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What is UnDutchable?: Dutch Humor, Political Correctness, and Discursive Taboo

A Dutch man and a Moroccan man come upon a Dutch man, sitting outside a supermarket one afternoon, and beat him to death.

Well, says one bystander, “At least there’s integration.”

On October 22, 2002, in Venlo, two teenage boys—one Dutch and one Moroccan—beat a 22-year old Dutch man to death outside a supermarket after the man requested they ride their motor scooter less recklessly in the public space. Although more than ten people watched as the violence occurred, none took action to help the beaten man. 

Even as it addresses the tragedy of the murder, this joke from a performance by Dutch cabaret artist Ernst van der Pasch underscores the controversial nature of immigration and integration within modern Dutch society that might escape the press coverage of the daily newspaper. It depicts current political and social concerns by first conceding that the world is not perfect and then by using this acknowledgement of imperfection to highlight the personal biases and unspoken discrimination present within Dutch society.

As a mirror to government and society, humor shapes and is shaped by its creators, who play upon controversial social and political issues of the day. But politicians and cultural critics, who judge the permissibility and appropriateness of humor, also contribute to the presence and scope of discursive taboos. On the one hand, opinion columns, satirical television productions, and Dutch cabaret performances challenge the contemporary social and political norms through comedy or satire. On the other hand, the responses from Dutch cultural critics and Dutch politicians directly influence the legitimacy of the questioned critique and prompt further creative commentary.

Political correctness, in particular, presented specific boundaries for public discourse during the early 1990s as it sought to eliminate language and practices that might offend political sensibilities. Then, the popular support for political correctness disintegrated in what cultural critic Patrick van den Hanenberg has described as a shift in the political climate at the turn of the 21st century. As a result, the subject matter of Dutch humor transformed concurrently as critical voices responded through humor to new social and political discursive taboos. 

But how did political correctness interact with Dutch humor within the new social and political climate to determine the appropriateness or harm of a public statement? Is, as American comedian Jon Rosenfeld asserts, every topic acceptable subject matter for Dutch humor? Where does freedom of expression in humor belong within an active Dutch democracy that strives to protect its minority groups?

Constitutional and Political Tension

Article 1 of the Dutch constitution mandates that “all persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances,” that “discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race, or sex or on any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.” Article 7, in turn, guarantees individuals the freedom of expression, but—in contrast to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which explicitly guarantees the freedom of speech—the Dutch legal system does not uniformly protect spoken words as immune from official reprimand. Because the Netherlands favors the freedom of expression over the freedom of speech, humor skirts the ambiguous line between a protected challenge to authority and a punishable violation of citizens’ rights to live without discrimination. So how do the creators of political humor perceive this tension between freedom of expression and no discrimination?

In the 1960s, when Dutch youth rebelled against organized religion and against the pillarized society, the previously taboo subjects of religion and sexuality became openly questioned. Van den Hanenberg noticed a particular development in the joke content of Dutch comedians: “During the 1960s, for the first time, it was acceptable to make jokes about religion, money— or not having it— and the royal family.” Van den Hanenberg continues, “During the 1990s, political correctness became strongly established in Dutch society— especially when the Labor Party (PvdA), the Liberals (VVD), and the Liberal Democrats (D66) formed a coalition and dominated Parliamentary debates. At the same time, enormous immigration flows occurred across Europe, but many people had faith in the multicultural society and no one spoke about possibly problematic cultural differences. At this time, also, most comedians were politically correct and didn’t touch upon subjects that criticized, for instance, a multicultural society.” However, according to Van den Hanenberg, the terrorist attacks on September 11th, the fall of the Dutch government, and the death of Pim Fortuyn changed the public debate in the Netherlands. After people such as Fortuyn started to criticize Islamic culture, Van den Hanenberg says, “Religion became a sensitive issue, again.”

But how do creators of Dutch humor view their role as public commentators on Dutch society and government? How do cultural critics and politicians understand their societal function as evaluators of political humor and creators of the social norm? How does each group approach the discursive taboos of political correctness and see minority groups as a subject of humor? Where do they distinguish between freedom of expression and harm to another person within their critical message?

Dutch Cabaret: Ernst van der Pasch

With what Van den Hanenberg describes as “roots in German and French theater and ties to Dutch Calvinism,” cabaret performances in the Netherlands give their audience a distinctively Dutch perspective of society through humor. According to cabaret artist and Klokhuis presenter Ernst van der Pasch, cabaret performances “reflect a personal opinion, my view. Stage is a place where you can put your own ideas, ideas that cannot be placed anywhere else. Dutch humor is partly looking at yourself and seeing how stupid you are… It’s an internal humor.” 

Indeed, the content of Dutch cabaret agrees closely with Van der Pasch’s description of inclusiveness—inclusiveness, that is, to the white, middle-class, Dutch audience member. Rather than comment directly on minority groups in his performance, Van der Pasch prefers jokes that center on the Dutch people themselves. Unlike stand-up comedy alone, Dutch cabaret combines songs, jokes, short skits, and commentary—a variety of performance styles, not necessarily a variety of subject matters—to retain the audience’s attention: “People come to a cabaret show to escape ordinary life and to hear new ways of looking at the way we live.”

Van der Pasch maintains that “a joke is really a different way of looking at things,” one whose “sincerity of intentions” distinguishes between appropriate reflection on society and harmful commentary about a particular group of people. Moreover, Van der Pasch adds, the reception of the joke “depends on how vulnerable the audience member is… how much that person can laugh about himself or herself.” Political humor, specifically, relies upon “absurd associations with reality” as the performer alludes to recent events and draws upon a preexisting knowledge from the audience. Notably, the recent events upon which Van der Pasch’s political humor draws rarely include minority issues.

After what Van der Pasch describes as “a drought in cabaret, during which little subject material existed,” the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, and the death of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 “forced people to talk again.” But when they started to talk again, their discussions centered around mainstream society. According to Van der Pasch, Dutch people became critical of the government, the media, and society itself, yet his audience members expected cabaret performances to only cursorily address contentious issues onstage. Cabaret, even after September 11th and the death of Pim Fortuyn, steered away from minority issues within its humor and political commentary in favor of broader questions about ordinary life.

However, does the Moroccan or Cameroonian immigrant in attendance have the same luxury as the typical white, middle-class, Dutch audience member: to mentally shift among subject matters and entertainment styles so quickly and easily? Would a non-white audience member be able to so easily “escape ordinary life,” as Van der Pasch describes, through this distinctively Dutch brand of humor? 

Although cabaret tends not to discriminate against minority groups since it rarely addresses minority issues explicitly, neither does it adequately distinguish between an attitude of active tolerance and one of passive indifference. Thus, Van der Pasch himself may not directly discriminate against minority groups since he seldom includes them in his own comedic repertoire; but neither does he positively depict minorities within his routines or use the public stage to raise social awareness about minority issues. Van der Pasch shared this report’s introductory joke about integration to illustrate one of the few instances when he has addressed minorities in his act—this time, because his performance fell on the same evening as the news of the murder broke. His reluctance to name political correctness as a repressive or oppressive force impacting his humor may be both sincere and true: rather than cite political correctness as a specific influence on the creation of his jokes, his cabaret performances may instead exemplify the social force.  

Satirical Columns: Theo van Gogh

In contrast to the popular support of Dutch cabaret, Dutch movie director and satirical columnist Theo van Gogh has received heated reactions to statements in his online column ‘De Gezonde Roker’ (The Healthy Smoker) that have been perceived as racist, sexist, and xenophobic. Nonplussed, Van Gogh retorts that “the first article in the Dutch constitution should not be there at all” before arguing the futility of attempting to achieve equality. Instead, he suggests, “People should grow up and be able to criticize or make fun of each other.” To him, freedom of expression should be absolute and non-punishable, even if it hurts another person.

Continuing with his indictment of Article 1 and its supporting institutions, Van Gogh contends that the “so-called” anti-discrimination offices in the Netherlands confuse criticism and free speech with discrimination and that, rather than protect Dutch citizens, they only encourage and strengthen political correctness. Moreover, he asserts, these offices exist only to pacify the guilt the Dutch government felt after the Second World War for its treatment of the Dutch Jewry. As a result, they harrass people like him because they have “almost no work to do.” Van Gogh explains that these institutions have acted as a dominant force within Dutch society, even after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, and the rise and death of Pim Fortuyn—events he sees as forcing society to directly address questions about race, immigration, and religion. In his opinion, people may have started to discuss immigrants and Muslims more frequently, but they still repress their individual thoughts on the subject: “Maybe it is now possible to say something critical about Muslims. But to criticize homosexuals, Jews, or blacks is still out of the question.” 

For Van Gogh, a clear difference lies between verbal harm and physical harm: words don’t hurt. As Van Gogh states, “People forget freedom of expression also includes the freedom to insult people.” Although his readers may not agree with his opinions, Van Gogh’s work challenges society and prompts public discussions about sensitive issues that might otherwise remain socially taboo. At the same time, the public retains the freedom to decide whether or not to read his work and to enter into the prompted debate, since his opinion columns are limited to his personal website. Van Gogh may express a dissident voice with viewpoints he self-describes as “insulting,” but he nevertheless offers a voice that demands self-reflection from his readers upon their societal and political expectations and upon the meaning of a free and democratic society. 

Provocative Television: Paul Jan de Wint and Rob Muntz

Navigating the formal media channels visited by Van Gogh, television personalities Paul Jan de Wint and Rob Muntz have extended their critical diatribe against society and politics to the streets—literally. In 2000, Muntz dressed as Hitler and confronted young Jewish men within an orthodox-Jewish neighborhood in Vienna as De Wint videotaped the residents’ reactions. What started as a critique of Haider— the leader of the neo-Fascist party in Austria— resulted in a frenzied backlash by Dutch society against Muntz and De Wint’s actions and in the discontinuation of their series on the VPRO television network. The Dutch media conveyed with clarity that even in 2000 to joke about Hitler and to interfere with potential WWII victims remained grossly inappropriate.  

Yet such reproach from the media has not curbed De Wint and Muntz’s philosophical challenge to what they perceive as the taboo of the Holocaust. In questioning why their portrayal of Hitler constituted a worse social infraction than merely criticizing the modern neo-Fascist movement within Austria, De Wint notes, “Every generation has the right to deal with its own issues in its own way.” Even more, he feels the Dutch media hypocritically brands any challenge to societal norms as “racist”— an enduring legacy of Dutch political correctness. 

De Wint and Muntz warn that the Netherlands has become a “fake democracy,” where non-mainstream voices do not have the opportunity to express their views. Power and money have determined what groups have attained positions of authority within Dutch society and then have reinforced the resulting hierarchy by repressing dissident opinions. Although De Wint and Muntz see the world as “hopeless” and themselves as part of a “no-future generation who just lives day by day,” they continue to challenge society through their work “because people need to fight the barriers of political correctness that keep people from talking about what’s happening around them.”  

Without question, De Wint and Muntz bring a creative twist to their social and political commentary, with a clear critique of mainstream Dutch society and its economic and authoritative social arrangements and institutions. Yet, amidst their challenge to Dutch society, they implicate ordinary individuals who may not have the freedom to decide whether they want to involve themselves in De Wint and Muntz’s innovative escapades. 

Because De Wint and Muntz encroach upon the rights of other individuals to choose whether or not to engage with their work, De Wint and Muntz inappropriately violate Article 1’s anti-discrimination injunction. In contrast to Theo van Gogh— who films, writes, and airs his work within clearly defined forums that people can choose whether or not to frequent— De Wint and Muntz’s confrontation of orthodox Jews in Vienna unacceptably removes the individual’s right to choose whether or not to participate in their social critique. De Wint and Muntz may have intended their work to challenge the recent Far Right movement across Europe, but by entering the residential neighborhoods of a minority group without the consent of the inhabitants, they trespassed upon the rights of the individual to live peacefully without discrimination. 

The Politician’s Role: Ed van Thijn

Ed van Thijn, former mayor of Amsterdam and current member of the Dutch Parliament, asserts that “it’s only a small step from stereotyping to racism.” As a politician, he influenced the political response to social concerns and contributed to the legitimization of individual issues as larger societal problems. 

During his tenure as mayor, Van Thijn says that he identified himself as the opinion leader for the city, a person who instilled values in his constituency and motivated Amsterdam toward “active tolerance” through public addresses and public representation of the political administration. He explains, “As a mayor, I always tried to defend my city against racism. Amsterdam has the reputation of the city of tolerance, but that [tolerance] hasn’t always been the case in practice.” In this pursuit of active tolerance and in his fight against racism, Van Thijn admits that he received the title of “Mr. Political Correctness” for his support of political correctness ten years ago and for his work at that time to incorporate political correctness into Dutch government and society. Since then, his opinion on political correctness has changed; he now sees it as a mask for racism, which—because of the fading sense of political correctness—“has become the new taboo in Dutch society.” In his current work as professor and government official and in his views on humor, Van Thijn supports discursive speech that encourages individuals to consider their social responsibilities and that “stands for proper values, a decent society and a civilized world.”

“Punch Line”

So in this search for “a decent society and a civilized world,” when does humor encroach upon an individual’s right to live without discrimination? In a free and active democracy, where does the balance lie between freedom of expression and hurt to another person? How does political correctness ease or intensify the tension between articles 1 and 7 of the Dutch constitution?

According to Ernst van der Pasch, political correctness is a non-issue for Dutch cabaret, in which minorities are either ignored or are isolated as an exceptional addition to the content of the performance. Theo van Gogh, in contrast, asserts that political correctness remains an ominous barrier to free speech and that more citizens should actively challenge political correctness and question political and social authority. Rob Muntz and Paul Jan de Wint concur with Van Gogh that political correctness effectively dominates Dutch society and inhibits free speech, but they then extend the forum of their challenge to the everyday places of ordinary life. Finally, Ed van Thijn embraces Van der Pasch’s commitment to the motivating intentions that determine humor’s content, and he justifies the means of political correctness by the end result of an non-racist society. 

In reality, if a society prizes the protection of its minority groups, then its political authorities and ordinary citizens must balance their conscious acknowledgement of discrimination in society with proactive policies and action that encourage its irradication. Toward such a balance, the active expression of controversial opinions and the responses they engender must coexist. But although an individual must be able to access such debates, the debates themselves must not encroach upon an individual’s right to decide whether or not to participate within them. 

In an ideal society, political correctness would not be necessary since all groups would be considered equal. But in the real world discrimination does occur, and to encourage positive movement away from inequalities meaningful channels in which to voice discontent must remain accessible to all citizens. Humor— as a voice of challenge by one person to society— serves this discursive function, and political correctness— as the intention to prevent offensive language— attempts to protect listeners from harm. Yet as people challenge what subject matters humor and society address, they must also note what is absent… and why.

 

References

Interviews:

Theo van Gogh, columnist, 17/06/03.

Patrick van den Hanenberg, cultural critic at Volkskrant, 19/06/03.

Ernst van der Pasch, Dutch cabaret performer, 24/06/03.

Jon Rosenfield, American stand-up comedian at Boom Chicago, 21/06/03.

Ed van Thijn, politician, 19/06/03.

Paul Jan de Wint and Rob Muntz, television, 18/06/03.

Literature:

Coughlan, Geraldine. “Fortuyn Ghost Stalks Dutch Politics.” BBC Online News. 21 

January 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/2/hi/europe/2680881.stm.

Crespi, Irving. The Public Opinion Process: How the People Speak. Mahwah: Lawrence 

Erlbaum Associates, 1997.

Ellis, Frank. “Political Correctness and the Ideological Struggle: From Lenin and Mao to 

Marcuse and Foucault.” Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies. 27(4):409-444. Winter 2002.

Hastrup, K & Ulrich, G. Discrimination and Toleration: Toleration between 

Romanticism and Law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2002. 

Russomanno, Joseph. Speaking Our Minds: Conversations with the People Behind 

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Volkskrant. “Jonge man dood na mishandeling.” Dossier Rene’ Steegmans. 24 October 

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Zwaap, Rene’. “Hitler-Drama.” De Groene Amsterdammer. 29 March 2000. 

http://www.groene.nl/2000/13/rz_muntz.html.

 

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