#4 The Digression Potential: A Case Study
Updated: Dec 6, 2019
Mark Rutte’s Stance on Zwarte Piet
In 2014, during the nuclear security summit occurring in the Hague, Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, was unexpectedly asked to clarify his stance on the figure of Zwarte Piet and anti-racism. He proceeded by stating:
“Black Pete is black. I cannot change that because the name is Black Pete. This is an old children’s tradition, Sinterklaas and Black Pete. It is not Green Pete or Brown Pete, it is Black Pete, so I cannot change that.”
He then continued:
“My friends in the Antilleans are very happy when it is Sinterklaas because they don’t have to paint their faces. When I play Black Pete, I am for days trying to get the stuff off my face.”
As expected, these words had a wide reception in the Netherlands and abroad, in the news and online. Indeed, if the question was first asked out of nowhere, in a space in which nuclear was originally discussed, the answer given by Rutte offered an immense source of debates and tensions.
Rutte reflected on the adjective and characteristic “black” without questioning the history of Zwarte Piet. He, then, probably expected doubt from his interlocutor as he came back with a supporting claim utilizing the potential positive experience of another community, one that is particularly discriminated against by this tradition, as an argument. And, he finally did not acknowledge his privilege as a white man portraying himself as the prejudiced party because he would allegedly have to put more effort to enjoy the festivities.
Since 2014 and as the debate has been coming around annually, Rutte has adopted a subtle stance and he has chosen to remain silent about the topic this year so far. After that Kick Out Zwarte Piet (KOZP) activists have been attacked by pro-Zwarte Piet citizens, KOZP has tried to get in contact with the Prime Minister, in vain.
But, in 2019, his statements still have an impact online and participate to the debate on Zwarte Piet on Twitter.
The Everlasting Appropriation of Rutte’s Claims on Twitter
In 2019, when browsing for tweets related to the Zwarte Piet debate, the resurgence of old Rutte’s statement occurs.
His arguments are re-appropriated by pro-Zwarte Piet users. Indeed, as Rutte is seen as a figure of power, his claims are valued and can be used as effective arguments. They are associated with the idea of definite knowledge. If the Prime Minister says so, why shouldn’t you believe him? It is an authoritative argument or argument from authority – it consists of citing an authority figure to support a claim. Although it then appears compelling, it is a type of fallacy.
On the other side, Rutte’s name would occasionally appear to criticize his reasoning and question his position as a Prime Minister, a representative of the state, then.
The Digression of the Argumentation
Whether the use of Rutte’s name comes from the anti- or pro- party, it is striking how this resurgence creates a slight digression in the debate, a sub-debate. Often, the object is not Zwarte Piet himself anymore, but rather Rutte and his Prime Minister position. This creation of a sub-debate is a phenomenon that is recurring on Twitter.
On Twitter, a debate is never a straight and simple path, from a thesis or a problem to the construction of a genuine discussion on one defined topic. As the ongoing appropriation of the discourses of Rutte shows, the debate can be drawn by new paths and the creation of what we can call “sub-debates”. They are new debates that have a slightly different object of discussion. In that sense, they are digressing the main debate. But, they are valuable online as they keep the discussion going and entertaining and offer users new sets of arguments.