I guess you know that feeling when you are visiting a country for the first time and insist on taking a neutral stance about culture and habits, you know this ‘well I guess they just do things differently here’-approach. I must say that I really tried that when I traveled to Umeå (in the north of Sweden) mid-June, I really did. Discussions with people of my age and local legislation made me change my mind on that position. See, now I have got to blog about it.
I want to start off by recreating part of a discussion I had with a Swedish girl about the ban on dancing in Sweden (I am, especially considering the seriousness of all my blog posts, not making this up). Any bar, restaurant, etc. has to get a dancing license first, in order maintain the right that their customers can dance in their establishment.
“If somebody begins dancing at a place that doesn’t have a dancing licence, the landlord is obliged to immediately turn down the music and stop the dancing,” police spokesman Christer Ohlin told newspaper Södermalmsnytt.”
This is taken out of a 2007 article by The Local (Sweden’s news in English).
But back to the discussion:
Me: What’s wrong with people dancing? That doesn’t affect you, or does it?
– ‘The law is there to protect us. Drunken people might make a mess.’
Me: Getting drunk up here is quite expensive in the first place. Ok so even if they can afford it and make a mess, so what? That would be the business of the owner, not the state.
– ‘You know it may be different in your country, but here in Sweden people cannot take responsibility for themselves, that’s why we have these laws.’
I’m far from generalising in a way that I would claim that is something every Swede would say, but it astonished me to hear (especially the last sentence) so often. It’s almost like people never heard of self-reliance and freedom in their life.
When people think about Sweden they think of a free country. What they probably mean is tolerance, for example by a strong emancipation of women and a great acceptance for the LGBT community, which are clearly great things to have, but definitely do not represent the limits of how far the realm of freedom and taking your own responsibility reaches. Anything which is fun is either highly taxed and thereby hideously expensive, or completely banned. One might claim that they have an authoritarian government telling people how to live their lives, but that is only one side of the coin. On the other side we have a society which is not only advocating strong regulations – be that on social or economic subjects – but seems convinced that this is the vocation and the role of the government.
Let me introduce another example. People who know me, also know that I sometimes tend to tell offensive jokes and enjoy peoples reaction, that being my sense of humour (try it at your one risk, lost more than one Facebook friend over that one). I must say that I have never met so many people who consistently refused to find any amusement in jokes which were obviously intended to overstep the line of regular ‘making fun of blondes’-humour. Now the question of ‘Can we laugh about anything’ has often been asked, and at least from my analysis, been answered. We can laugh about anything, because we don’t hurt anyone by doing so. A joke is not advocating any sort of action, nor is it excusing it. Jokes as a part of satire often even mock certain points of view. The political correctness in Sweden emerges from the believe that offensive jokes contribute to offensive behaviour, which to me sounds like the slippery slope, and rather opens the door for discussions on freedom of expression. I will always love and repeat this quote by the representative Ron Paul about the first amendment in the US:
“We don’t have free speech so that we can talk about the weather, we have free speech so that we can say very controversial things.”
Taking part in the Umeå Youth Forum, I have experienced that for example the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (I know even the name is troubling, since rights belong to individuals, not genders, but never mind) suggested a guideline for how to deal with/oppress sexist jokes. Really? Jokes work in a way that you either find them funny or you don’t, and even having to explain that concept to people is quite silly. Again, joking is dealing with a subject in humorous way, it’s not minimising a problem or advocating an action.
The most formative experience I made in Umeå was that I told and offensive joke to a Swede who actually smirked, then proceeded to look around as to see if nobody caught him, then told me that he couldn’t find this funny. This made me think of the very accurate German expression “Schere im Kopf”, which doesn’t exist in English and basically expresses the action of self-censorship. It shows that oppressing techniques work and also exist in modern democracies: We limit what we say to what we think is acceptable for us to say. It’s like Orwell’s 1984, just that the government doesn’t play it’s role (yet).
Interestingly enough, before travelling to Sweden I posted this on Facebook
Reading it today reassures me of the dangers that this state of mind I described bears.
We all know that I could go on about patronising attitudes in Sweden, their absurdly low speed limits, their high taxes on foodstuffs, alcohol and tobacco as well as high age limits for the latter, talks about gender quotas and of course the enormous welfare state, taking away people’s responsibility over their finances. It bugs me when people don’t question the current way in which their state works, and it’s something I see in Luxembourg as well. It seems as if it has become easier for politicians today to adopt a patronising attitude than to tell people to rely on their own responsibility, and in a way that is quite comparable to Keynesian economics, since it is easier to have deficit spending then to tell people to take a step back. This phenomenon has been going on for years know, and it’s not a chain of isolated incidences, it’s the leitmotif of today’s society.
One last thing I will definitely remember about Umeå is that I did not get dark at night, probably the only thing that the government cannot regulate. I wish it could.
Naaah just kidding.
Pictures are Creative Commons.
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