our White supremacist, patriarchal society. This is often evident in the instantaneous use of the term “terrorist” for a person of color, a Muslim or a Black person for any act of public violence, whereas if the individual is White headlines are more likely to read “Shy boy loved by many suffered intense distress, causing slight panic and killing 4.” Nuance is a commodity reserved for white cis men.
The gallery owner Martin van Zomeren, who formerly represented Andeweg, is also reported to have responded to victim reports by saying “I am not his father. I like his work and it sells.” Two other known reports were made and the art collector Jaap Sleper returned two works of Andeweg he had bought from van Zomeren. At first these reports did not urge van Zomeren to stop representing Andeweg, and only after questions from NRC did he suspend his collaboration with him.
NRC also mentions how one artist, who was drugged and raped by Andeweg in 2018, was invited to participate in the same show with him in 2019. Upon voicing to the curator Jan van der Ploeg her decision to participate on condition of Andeweg’s removal from the list, she ended up being the one who was let go; a decision explained by van der Ploeg as being “easier than persuading an artist to withdraw himself.” Soon after, she received threats and intimidating emails from Andeweg, was stalked at her exhibitions and around her studio in Den Haag, received aggressive phone calls and was subjected to public scenes made by Andeweg to humiliate her. The artist, having had disappointing contact with the police in 2019, decided to hire a lawyer who sent Andeweg two official letters requesting him to stop his abuse. The judicial system, through their disregard, forced her to employ private means to gain security and freedom from Andeweg’s abuse.
Invitation for Accurate Terminology in the Critique of Call Out Culture
Before I begin my critique of Lewis’ essay and the way she approached the NRC report, I’d like us to try and settle on more accurate terminology when discussing call outs and “cancel culture.” Critiques of “cancel culture” often involve a mention of witch hunts. Lewis herself used this term in her essay. Andeweg also described his own situation as such, as stated in the NRC article.
Witch hunting is a practice, one that still exists in parts of the world, used as a means to exert power over women by stripping them of all their belongings and rights, often violently murdering them. This practice was a result of misogynistic laws backed by the Church and state, designed to disempower and harm women, particularly women who were poor, unmarried, gender/sexual non-conforming or “unconventional” in other ways. The practice targeted women to seize control over their bodies, labour power and reproductive agency as well as to disintegrate working class solidarity for the financial and political gain of the ruling class. It was a practice which, among many, employed severe sexual assault as one of the detection methods, violating the naked bodies of women in search of a “witches mark.” Witch hunts meant literal torture and murder, killing an estimation of 50,000 people in Europe alone. Even if you don’t care to respect the pain suffered by many through actual witch hunts, you still cannot use that term to describe call outs by women who are victims of sexual assault and rape by men, since the power dynamics are in no way comparable to or reminiscent of a witch hunt.
Another term thrown around while critiquing call outs is “lynching.” Lynching was an extralegal institution that was used to violently and systematically mass murder Black people following the Civil War in the United States. It’s a practice that survived the Jim Crow era and is still utilized by murderous, racist mobs to torture, dehumanize and persecute Black people. It is a term that notorious White supremacist, Donald Trump, has used many times in his defense; which in his case was intentionally used to send a clear message to his followers. Are you really sure that you want to share the same terminology with him?
Especially for a person who isn’t Black, the term lynching has to be used with extra attention, care and accuracy.
Losing reputation as a result of a call out or losing a professional network as a result of exposed assaults is not being hung up on a tree, burned at the stake, or murdered in some other atrocious way. Words have profound historical meaning; the historical connotations of lynching and witch hunting can’t just be conjured in the careless way that it’s done in such critiques of “cancel culture.”
Now, you are a White man in a position of power and relative privilege and you want to invoke witch hunts or lynchings as a historical reference to what’s happening to you when you are publicly called out for your harmful decisions (to put it mildly) and believe that “you can’t say anything anymore these days”?
Don’t be silly.
On Basic Compassion for Victims of Trauma: a Response to Tara Lewis’ Essay Power Eroticizes: of Alpha Males and Victimhood Cults
In her essay, Lewis wrote: “I do not think that the institutions implicated are guilty merely because they didn’t adequately respond to the warning signs. If we women allow ourselves to be kicked in the stomach and dismiss that as ‘Just kidding’, we ourselves are part of the problem. If you are anally raped in your sleep and someone shows you the video at breakfast, any sensible person would run for her life.” and “In the relevant NRC article is reported that after having been drugged and raped by Andeweg and an associate, the victim maintained a relationship with the latter for some time.”
Living in societies which normalize sexual assault, rape, oppression of supremacy and many other abuses, it is common for abuse to occur in intimate spaces, and it can take a long time for a victim to realize the harm that was done to them. We are socialized in a manner that causes much of the oppression we experience to be deeply internalized; it’s not rare for someone to recognize the abuse they went through in hindsight. Severe trauma like rape or sexual assault can render a person completely powerless for a very long time. One or more victims might have had a history of sexual abuse and/or molestation which could have rendered them unable to detect the violence. The dismissive attitude of Lewis, her complete lack of compassion or empathy for victims who, for countless valid reasons, might not have been able to protect themselves when the abuse took place (the youngest victim was 19 years old at the time) is truly appalling. I find it hard to understand why Lewis decided to disregard multiple claims of intimidation, manipulation and violence by Andeweg, and instead of using this information to help herself empathize with the powerless state of the victims at the time, decided to utilize their inability for decisive action (back then) as arguments for cruel victim blaming, stating that they should have "not allow[ed] themselves be violated." There are many reasons, such as perspective and empowerment gained from further life experiences, politicization, and/or healing, which might explain why the victims felt ready to take action later than the events of the abuse.
These victims had panic attacks triggered by contact related to Andeweg. The NRC article states: “She often feels unsafe, she sleeps badly, she is startled by a phone call from an unknown number.” The victims were raped, unable to ride a bike because of the damage inflicted on their body, stalked, intimidated with a big knife, and grabbed against their consent. The received curses via Facebook Messenger, email, and Instagram. A Black student was subjected to consistent racism by Andeweg. One of the victims said “In the two years I have been with him, he has threatened and abused me so often that I could not possibly mention every time.” Another one says “The wounds of these traumatic experiences will never heal completely.” One of the victims stopped their study of art and had to move away and delete all her social media profiles to escape Andeweg’s abuse, who continued harassing her for years after. The victims are intimidated to the extent that one of them said "I'm still afraid with every shade that he will show up." The article describes the experiences of another victim, dating April 10, 2018, one of the most cataclysmic moments of abuse by Andeweg. She says “I felt so dirty for so long. Only now do I understand that this was not my fault. Julian's behavior is criminal and it destroys lives. This has to stop, also for the women who come after me.”
How can one find anything but sadness, empathy, anger and solidarity in themselves after reading these experiences? How is it possible not to mourn - for the victims, for the pain caused by systems endorsing this violence?
What I find even more appalling is Lewis’ claim that the victims maintained their relationship to Andeweg because “it is precisely the violent aspect that is part of the attraction to this type of man.”, “Evidently, it is (or had been) all too human to feel attracted to such an enfant terrible. Many a woman and man find willful, dominant men attractive.” Lewis brings politics of desirability onto the table with a weak argument, using the infatuation one woman felt towards the gorilla Bokito as a metaphor for why women fall for “alpha males” (a term she used to describe Andeweg.) She claims that the reason Andeweg’s victims connected with him and went through the abuse was due to the attraction women feel for “willful, dominant men”, which she ties to a vague assertion about “human nature.” These massive claims are not only terribly insulting and insensitive to the victims of abuse and rape, but they are also embarrassingly baseless and without sources.
I do see the value in a discussion of our culture of desire and how it connects to rape culture, to question the possibility of forms of desire liberated from patriarchy. The most popular porn searches of men in 2017 centered incest, objectification of women, racialized power dynamics and sex with underage people (child abuse). But this is not a result of “cancel culture”, as suggested by Lewis, and bringing the politics of desirability and culture of desire to the table in relation to Andeweg’s victims is tasteless, unfair and plain wrong.
Lewis continues: “A sexless, boring, grey mouse world in which anything that deviates from the norm set that day (becoming narrower and narrower by the day) is judged nefarious and guilty in advance.”, “By taming the human tendency towards sex and violence we suppress, I think, part of being human. We pretend to have evolved from the Bokito within, but the fact that it would relieve us enormously if we could bite someone’s leg once in a while.”
Neither the work of abolitionists trying to end the cycles of abuse, nor the human right to bodily autonomy and to not be violated against their will, has anything to do with “taming the human tendency towards sex.” And no, one cannot bite someone’s leg without their consent, which seems to be the behavior Lewis defends by utilizing that image as a counterargument for efforts to end all non-consensual acts of sex and violence. Outcry for the end of sexual abuse is not a call for a “sexless, boring” world, its root is in the righteous anger of victims demanding an end to this harmful cycle despite opposition from White supremacist and patriarchal systems. It is a demand for a world where sex is consensual, not rape. You can bite an adult’s leg if they consent to it at that moment. Otherwise you can’t. Simple.
In Lewis’ out of place claims, I still do see remnants of a discussion that would be valid in a different context. Much of sexual harm can be traced back to sexual shame and repression, and a lot of us are trying to navigate sexual pleasure through very complex traumas of transgression. We have lived through so many versions of it, we still do. And it deeply complicates our relationship to pleasure. Claiming pleasure and connection from the hands of trauma and transgression requires a deep learning of consent and boundaries. A meaningful understanding of how consent relates to access, and the connection of access to power. How systems of supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, ableism and capitalism assign access based on power to men over bodies of women and femmes, cis over trans bodies, able over disabled bodies, White over Black, Brown, indigenous bodies, bodies of color and more. The only way we can shift from rape culture to a culture of exciting, joyful, pleasurable consent is through careful understanding of the harmful workings of these systems and building relationships that defy and dismantle them.
Referring to a post shared on the Instagram account @calloutdutchartinstitutions, Lewis wrote “A teacher of Willem de Kooning academy dared to call a student “beautiful”. In an environment where aesthetics are constantly under discussion and boys and girls do everything they can to stand out, is this a problem?”
Yes, unsolicited flirtation or sexual intimidation regarding someone’s appearance/physique within the power dynamics of a teacher/student relationship in an educational setting, where boundaries should be maintained to keep students safe, is a problem. Unless the student presented their own body as the art/design work for that particular project and was asking for feedback on their “beauty”, which seems to be the strange scenario Lewis is pointing at. Here, Lewis frames a teacher calling a student “beautiful”, which was clearly disturbing for the student (hence the post on the Instagram account), as an aesthetic discussion particular to that environment. Even more baffling is Lewis’ justification, stating that art school students invite this kind of attention since “they do everything they can to stand out.” This is very much reminiscent of the “she shouldn’t have worn that short skirt” rhetoric. A student can do whatever they want with their own image for self-expression, this doesn’t justify or invite intrusive behavior from anyone, let alone a teacher.
Lewis wrote: “Art academies and institutions are supposed to be places where we color outside the lines. By wanting to make safe spaces out of them, we merely create a fake reality. The propagation of this illusory notion of civilisation, allows the Andewegs of the world to only more easily have their way.”, “If you protect (young) people from every unwanted impulse you create whole generations of victims who are insufficiently resilient to face the reality of society. And by suspecting in advance every White man with a sexual impulse, you create more potential Andewegs.”, “Don’t turn art institutions into safe spaces.”
Lewis’ argument against making art institutions safe spaces almost sounds like a proposal for a new curriculum in art academies, one that requires students to go through rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, theft, intimidation and manipulation by the time they graduate in order to make them more prepared for the “reality of society.” How about addressing the actual systemic mechanisms that create and sustain harm? Or putting this effort and attention into changing the harmful realities of society, instead of accusing the call for safer spaces as attempts to create fake realities? People shouldn’t have to become resilient to rape or assault. Rape and assault needs to end. Also, if one wants to claim that “every White man with a sexual impulse is suspected in advance”, there needs to be a source. Where does this data come from? Especially if one wants to claim that poor itty-bitty White man was victimized again, you need a hell of a good source for that.
I lastly want to point out the microaggression in Lewis’ statement: “After all, sexual violence against women is omnipresent in cultures with rigid, strict sexual morals. No matter how civilized we pretend to be, the inner Bokito is at times, still stronger.”
It is not difficult to understand which cultures are meant here, but I will not entertain that claim with further speculation. Instead, I’d like to recall the statistics presented in the said NRC article: “Of the estimated one hundred thousand victims of sexual violence in the Netherlands every year, only two thousand men and women reported to the police with a story about rape last year. Last year, only 687 declarations remained. In that year, only 129 rapists were convicted by the judge. Officers may discourage victims from reporting the crime if evidence is lacking or resistance is not evident.”
West Den Haag decided to publish this essay that occupied a supposedly intellectual space with baseless claims and lazily-argued points desperately lacking in sources, filled with insulting claims about the rape victims, victim-blaming and justification of sexual intimidation, on their platform. I would like to invite West Den Haag to give a statement of what kind of change they are committing to after platforming such a harmful essay, one they had to remove at the request of one of the victims. How are they planning to compensate for the harm their decision caused? How are they planning to be more accountable with their platform, with the voices they highlight, with the € 175,000 yearly public funding they receive from Mondriaan Fonds as “contribution intended for a series of activities aimed at presentation, experiment, opinion and debate”? I understand that the line between censorship and preventing harmful content can be a thin one at times and difficult to navigate; but a total failure of recognizing the pervasiveness of intimate violence towards women is a big mistake in handling the important responsibility of publishing. How can you be more discerning about the kind of narratives you uphold? There are so many other cultural platforms that are doing wonderful work in the realm of “opinion and debate” with the very little they have. Is it possible for you to take better responsibility as one of the beneficiaries of the current pyramid scheme of public grants?
In Defense of Call Outs
It is not the duty of rape and/or assault survivors to put labor into bringing about change and an end to cycles of abuse. The survivors are busy surviving the horrendous violations they experienced. If their path to healing requires them to name their abusers or perpetrators publicly, then they have all the right to make their voices heard, to make their pain visible, to shed light on their abusers who were previously guarded by patriarchal and supremacist systems; systems which rendered the survivors powerless and silenced.
The survivors have the right to move towards safety by any means, and at times this may require public attention to the abuse they experienced, so that they can crack open the confinement caused by ongoing intimate violation. Sometimes ‘calling out’ becomes the only way to stop the harm-doer. Many survivors of intimate violence, stalking and harassment feel the necessity for public interference because of the deep grip the harm-doer has over them in their private life. I invite you to empathize with the conditions that corner someone so completely that taking the decision of making their pain so public becomes the only option.
In cases involving a clear imbalance of power - politically, positionally, and financially - true accountability can be difficult to attain. If previous attempts made to stop the abuse have been unsuccessful, if new boundaries have been consistently disregarded by the harm-doer, or if the harm-doer has managed to avoid being held accountable despite numerous attempts to do so, call outs may become the last resort for victims. Our words have power, and making our pain visible can sometimes be the only way to attain safety and begin healing.
Social media has been a very useful tool in making systemic violence, pain, oppression and assault visible. As a technological medium it enables us to have conversations about issues that were previously swept under the rug. It is not difficult to see why this bothers some.
Moving Towards Transformative Justice and a Critique of Call Out Culture
With every discussion we have regarding practices of justice, every article published addressing urgent conversations about justice, even the smallest choices we make in words, stances, or attitudes, we are laden with the responsibility of creating and/or affirming new methods of justice. We need to implement generative, transformative, life-affirming modes of justice to the smallest scales of our communities in order for it to take root on a larger-scale and in more complex levels of organisations/states.
The following critique I have on call outs is excluding the NRC article and the call out aspects within it, since I deeply believe that a 14 year unstoppable cycle of abuse, with many previous attempts to intervene, did require this type of public attention. Even more so for its implications on the systemic workings of the Dutch state and cultural industry.
On the other hand, over a span of two years, I too have witnessed the method of call outs practiced in seemingly questionable ways.
Sometimes it felt like a mediation could have been possible in that specific situation and that it wasn’t practiced. Instead, immediate consequences and a public punishment was demanded.
Sometimes it was directed to an individual who had a marginalized identity, and the call for their social expulsion and disappearance felt misaligned with abolitionist practices. The means of demanding justice seemed misdirected.
Sometimes the demand for instant judgement and punishment was reminiscent of the practices of those in power inflicted upon those who they oppress. It was reminiscent of the ruthless and punitive justice system perpetuated by the state.
Sometimes I felt inadequately equipped to differentiate a call out that felt necessary and appropriate from one that felt too quick or untimely. Sometimes I felt pressured to immediately join the public shaming, that there was no time for my own questions, even when I desired to comprehend the situation in further depth. It felt like nuance was unwelcome.
Sometimes it felt immediately clear that the harm was a result of broader systemic issues, and the focus on the harm doing individual, although inevitably needed, would not cease the harmful behaviour. That there was resistance to moving our focus to the bigger picture when that felt timely. Much too often the promising driving force ended at the punishment of the individual, and couldn’t be harnessed towards engineering new infrastructures and systemic change.
From the privileged position of witnessing a call out instead of being the abused individual/survivor who felt compelled to use the method of calling out, at times I felt that we had the luxury to separate the harm-doer as a human from the socialization that they went through to become this person, to ask deeper questions regarding systems of power and harm. At times I faced an unwillingness towards this. I myself have felt that unwillingness too. I have shared the anger of the abused and wanted to refuse the humanity of the harm-doer. I wanted them and them specifically to understand the abuse they caused and to suffer for it.
I hope that we can develop such intricate practices that, whilst we unquestionably prioritize the healing and the safety of the survivor, protect them from further harm and from them having to labor further for the validation of their pain, we can also actively utilize the situation as a moment that works towards dismantling abusive systems. Towards practices of accountability and transformative consequences fit to the harm that was done.
How can we establish practices that will also compel harm-doers towards healing and growth? How do we achieve justice and healing without incarcerating people? How do we relinquish the hollowed out concept of innocence? A concept that was created as a tool of oppression by punitive systems of justice, where law would ensure that states and state-affirmed individuals would remain “innocent” despite committing atrocities like police brutality and murders, genocide, racial profiling, colonialism, enslavement, mass incarceration and forced labor. How do we move to new understandings of justice that are not as binary as innocent/guilty, notions that are made by us that can hold the complexities of our new systems of abolitionist justice?
In her book We Will Not Cancel Us and Other Dreams of Transformative Justice, adrienne maree brown poses the following questions to help us navigate through a call out:
“Have there been any private efforts for accountability or conflict resolution?
Is/are the survivor(s) being adequately supported?
Has the accused individual or group acknowledged what they’ve done, or are they saying something different happened, or even that nothing happened?
Has the accused individual or group avoided accountability? Have they continued to cause harm?
Has the accused already begun the process of taking accountability?
Does the accused person have significantly more power than the accuser(s)-in what ways? Are they using that power to avoid accountability?
Is this a demand for process and consequences that will satisfy the survivor, the community, the movement?
Is this call out precise? Is the demand for accountability related to the alleged harm?
Does it feel like we can ask questions?
Is all the attention going towards the person accused of harm?
Are we being asked to rush to action? Is there enough time between the accusation and the call for consequences to make sure we know what’s going on and what’s possible?
Is the only acceptable consequence to those making the call out for the accused to cease to exist?
Is the accused from one or more oppressed identities?
Is there any discernible power difference between the accused and the accuser(s)?
Does this feel performative?”
The call out is a tremendously powerful tool that can be used to achieve the necessary results for justice.
How do we perfect our use of it?
Suggestions for Institutions that want to be Accountable
Following the NRC article, which has been a source of inspiration and power for an important social movement in the Dutch cultural community, many institutions have been called out for their harmful practices. Some art spaces even tried to capitalize on the scandals they created. Certain journalists and essayists wanted to take this opportunity to criticize “cancel culture.” Some of these pieces were so blatantly provocative, insensitive, shocking and poorly researched that it’s hard to believe that they really intended to pose any genuine questions towards the conversation.
Their attempts at showing accountability - if they had the integrity to show any - were often clumsy, sometimes superficial, insincere, inadequate, used as a PR opportunity, and in the worst cases, perpetuated further harm. Some institutions didn’t even try. It felt like the only way they would be compelled to respond would be if their funding was threatened. Some of these institutions, by their nature, are systems built for hoarding wealth and maintaining supremacy. Some are purely profit-oriented, and without public pressure they wouldn’t even consider taking any action towards accountability. Naturally, no genuine apology could be issued from such institutions.
Some institutions did display attempts to alleviate public fury that they caused, and to regain the trust that they had damaged; although none really promised deep change.
I find it unnecessary to mention their names here, since it would require a deeper contextualisation of each harm and I simply don’t want to highlight these institutions once more. But as a reaction to their harmful behaviour and to address the systems that perpetuate it, artists and activists built social media platforms dedicated to institutional critique. Platforms such as @not.a.playground, @cultural.workers.unite, @no.more.later and @art.goss have been doing the labor of highlighting the abuse and dysfunctionalities of the Dutch cultural field.
To institutions/organisations/media organs that genuinely do want to be accountable, I want to offer suggestions for the practice of the important skill of public accountability. It is unsolicited, but previous attempts from various institutions makes it clear that it really could be useful for the ones willing to do it better.
We are still at the very beginnings of our practices of transformative justice. A true and responsible apology that goes to the root of the problem in committed transformation is rare, even in interpersonal communications, since we are socialized to see accountability as punishment, as something to be afraid of or as something to avoid. Our relationship to it is damaged. Punitive systems put us through conditions that do not tolerate mistakes that, correctly handled, could result in growth. Many of us avoid conflict at all costs for valid reasons relating to past trauma. Yet, if we want to grow as a society towards life-affirming systems, we need to develop satisfying ways to embody accountability.
Let’s imagine, as an institutional body, specifically the individual(s) or groups who hold the main decisive power of that institution/are representatives of it, you messed up, but you really didn’t mean to cause harm. It’s not in your agenda or the nature of your organisation to practice and perpetuate harm (or you don’t want it to be), you really do feel bad about the harm you’ve caused and you do not want to avoid accountability. You actually want to be in the right relationship to relevant conversations and the public you are connected to, but “something went wrong” in the process. You feel that you do understand why people got mad and you hope that you can somehow express this belated understanding with the right words and that you are ready to take action beyond surface level adjustments. You won’t hide behind “diversity” through tokenization or any other means that will ensure your truly harmful practices - your big wage gaps in your positions or your social hierarchy - to remain intact whilst giving the public temporary relief. You are aiming to be truly genuine and fair, even if it requires big change.
Often in such a situation there is already a demand for a public apology and many eyes are on your next statement. If you really do mean well, this is a wonderful opportunity to practice true accountability.
(These suggestions are not referring to cases in which severe harm, violence or abuse has been practiced, especially between parties with significant differences in power.)
Are you sure that you understand the problem, what went wrong and in what way? There is an intense public reaction to a recent action/decision or something you’ve been practicing for a while. People are calling you out and putting in the labor of critiquing your actions, so listen. If it is still difficult for you to understand what the problem and the demand is, invite someone or a group that is willing to engage in a direct conversation with you to define the problem to you clearly. Pay them good compensation for this labor.
Once you pinpointed the problem, address it internally with true commitment to preventing it from happening in the future. As an institutional body you know very well that your actions are a sum of many smaller systems within you, and that you have direct or indirect connections to bigger systems of harm. Detect where it went wrong, decolonize the old practices, change certain gears and wheels, and implement new systems that will prevent similar harm from taking place in the future. Be dedicated, realistic and daring in this. Behavioral change and transformation is not easy but can be made easier with dedication, support and collaboration. Do not require the labor of the ones you’ve hurt to move you to accountability and transformation unless they are willing to participate, but you can ask for support from other groups or bodies. Always compensate the labor both internally and externally.
Address the harm the action of your institutional body has caused and design a method of fair compensation for the victimized. The nature of your compensation changes depending on whom you have hurt and in what way. This can be generous cash, offering them your platform in order to give them the opportunity to voice their story, a service they might need to recover from your harm, or a method you reach together after asking them how you can help them heal (make sure that within the specific nature of that situation that it’s appropriate for you to engage with them directly, otherwise use a mediator.) Repairing the harm you’ve caused means doing actual labor towards mending and requires strong commitment. Assume the duty of repair and be committed to fixing the problem you have caused.
After the inner commitments are set, make a public statement. The statement needs to express your understanding of the impact of your previous action with clear indication of self-reflection, the harm your decision/action caused on others and the commitment you are willing to make to change so that the harm doesn’t take place again. Name the action, name the impact and name the hurt. Be genuine. Do not post something that sounds like a basic PR text that will only further escalate public anger. It’s extremely easy to sniff out a fake apology. Do not brush it off in a quick statement with the aim of going back to “business as usual” the next day. A cursory attempt at accountability won’t do. Do not underestimate the impact of your apology even if it’s for something small. The next time, try to be proactive in showing accountability, before receiving public pressure to do so.
Put the plans you’ve committed to for real change in action.
Take time and pay full attention to the process. Especially if you are a cultural institution/organization, you probably do want a strong track record of reliability, trust and accountability, and to be seen as an institutional body with a strong moral compass and fair values. Decolonization is hard and sacred work. Accountability taps into the sacred area of healing, taking responsibility and being in the right relationship with our surroundings. A wonderful display of accountability creates a very important cultural shift. Be responsible; everyone involved deserves this, including you and our possible future together.
Questions to Consider for the Post-October 30 Era in the Dutch Cultural Community
For those willing to truly engage in this cultural shift and utilize this movement to create a cultural community free from toxic cycles of abuse, I wonder what questions would be the most helpful to pose for moving forward. Here are some that I find important:
How do we care for victims of abuse?
What do the victims of abuse need from those in relatively privileged positions in that specific situation?
If we have a platform, what kind of voices can we highlight that would be helpful, not detrimental?
What kind of responsibility do we want to take?
How do we handle a broad scale of crisis - from severe harm to conflict? How can we create reliable methods for that purpose? How can we create organizations that don’t require us to call upon the violent state systems and punitive justice mechanisms in the face of different levels of crisis? How do we avoid serving the prison industrial complex and its justifying terminology of “crime and punishment”? How can we bring about healing and justice without locking people away, casting them out, isolating and punishing them?
Can we bring our focus on what we can learn from what we have at hand?
Why was such abuse possible for so long?
To which other systems can we trace connections?
Who are occupying the top, decision-making seats of those systems/organisations/institutions? How can they be compelled to engage in accountability and transformation?
How do we make our voices heard?
How do we demand change?
How do we create conditions under which the change for equality will be inevitable, despite the counter-efforts and manipulation to preserve the status quo?
Where do we focus our attention for decolonizing? Is it possible to be decentered but organized?
How can we contribute to shaping this focus of energy and attention towards creating something better?
Where do we put our care and attention to provide further understanding with our time, energy and efforts?
To provide further healing, further solidarity, and further fights against injustice and cycles of abuse.
For further correspondence you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
My big gratitude to Lila Bullen Smith for proofreading this essay and the valuable contribution she had on the history of witch hunts; my sister Ceren Rukel for her very valuable feedback, Angela Y. Davis for her life’s work of the critique of the punitive justice systems, adrienne maree brown for her teachings on abolition, pleasure activism and transformative justice; and Lucette ter Borg and Carola Houtekamer for the superb work of investigative journalism they performed with their article on NRC.
 Sarah Rense, “The Human Race Really Outdid Itself with Porn Searches in 2017”, Esquire, May 29, 2018, https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/sex/news/a52061/most-popular-porn-searches.