Columnist Bob van Vliet.
“Criticism is not the same as polarisation. It can even prevent it.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

In light of the idea that public discussion and public criticism belongs to public institutions, Bob van Vliet likes to take others to task. But does it help?

Lees in het Nederlands

Fellow columnist Monique van der Veen is stopping. A shame. Her articles often gave me a new view on things. In Polarisation, her farewell column, she argues for first looking at yourself in case of anger or indignation and not to take others to task publicly right away.

I often do this. I do it because I believe that there should be public debate at a public institution, and thus public criticism. But in general, it has had little effect. So why don’t I quit, too?

Writing forces you to think. It confronts you with inconsistencies in your ideas. Or when there doesn’t turn out to be much coherence to them at all. It has often happened that while I was writing a column, I realised that I don’t actually believe what I thought I believed...

The opposite has happened too. Sometimes I just start typing into the blue on a subject about which I’d like to come to a coherent opinion. With a bit of luck, things fall into place as I write, or I remember a book or article which I only then realise is relevant.

In other words, I often write to get my thoughts in order – very selfish. It is surprisingly effective to have to write 500 words every month that make some sort of sense. But it does mean that I often write under the pressure of a deadline about something that I have only just started to think about properly. This means that sometimes I don’t agree with myself anymore on the day of publication.

Sometimes I don’t agree with myself anymore on the day of publication

And of course others regularly think that I have it wrong. Once in a long while I change someone’s mind (I hope). Sometimes we continue to disagree. But with a bit of luck they are right, or they look at the subject from a perspective that I did not anticipate. Then I learn something.

Criticism is not the same as polarisation. It can even prevent it.

This only works if you actually critically engage with each other. The philosopher Agnes Callard argues that productive discussions need both sides to have the aim of either convincing the other or be convinced themselves. Yes, you need to be open to find the mistake in yourself. But there is an equal need to put your case forward as strongly as you can.

But both sides need to do this. If critics come up with substantive questions and arguments, but the more powerful side of the debate keep their cards close to the chest, things break down. See the detailed coverage by Delta about the growth plans of the Executive Board and the utter non-response to it. It’s so disheartening.

Still, I will continue to write. I want to at least force myself to put my thoughts in publishable form.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via