Johan Derksen: tv loudmouth stretching the boundaries of free speech

[email protected] de Groot
Edition 28 December 2019, by JohannesVisser

A force of nature is whirling through Dutch media land. Like a proper media storm, whenever it passes through, solid things become unhinged, feathers are ruffled and sacred cows get slaughtered. This phenomenon goes by the name of Johan Derksen, and for his sheer unbridled power, he is equally loved and despised across the country.

Johan Derksen is a guy who likes to talk about football (soccer) with his buddies on tv. He also happens to be the founder, former producer and chief editor of Holland’s largest sporting magazine, Voetbal International. Together with his neutrally-sounding sidekicks Wilfred Genee, who presents their show Veronica Inside (formerly Voetbal Inside), and ex-football player René van der Gijp, he talks about football and anything related to football. Which means everything, including things unrelated to football. The show is a huge success in the country because it is unscripted and authentic. Derksen has a deep knowledge of what is going on in the world of soccer, but mostly he is loved (and hated) for continuously firing off his coarse and crass opinions about other people and situations, which seems to automatically trigger people’s funny bones. He is like the eloquent uncle Bob at the family party who always has his foot in his mouth but nobody really takes too seriously. The difference with uncle Bob is that Derksen has got a big national television platform and not everyone is quite so charmed with his nuance-free attitude.

#SorryJohan

The latest controversy surrounding Derksen, which also got the Dutch Minister of Emancipation involved, was about his comment on gays in football. In his tv program, Derksen lambasted a petition that was sent to the Dutch football association KNVB with the request to make Dutch football stadiums more gay-friendly. According to the football commentator, the petition was drawn up by ‘two hysterical young queers.’ “They should really toughen up,” he said. “We have to stop pretending that it is so horrible to come out of the closet. If you have any character at all, just come out.” In the firestorm that ensued, hundreds of gays and lesbians shared their painful coming-out stories on Twitter with the hashtag #SorryJohan, which immediately became trending. Examples include: “Sorry Johan for not sharing my secret for seven years, because I was afraid I would lose everything. Sorry Johan for being afraid that people would beat me up if they found out about my secret. Sorry Johan that I got kicked off my bike once for ‘cycling gay’.”

Just as the #MeToo movement was born out of the pain of many women, the #SorryJohan wave rose from a deeply shared pain felt by a large group of people who had struggled to make their sexual orientation known. The person who started the #SorryJohan hashtag, Nathalie Kamp, said she became incensed with Derksen’s comments. “It’s totally uncalled for. Why would you stay in the closet for twenty years if it were so easy to come out? As a kid I played football for a long time. I love the sport, but I never really felt safe. I always had something to hide.” Kamp says #SorryJohan was meant as an ironic reply to Derksen, to offer her excuses in a cynical way for the kind of evasive behavior that the football commentator seemed to condemn. She shared her experiences on Twitter, how she was called names as a child, how she was isolated and got kicked by the boys in her own team. “At 14, the joking about ugly dirty football dykes started. So I got the message: it’s better not to be gay.”

Weep stories

And so, for the umpteenth time, Derksen’s comments became a national topic of debate. In a recent poll, 58 percent of the population said they found them offensive. Seven out of ten people agree that LHBT individuals are sometimes hurt by jokes, comments or name-calling related to their sexuality. More than two thirds of respondents say it’s unacceptable that ‘gay’ is used as an abuse word; more so women (87%) than men (66%). Johan Derksen himself responded to all the controversy in his quintessentially Johan Derksen way, shrugging off the Twitter posts as ‘cry stories’. He did acknowledge that it can be a struggle for gays to come out, and said it was a sad thing that parents may react negatively to their child coming out. “As a parent, you have only one goal: a happy child. It’s better to have a happy, openly gay child than one who is unhappy and hiding himself. In my family this would never have been an issue.” And to those not ready to come out yet, he had another message: “Man up, just come out. If you don’t, you are only denying yourself. And if your friends drop you because of who you are, well then, they’re not really your friends.” Derksen insisted that he has no problems with gay people, categorizing his jokes as ‘football canteen humor’: “I am many things, but not homophobic.”

Politics

And then politics got involved. Parties like PvdA, D66 and CDA expressed dismay at Derksen’s comments, and deputy Prime Minister Hugo Mattheüs de Jonge called them rude. The Minister of Emancipation, Ingrid van Engelshoven, said that it’s ‘painful to see how carelessly Johan Derksen is making his offensive statements’. “These kinds of comments, which have visibly hurt many people, should not go unchallenged”, Van Engelshoven said. “As the Minister of Emancipation, I do not just want to stand behind these hurt people, but also alongside them.” According to Minister Van Engelshoven, Derksen is wrong to assume that homosexuality is accepted in Dutch football. The law requires equal treatment for people of all sexual orientations, “but we also see that many still find it difficult to accept that love between two men or two women is just as beautiful as love between a man and a woman. We cannot pretend that it’s easy to some out.” Van Engelshoven invited Derksen for a meeting in order to discuss these issues. In response, the rowdy football commentator invited her to come to his show to talk about the controversy, which she declined as she considered it not to be ‘the right setting for a nuanced conversation’.

Questionable taste

Bowin Jong, one of the two people who drafted the petition against homophobia in stadiums and football fields, said that he was saddened by the whole affair. Although he thinks that Derksen supports his message to the KNVB, Jong says that the football commentator does not realize that his comments are fueling homophobia on social media. He says he himself has received several online threats. In response, Derksen did acknowledge during a Veronica Inside broadcast that homophobia is indeed a problem in the Netherlands, where football hooligans are slinging around the most horrible expletives during games. But according to the televised loosemouth, this does not take away his freedom to make jokes about anything, even if they are of questionable taste. Derksen: “So now we can’t make jokes about gays anymore? I think it is pernicious if someone offends others from the anonymity of the stands, but not if it’s done in a humorous and non-malicious way; surely, gay people should be able to handle a joke or two.”

Clash of values

The whole episode, although it may appear insignificant to outsiders, is another chapter in a kind of national debate about ‘verhuftering’ (bastardization) versus ‘vertrutting’ (whimping) in Dutch society. It is a debate about nothing less than the soul of the country. On the one hand there are those who rationalize that freedom is our highest good, that it includes our right to say just about anything we want, even if it hurts others. Any attempt to bring norms and values to this debate is seen as ‘imposing political correctness’, leading to a soft and weak discourse.

On the other side there are those that observe a general trend of a hardening society, where boundaries of what is considered normal and desirable are continuously being stretched. Freedom of speech has turned into an inalienable right to insult others to the detriment of a healthy and respectful societal fabric. And so Johan Derksen with his foot-in-mouth and nuance- free tv is considered a hero to some and a devil to others. It is a debate that will continue to rage for the foreseeable future, and to which the ‘funny’ football loudmouth will undoubtedly continue to contribute in his very own way.