Elk jaar organiseert het Barlaeusgymnasium een debatwedstrijd, het Barlaeus Youth Parliament. BYP is de schoolvariant van het European Youth Parliament waaraan de school al sinds jaar en dag met veel succes deelneemt. Tijdens BYP bivakkeren 64 leerlingen uit klas 4 een weekend lang op school om zich in te lezen in een onderwerp, stellingen te schrijven en uiteindelijk met elkaar op het scherpst van de snede te debatteren in het Engels. Maar BYP is meer dan een debatwedstrijd; elk jaar zijn er tientallen oud-leerlingen bij betrokken die elkaar in dat weekend weer terugzien en die een onmisbare schakel zijn in het succes van het evenement. Ik mag als rector de debatten altijd openen. Op zondagochtend klokslag 9 uur geef ik het startschot. In het Engels natuurlijk. Twee jaar geleden deed ik dat zo. 

Dear Barlaeans,

Let me start by expressing my profound gratitude for the invitation to open the Barlaeus Youth Parliament 2016, even at this early – I might perhaps even say, ungodly – hour! Today your general assembly will debate about a number of resolutions in which you request, urge or encourage the European Commission, member States of the EU or European companies to establish a European Climate Adaption Fund, to introduce a quota-trading mechanism for refugees and to improve factory and living standards in sweatshops, to mention just a few of the wide range of topics which you will be discussing.

Today, unfortunately, is also the first day that an airplane again leaves Zaventem airport, almost two weeks after the terrible terrorist attacks in Brussels. One of these planes will take passengers form Brussels to Athens, Greece. I thought it might be fitting to open this edition of the BYP by taking you from Athens to Brussels, from the cradle of democracy to the office buildings of the European Union.

But let me start on a personal note: when I was 21, I wrote a column entitled “A green Leviathan” in the student magazine of which I was editor at the time. The title of the piece referred to the famous book by the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in which he defended the absolute monarchy of his days. I used his theory to defend the institution of an international organisation with absolute powers to implement the necessary measures to prevent environmental disaster. It was 1990, I was young and the piece was written in black and white. In the next issue of the magazine, I was rightly castigated by a fellow student and a researcher, the one arguing that my reasoning was deeply flawed and inconsistent, the other that I should at least allow citizens the right to collectively choose their own extinction. I had to think about this youthful indiscretion when I was preparing for today: not so much because of the topic under discussion, but because it illustrates a very understandable – all too human – desire for simple solutions. For me, it was a quick fix for our environment, written in black and white. But democracy at its best is grey, and I would like to invite you to make #daretobegrey the hashtag of today. Let me explain.

And let’s take off from Athens. Thé founding statement on political democracy is probably the funeral speech that the Greek statesman Pericles held when he mourned the soldiers who had died in the war of Athens against the Spartans. In the funeral speech, he famously describes what made Athens a democracy:

“Our form of government” he said, “is called a democracy because its administration is in the hands, not of a few, but of the whole people. (…) Election to public office is made on the basis of ability, not on the basis of membership to a particular class.” But, democracy for Pericles was not only a form of government, it was also – and more importantly – a way of life. “[N]ot only in our public life are we free and open” said Pericles, “but a sense of freedom also regulates our day-to-day life with each other. We do not flare up in anger at our neighbour if he does what he likes. And we do not show the kind of silent disapproval that causes pain in others, even though it is not a direct accusation. In our private affairs, then, we are tolerant and avoid giving offense.”

The most disturbing feature of recent political debate for me is the fact that it is exactly this way of life that is under fire. Political parties and religious fanatics are increasingly extreme in their opinions. Black-and-white is no longer the language of youthful indiscretion, but has more and more become the new political standard. The European Union is one of the most conspicuous victims of this development. The EU has often been seen by its critics as the embodiment of the failure of our democracy. It is by them regarded as the pinnacle of bureaucracy, symbolised best maybe by the large glass office buildings in which the European Union resides in Brussels. But most of all – the European Union is grey: there are no easy solutions in Brussels, a depressing number of rules and regulations and even more civil servants. I would think that grey needs a revaluation.

21 students of the University of Utrecht started the initiative #daretobegrey on the 25th of March. They are worried about the increased extremism in public debate and invite all of us to take a stance against black-and-white thinking and to promote grey. Not grey as in mediocrity, but grey as a sign of humanity, grey as in “one question means more, than ten opinions”. I am convinced that an open and inclusive society in which grey trumps black-and-white remains the best defence against bigotry and fanaticism.

Now, you might think: you were 21 and black-and-white, why would we be grey at our age? First, at your age there’s nothing really wrong with black-and–white. But, I have high hopes for you. The researcher who responded in grey to my black-and-white column was an old Barlaean and has since become professor of history. It might just be that a Barlaean education inoculates against black-and-white thinking. For today I invite and challenge you to #daretobegrey. Thank you and enjoy!

Alwin Hietbrink


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