Welcome

I’m a lecturer at Utrecht University trying to figure out the meaning of language, and the meaning of life in my spare time. I recently defended my PhD thesis which you can find here. You can find out more about my research projects and other interests under the ‘Research’ tab above. This page also contains a list of papers and publications.

Apart from this, I sporadically blog about things that interest/move/amuse/anger me – including but not limited to social justice, food, art, feminism, religion and my latest unfinished sewing projects.

Teaching:

  • Methods in AI Research 2015/2016 (with Brigitta Keij and many others)

Past teaching:

  • Semantics and Pragmatics: variation and interpretation (with Rick Nouwen)
  • Inleiding Taalkunde 2014/2015 (with Rick Nouwen and Michael Moortgat)
  • Semantiek 2013/2014 (with Alexis Dimitriadis, Assaf Toledo & Yoad Winter) – course website
  • Inleiding Taalkunde 2012/2013 (with Marieke Schouwstra & many others) – course website
  • Foundations of Semantics and Pragmatics 2012/2013 (with Yoad Winter and Assaf Toledo) – course website
  • Semantiek 2012/2013 (with Yoad Winter and Assaf Toledo) – course website
  • Inleiding Taalkunde 2011/2012 (with Rick Nouwen)
  • Semantiek 2011/2012 (with Yoad Winter)
  • Inleiding Taalkunde 2010/2011 (with Anna Chernilovskaya and Yoad Winter)

Other/overig:
I’m an editor of Radix, a Dutch academic journal exploring issues at the crossroads of academia, society and religion. Publiceren in Radix? Neem contact op!

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Semantisch intermezzo 2: Compositionaliteit en verschillen tussen talen

(Tevens een (niet-noodzakelijke) inleiding op de volgende onderzoeksupdate: “Het Nederlands heeft meer gemeen met het Catalaans, Noors en Grieks dan je zou denken”.)

Eén van de vragen die mij voortdurend gesteld worden door mensen die horen wat ik doe voor de kost (naast ‘hoeveel talen spreek je?’) is ‘welke taal bestudeer je dan?’ Meestal beweer ik dan dat het gereken aan betekenis dat ik probeer te modelleren universeel en taaloverstijgend is – betekenis is tenslotte universeel en taaloverstijgend – maar dat ik, omdat ik toch ergens moet beginnen, op basis van vooral het Nederlands en Engels (niet geheel toevallig precies de talen die ik zelf spreek) inzicht in die rekenprocessen probeer te krijgen.

Nu is dat geen onzin, maar de implicatie dat individuele talen alleen maar relevant zijn voor de semantiek omdat betekenis tenslotte een drager nodig heeft – ongeveer zoals een ziekte niet als object op zich te bestuderen valt maar alleen via een patiënt – klopt niet helemaal. De belangrijkste reden hiervoor ligt besloten in het door semantici gekoesterde principe van compositionaliteit. Compositionaliteit betekent dat de betekenis van een taaluiting (een zinsdeel of een zin) op een systematische manier afhangt van (1) de betekenis van de individuele bouwstenen ervan (woorden of morfemen) en (2) de manier waarop de grammatica deze bouwstenen aan elkaar plakt. Neem de zin Piet kust Jan, die betekent dat er een kus-relatie bestaat tussen twee specifieke individuen (Piet en Jan), waarbij Piet de kusser is en Jan de gekuste. Om te kunnen beoordelen of deze zin waar is moeten we weten wat de individuele woorden in deze zin betekenen: we moeten weten wie Jan en Piet zijn en wat kussen is. Maar we moeten ook kennis hebben van de grammatica van het Nederlands, die ons vertelt dat in een simpele stellende zin het werkwoord en lijdend voorwerp volgen op het onderwerp; hierdoor weten we dat het Piet is die Jan kust en niet andersom.

Nu verschillen talen nogal in hun grammatica’s. De basisvolgorde van onderwerp, lijdend voorwerp en werkwoord loopt uiteen. Sommige talen hebben lidwoorden (zoals het Nederlands), andere niet (zoals het Pools). Het Nederlands en Engels hebben allebei lidwoorden, maar in het Nederlands moet je zeggen Anna is chirurg en in het Engels Anna is a surgeon. Het Brits Engels staat enkelvoudige groepswoorden toe met een meervoudig werkwoord (my family are tall), het Amerikaans Engels en Nederlands niet. Talen als het Afrikaans maken helemaal geen onderscheid tussen enkelvoudige en meervoudige werkwoorden. Kortom, talen verschillen niet alleen in de betekenisbouwstenen die ze ter beschikking hebben (wel of geen lidwoorden, bijvoorbeeld), maar ook in de grammaticale regels die bepalen hoe ze uit die bouwstenen langere zinnen kunnen vormen.

Het verenigen van deze observatie met de theoretisch goed te onderbouwen aannames dat (1) de betekenissen die talen kunnen uitdrukken universeel zijn en (2) het ‘berekenen’ van deze betekenissen hand in hand gaat met de opbouw van een zin door de grammatica (compositionaliteit), is dus een niet-triviale puzzel die invloed heeft op onze semantische theorie als geheel. Als een zinsbetekenis op een voorspelbare manier volgt uit een reeks woordbetekenissen plus de grammaticale structuur van de zin – allebei dingen die van taal tot taal verschillen – hoe kunnen zinsbetekenissen, en de combinatorische principes van de semantiek, dan universeel zijn? In hoeverre is het idee van een universele ‘logica’ achter de taal, die ervoor zorgt dat taal betekenis heeft en kan functioneren als uitdrukkingsvorm van het menselijk denken en redeneren, überhaupt houdbaar? Moeten we het principe van compositionaliteit afschaffen (of afzwakken)? Heeft een zin misschien bouwstenen die niet corresponderen met hoorbare woorden, maar wel degelijk bijdragen aan het geheel?

Laten we één zo’n compositionaliteitspuzzel (en een paar mogelijke oplossingen) in wat meer detail bekijken, aan de hand van de zin “Anna is chirurg” (en z’n Engelse equivalent “Anna is a surgeon”).

Continue reading

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A cover story

IMG_2392Our mini-family moved to Arnhem recently, a lovely city near the German border some of whose highlights include the river Rhine, a beautiful zoo and a very well-dressed populace (owing to the presence of one of the country’s biggest art academies). It also happens to be the hometown of a lady named Margriet Smits, who made the collage that’s on the cover of my dissertation – meaning I found a small print version of the collage in a diary published by a local community arts centre (which, in turn, I surreptitiously fished out of someone’s recycling bin a couple of years ago because it looked colourful and unused and might be turned into origami paper, or envelopes, or greeting cards, or other crafty objects I never actually get around to making) and asked them for permission to reprint, because sadly I never managed to track down Margriet herself.

I had Googled her, of course. Googling Margriet every once in a while even became a small hobby of mine, considering the absolute gems that would turn up – even if only half of the results were about her rather than about someone else with the same name, Margriet was clearly one badass (and considerably eccentric) lady, one who hugs trees and dances in leaves (“No, I don’t talk to the trees, we prefer to communicate in silence”), chases off burglars (with a metal rod intended for age-proofing her shower!), does not hesitate to perform mouth-to-beak resuscitation in an attempt to save a dying goose, and recently collected 80,000 bottle caps for charity.

The more I learned about Margriet, the more I wanted her to know about the book on formal semantics that had her art on it. (Well, part of me wanted to. The other part recalled the burglars and the metal rod and wondered whether she would have given her permission, had I managed to track her down.) In the end, I decided I’d just honour her with a blog post – it would make a good story, what with the art found in the trash and the goose CPR.

I wrote a draft for the blog post (roughly, the part you just read).

But as it turned out, the story wasn’t over yet. Last weekend, our local park hosted a small summer festival, which I wouldn’t even have known about had I not leafed, in a moment of boredom, through the neighbourhood newspaper that I’d just found on our doormat. It sounded fun, so I made a mental note of it, which – another unusual coincidence – I actually remembered two weeks later on the festival Sunday itself. Since I had to take Roanne out for a walk anyway, we went to the park to have a look at the festivities. There was a multicultural crowd of mostly thirty- and forty-somethings and small children with painted faces, there were info stands about urban farming initiatives, coffee and pancakes being served from converted Volkswagen vans, a Bollywood dance workshop, and a famous gypsy orchestra. Dancing with great theatrical abandon to the latter’s music was an old lady wearing shapeless fuchsia-red pyjamas to which she had pinned a huge and rather ugly paper butterfly and several paper flowers. She looked vaguely familiar.

I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, breathlessly, “Excuse me, I have a very strange question. Are you Margriet Smits?” I imagine being asked this question by excitedly stuttering strangers must be a regular occurrence for the butterfly lady, since she didn’t bat an eyelash. She was, indeed, a Margriet Smits, and moreover (after some more excited stuttering which included me sort of physically mimicking the cover collage above since I was having somewhat more trouble than usual finding words and turning them into sentences) I managed to confirm that she was the Margriet Smits, the artist of my dissertation’s cover illustration. (Let me stress again that all this took place within three weeks of moving into a new city with 150,000 inhabitants.)

Fortunately, the amazing goose-resuscitating, burglar-beating, tree-hugging, bottle-cap-collecting lady was honoured rather than upset that I’d used her collage without her permission (I even had to recount the entire story again to a homeless-looking friend of hers who lent us his pen so Margriet could write down her address for me, which was slightly awkward because he didn’t seem very interested and kept looking the other way while Margriet admonished him to keep listening and me to keep talking, but fortunately I was still feeling so giddy about the coincidental meeting that I could’ve happily repeated my story to a lamppost.)

So I sent her a copy of my dissertation yesterday, which I hope she’ll like. I’m honoured to have met her and get her post hoc permission for using her art. And I’m thankful for the irrationality of human nature that urges us to attribute meaning to coincidences and derive a giddy joy from randomness, as if there’s no such thing as chance, as if these moments are really gifts, put together with great care and purpose just for us, with a great paper butterfly on top.

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Friday, March 13th: defense & workshop

No matter how superstitious you might be, this programme surely contains enough reasons to get out of bed this Friday the 13th anyway!

Workshop on the occasion of Hanna’s defense

Date & time: March 13th, 2015, 9:00-12:30
Location: Kromme Nieuwegracht 80, room 1.06 (Ravesteijnzaal)

Programme:

9:00-9:15 coffee/tea
9:15-9:30 opening (Yoad Winter)
9:30-10:10 Thomas Ede Zimmermann (Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main): Fregean varieties of compositionality
10:10-10:50 Bart Geurts (Radboud University Nijmegen): Pragmatics and processing
10:50-11:10 coffee/tea
11:10-11:50 Jakub Dotlacil (Groningen University): Processing pluralities: syntax and the lexicon
11:50 -12:30 Hanna de Vries (Utrecht University): Animacy and semantic number: three case studies

Abstracts: (below the cut) Continue reading

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The semantics of group nouns, part 2: British English

…in which I try to convince you that I was actually wrong in convincing you that groups are atomic. Yeah, sorry about that.

When I first conceived the idea of writing about my research in a way understandable to non-semanticists, I imagined I’d write an attractive new update every two months or so, sharing all my interesting recent ideas in fascinating ways and making everyone who read it wish they had my job. Then reality happened, in which very few of my interesting ideas still make sense after a month or so, and I’m usually too lazy to write blog posts about them anyway (I already wrote a book about them, which was exhausting enough as it is).

But with said book as good as finished, and some extra time for frivolities on the side due to several well-timed weeks of maternity leave (which I have mostly been spending on the couch, tied down by little Roanne’s completely unpredictable feeding and crying schedules), I can finally give you the promised update on British English. Enjoy!

In Part 1 of this post, I pointed out that the two sentences in (1) and (2) have different meanings in spite of appearing very similar:

  1. The linguists are walking or cycling.
  2. The group (of linguists) is walking or cycling.

Imagine a situation in which half of the linguists are walking while the other half are cycling. Most speakers of English would say that sentence (1) is true in this situation, but sentence (2) is false: sentence (2) is only true if either all the linguists in the group are walking, or they are all cycling. I explained this by claiming that the group of linguists refers to an atomic entity, which means that the formal semantics cannot access the ‘parts’ of the group when calculating a meaning for (2); as a consequence, anything that the sentence says about the group of linguists must be true of the entire group. In (1), on the other hand, the plural the linguists refers to a set of entities. A set has parts that are accessible to our formal interpretation mechanisms, which means that it can be ‘taken apart’ by a semantic mechanism known as quantification in order to say something about the individual members of the set – namely, that each of them is walking or cycling.

So, the contrast between (1) and (2) confirms that plurals like the linguists and groups like the group of linguists refer to a different kind of semantic object, despite being intuitively quite similar in meaning. But does it really? One might point out that the grammatical number of the subject is not the only variable distinguishing (1) from (2): another difference is the fact that the predicate is plural in (1), but singular in (2). Could it be possible that it is this distinction, rather than the plural/group contrast, that is actually responsible for the meaning difference?

This may seem like a question that is impossible to answer, because English usually requires the subject and the verb to agree in grammatical number, which makes it hard to look at the role of subject number and predicate number separately. Fortunately, there is an exception to this: in British English, singular human group NPs like the group of linguists are allowed to appear with a plural predicate, as in (3):

  1. The group of linguists are walking or cycling.

And sure enough, once you replace the singular verb with a plural verb in this way, the sentence becomes identical in meaning to the one in (1) (I checked this with a whole bunch of British English speakers). In other words, if the verb is singular, the group subject is treated as a single atomic entity, but if the verb is plural, that same subject is treated as if it were a ‘real’ plural, referring to a set of entities.

So, what does a noun phrase like the group of linguists (or the team, the class, the choir, my family, etc) refer to? When the same expression can have different interpretations depending on the formal context (I am not talking about words with different meanings – for example, the word nail as used by either a carpenter or a manicurist, which are essentially just two different words that happen to sound the same – but about the same word playing different ‘mathematical roles’ in the derivation of the meaning of the sentence as a whole. In part 1 of this post, for example, I mentioned the fact that the adjective huge can be applied to a person (as in “John is huge”), but it can also combine with a noun like idiot to form the meaning ‘someone with a huge degree of idiocy’. It’s clearly the same word, but with different semantic functions depending on the words that surround it.), semanticists like to treat one of these meanings as ‘basic’, and the other(s) as ‘derived’. If we follow this line of thinking, we could either say that the atomic interpretation of group NPs is basic and the set interpretation is derived (in other words, group NPs refer to atomic entities by default unless something in the context actively turns them into set-referring expressions), or, conversely, that the set interpretation is basic and the atomic interpretation derived. Concretely:

  1. Possibility 1: a group NP refers to an atomic entity, but if it appears with a plural verb, this atom is ‘broken up’ into a set of entities.
  2. Possibility 2: a group NP refers to a set of entities, but if it appears with a singular verb, this set is ‘fused’ into an atom.

In my dissertation, I take the second approach, because I think it is much prettier (my supervisor won’t allow me to use those words in my academic writing, but fortunately this is my personal blog where I’m completely free to rank formal theories according to their prettiness). One reason for this is that the story above does not apply to all collective expressions in British English, but only to those that refer to human (or at least animate) groups. Inanimate collectives like the stack of plates or the list cannot appear with a plural predicate and only ever receive an atomic interpretation. Possibility 2 provides us with an easy way to implement this difference: we simply treat inanimates like stack or list on a par with ordinary entity-referring nouns like cat or table – in other words, by treating them as a different kind of set-theoretical object than animate set-referring nouns like family or team. Because our semantic toolbox, under Possibility 2, lacks the ability to break up atomic entities, stack and list and cat can only refer to atoms and are not expected to trigger plural agreement. On the other hand, Possibility 1 offers us no simple way to distinguish inanimate from animate collectives, since they all refer to the same kind of set-theoretical object (an atomic entity). In order to guarantee formally that the latter can occur with a plural predicate and be interpreted as a set while the former cannot, we would have to build an entire new formal layer on top of our set-theoretical system, where animacy is somehow formally coded in such a way that it determines which atoms can be broken up into sets and which cannot. This is not impossible, of course, but it would require a lot of extra work that is not needed if we adopt Possibility 2.

So we end up with a formal theory according to which animate group NPs (like my family) are analysed as sets, while inanimate group NPs (like the stack of plates) are analysed as atoms. Of course, now we want to know why animacy seems to correlate so neatly with an NP’s ability to refer to a set and to occur with a plural VP. If all goes according to plan, I will address this question in the third and final research update!

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LUSH / Amsterdam Colloquium

Below you will find (1) the slides for my recent LUSH talk in Leiden, and (2) slides and extended abstract for my presentation at last month’s Amsterdam Colloquium. (I decided, probably unwisely, to keep my AmCol presentation sober and professional, instead of recycling some of the much more entertaining illustrated slides I created for my colleagues a while before.)

kate and william

William’s terminology is a bit sloppy – he means to say either “group nouns range over sets” or “group NPs denote sets”.

– “Number in morphosyntax and semantics: the case of British English group nouns”. Leiden Utrecht Semantics Happenings (LUSH), Leiden University, November 20, 2013. [slides]  

– “Distributivity and agreement: new evidence for groups as sets”. Amsterdam Colloquium, University of Amsterdam, December 18-20, 2013. [slides] [pre-proceedings]

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I want a more fair and sustainable academia.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been weirdly fixated on what I’d consider my inevitable future career as An Academic. Somehow, I had picked up on the notion of doctorates, and decided I wanted one – preferably doing something involving animals and Amazon expeditions and the occasional shiny laboratory, but the specific field wasn’t the most important thing, The Title was. I imagined it would turn me into someone who was Officially Brilliant, someone who could then go on to spend a lifetime thinking for a living, a prospect that greatly appealed to me.

My other childhood ambition was to save the world. This was not, in theory, incompatible with my scientific dreams – at least not until my third year at university, when I decided to drop my major in psychology and cultural anthropology and become a linguist. Gone was every opportunity to spend my professional future saving the earth or fixing humankind. I’ve seen my future, and it involves lots of lambdas and semilattices.

Those of you who know me personally know that this has been kind of a struggle for me. I still want to save the world. I want it to be fair and sustainable and full of people whose human rights are being respected. And I kind of want to contribute more to that world than just my puny habits of buying fairtrade coffee and going to conferences by train rather than plane.

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether I, together with anyone who reads this and is interested, could somehow start with academia – after all, this is our world and it’s full of people routinely flying halfway across the world to deliver a single talk, conferences providing unlimited water in plastic bottles & no recycling bins, and huge piles of handouts being printed that no one even looks at. It’s also full of huge egos and people with burnouts and gender biases and commercial publishers with ridiculous profit margins. It’s inspired articles like this and resignation letters like this and scandals like this.

But I don’t really know what to do, let alone how to do it. An online platform where everyone can share their tips and ideas of making academia a better place? Practical guidelines on how to make your conference more sustainable? A kind of pledge for the young and unspoiled to sign in which they promise to stay nice, humble, open-minded servants of Scientific Truth? :)

One thing I do know is that there’s strength in numbers – because some of these fair and sustainable choices involve deliberately not going along with the way things currently are, which might well hurt your career in small but unaffordable ways (these are hard times, and every publication and conference appearance counts). If I decide to take at most one intercontinental trip a year, or only submit articles to less widely known Open Access journals, or become that annoying person who brings up gender imbalances, child care and fair trade coffee at every workshop I organise, fewer people will hear about my work (and like me as a person). But if there’s enough of us, and we manage to turn this stuff into the norm for a new generation of academics, then maybe we can make the world a better place without having to sacrifice our career.

So – do you self-identify as an academic (in any field) and does this post resonate with you? Please let me know and we might think about this stuff together, because I can’t do this on my own. And if you have any other ideas or comments, I’d love to hear them!

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Mijn mening over Zwarte Piet is niet zo belangrijk

Als je het per se wil weten: ik denk dat Zwarte Piet, hoe onhandig we hem ook proberen te ontdoen van alle sporen van het Nederlandse slavernijverleden, te onlosmakelijk verbonden is aan zijn wortels als racistische karikatuur om ooit iets anders te kunnen zijn dan dat. En ook: ik ben dol op Zwarte Piet. Sinterklaas zonder Piet, dat kan gewoon niet – dat voel ik gewoon in mijn blanke, Hollandse onderbuik.

Maar dat maakt allemaal niet zoveel uit, want mijn mening over Zwarte Piet is helemaal niet zo belangrijk. Er is maar één bevolkingsgroep die kan beoordelen of Zwarte Piet racistisch en kwetsend is, en dat is de groep die er al dan niet door gekwetst wordt. En daar hoor ik niet bij, dus wordt het tijd om mijn mond te houden en te luisteren naar de mensen die er wél verstand van hebben.

Iets waarvan ik wel met tamelijk veel zekerheid durf te zeggen dat het racistisch is: dit hele debat, of althans de manier waarop het gevoerd wordt door de pro-Pieten-kant. Je zou er zo een bingospelletje van kunnen maken (dankjewel, Google). “Jullie interpretatie van Piet is verkeerd/ongeldig/getuigt van een gebrek aan historisch besef”? Check. “Stel je niet aan, azijnpissers”? Check. “Ik ken ook Surinamers die zich niet gekwetst voelen door Zwarte Piet”? Check. “De slavernij is eeuwen geleden, get over it“? Check. “Jullie zijn de racisten, met jullie gefocus op de huidskleur van Piet”? Check. Ik kan nog wel even doorgaan.

Een bekentenis: ik was net zo. Ik heb louter positieve ervaringen met Zwarte Piet, want ik hou nu eenmaal van snoep en cadeautjes en gedichten en heb het geluk in een maatschappij te leven waarin mijn huidskleur op geen enkele manier een issue is. Het is helemaal niet zo raar dat ik daarom lang geloofd heb dat iedereen dus blij zou moeten worden van Zwarte Piet, of dat huidskleur in het algemeen op geen enkele manier een issue is in Nederland. Elke blijk van het tegendeel vatte ik welhaast persoonlijk op, als een gemene poging om mij mijn blije geluksbubbel te ontnemen. Geen wonder dat ik daar een beetje geïrriteerd en defensief van werd. Geen wonder ook dat een groot deel van Nederland daar een beetje geïrriteerd en defensief van wordt.

Alleen: blijven hangen in die geïrriteerde, defensieve fase is niet zo volwassen. Volwassen is het om te beseffen dat je niet het middelpunt van het universum bent, dat jouw perspectief niet het enige is, en dat andere mensen ervaringen kunnen hebben die volledig anders zijn dan die van jou en tóch niet minder waar of geldig zijn. Pas als we de ander verwelkomen als gelijkwaardige gesprekspartner en zijn emoties en ervaringen niet bij voorbaat van tafel vegen omdat ze anders zijn dan die van ons, dan pas kunnen we het gesprek op een constructieve manier aangaan.

In de Volkskrant van afgelopen zaterdag schrijft Robert Vuijsje hoe hij zijn Surinaamse vrouw en een klasgenootje van vroeger eens vroeg hoe ze als kind eigenlijk het Sinterklaasfeest hadden ervaren. Zijn vrouw vond het feest “ongemakkelijk, pijnlijk en verwarrend”. De vriend, destijds de enige zwarte leerling in een verder volledig blanke klas, had elk jaar weer dezelfde eenzaamheid gevoeld.

Dat is problematisch. Ongeacht wie er ‘gelijk’ heeft en ongeacht je perspectief op de historische ontwikkeling van Zwarte Piet: elk jaar weer zit een hele groep kinderen zich dus verward en eenzaam te voelen tussen hun zich van geen kwaad bewuste blanke leeftijdsgenootjes. Wie dat a priori niet interessant vindt, wie zijn eigen recht om zich van geen kwaad bewust te zijn belangrijker vindt dan de gevoelens van anderen, wie überhaupt weigert te luisteren naar de gevoelens van anderen en ze bij voorbaat wegwimpelt als irrelevante aanstelleritis, wie agressief en belerend reageert op de pijn van een medemens, die mag gewoon niet beweren dat het met de rassenverhoudingen in Nederland wel snor zit.

Maar toch. Ik ben dol op Zwarte Piet, en zo’n legertje bontgeschminkte Kleurenpieten is toch een beetje een surrogaat. Dacht ik. Ik heb even wat plaatjes gegoogled en werd er eigenlijk best vrolijk van. Wat mij betreft voeren we ze in. Maar zelfs als we besluiten dat niet te doen en Piet ‘gewoon’ zwart te laten – laat dat dan tenminste een collectief besluit zijn, waarbij iedereen gehoord en serieus genomen wordt. Laat er alsjeblieft niemand eenzaam, verward en gekwetst in een hoek hoeven te zitten terwijl de rest pepernoten vreet en zich op de borst klopt dat ze in deze Belangrijke Principekwestie gelukkig geen Duimbreed Geweken zijn.

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