What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?
I have always been fascinated by national taboos, those things people do not talk about. Personally I don’t think taboos are static or permanent, I think that they eventually come up to the surface, to the forefront of the social debate. It is by facing and eliminating taboos that society moves forward. But it is not an easy or given process. Sometimes taboos represent a shameful or guilt-ridden past, and we find ourselves collectively trying to suppress it, and maybe compensate for it.
As a second generation immigrant I have always been curious about ethnic Swedish people’s perception of themselves and their history. Sweden has been incredibly successful in building up a society that prides itself on its openness, transparency and tolerance. Sweden is well regarded internationally as a beacon of pluralism and diversity, a champion of democracy and “correct” human values. In many respects this is an accurate picture and reflects many aspects of Swedish society. However, it is also an image built on the reluctance to closely examine Swedish history. There are moments in the not so distant past that very few, if any, Swedes talk about, and many younger Swedes don’t even know about. Having to face up to its Nazi sympathies during World War II is something that brings shame and embarrassment to “neutral” Sweden. It is something that people have tried to both ignore and compensate for. I have witnessed first-hand the awkwardness that such a topic brings, and when new facts of Sweden’s dealings during the War have been revealed, people tend to excuse it or dismiss it as something that is unrelated to the Sweden of today.
The unprecedented advancement of the right-wing extremist party, the Sweden Democrats, in the 2010 election shocked the nation. People took to the streets in protest, mourning the loss of the Swedish society so many thought they were living in. It was a serious blow to the self-image of many Swedes, and took a long time to process. I’m still not sure people have faced up to the fact that there are anti-democratic, racist movements in Sweden, and that there is a history of such movements that go way back. This is a taboo that is still too heavy, too raw to properly comprehend. So we push it under the carpet, hoping any reminders of it will just….go away.
How can this taboo be overcome?
I believe that taboos are closely related to the collective psyche. National taboos are created when our collective behaviour somehow doesn’t fit with our self-perception or our self-image, and we just don’t know how to deal with it. And sometimes we just don’twant to deal with it. However, I am convinced that the only way of overcoming taboos is to face them, head on. They won’t go away. They will always be there, beneath the surface, popping up every so often to remind us of our unfinished business. This is how it works on an individual level as well. National taboos are our collective baggage. But how is society supposed to move forward if we ignore vital issues that prevent us from doing so? All we do is build a society on a foundation of lies and half-truths, and run the risk of repeating that behaviour. We taint our relationships both within our own society and with others.
I believe it is not up to the new generations to take the blame of what has been done before them. But it is up to the new generations to take responsibility for how we handle those issues that weigh us down. In the particular case of Sweden and the national taboo of its Nazi sympathies I believe there needs to be a discourse, an open and active debate. There needs to be a will to face the past, to air the dirty laundry and properly examine the role this country played during what is still the darkest era of our continent. We need better history education in schools. We need research. We need access to archives and documentation. We need media attention and civic engagement. Most of all, we need to burst the bubble of self-importance and, in essence, self-delusion that so many Swedes are slaves to, because it is not doing us any good. While we stick our heads in the sand, there are those who are gaining ground and who build up their strength on the very taboo that we refuse to face. Taboos are like ghosts, they thrive on denial and fear. We have to face them, and then release them.
If we could overcome the national taboo you identified ..... how would that impact the country?
One would hope that confronting a taboo is kind of like confronting a ghost: you acknowledge its presence and then you release it. Unlike a ghost, however, a taboo can be a little harder to shake, so it may have to be confronted and released several times over. This requires two things: a willingness to be self-critical and honest about the issue, and a willingness to continuously examine it. Given the tendency for the collective memory to be of goldfish length, and the fact that Swedes generally feel that they have dealt with this issue once and for all, by commissioning an investigation into the Nazi gold dealings a few years ago, I think it would be a utopian scenario to imagine Sweden without this taboo. Quite a few ugly truths came to surface in light of the investigation, truths that were very painful for many Swedes, who would have loved to think that Sweden was completely neutral during the War, or at least, if it sided with anyone it would be the winners. However, the focus of the commission was mainly on what had been done, concretely, in terms of participating in the Nazi quest for Arian perfection. There was not much of in-depth soul-searching on an ideological basis, there was no real confrontation of the belief system. I believe this is at the heart of the matter, and the reason why this taboo is so hard to shake.
Nevertheless, it does not prevent us from hoping for and imagining the impact overcoming this taboo would have. First of all, Sweden might feel a closer affiliation with Europe as a continent. We are peripheral, not only geographically, but also in our mindset towards our European neighbours. I think it would give us a greater understanding of the plight of others, not that Sweden is insensitive to it, but there are rarely any “personal” experiences. We tend to think of Europe as “the others, over there”.
I think another important impact would be a more honest society. Facing up to one’s flaws or past mistakes makes us more honest about ourselves, and, I hope, better prepared and more aware of previous evils showing up again. Even though today we see a tendency towards those past evils gaining ground once more, I think we still have a chance of reminding ourselves of what we have let go, and who we want to be today, as a society.
What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?
The wonderful thing about Europe is that it has learning moments all the time! Unfortunately though, I am not sure that we take advantage of them as much as we could, or should. It is hard to find a bigger moment than World War II, and some real effort was made to learn from that, what with the planting of the EU seed and its subsequent development. But we didn’t learn from the conflict as much as we should have, hence the conflict(s) in former Yugoslavia, the persecution of certain minorities and the emerging pockets of extremism. So one might wonder, perhaps cynically, if we did learn at all? Perhaps we learnt but forgot to pass it on?
The most recent opportunity to learn I believe is the financial crisis and the consequences of an unregulated, capitalist system and what happens when financial markets run amok. I believe this is a huge lesson, but I wonder if we’ve done enough to prevent it from happening again?
As I was thinking about this question, I felt that throughout my trip down Europe’s memory lane, there is a little red thread that keeps appearing: the dangers of not listening to the people. Europe constantly struggles with its democratic deficit. We have core European values that we have all, through our elected officials, agreed to uphold. But the question is, to what extent do we safe-guard these values? Are we treating them too lightly? In a recent poll Swedish youngsters preferred a non-democratic system, so that they wouldn’t have to get too involved. This is highly troubling! It means that there is a disconnection between society and government, people don’t feel represented or listened to (Greece and Spain are timely examples!). And if there is anything Europe should have learnt by now is that if you don’t have your ear to the ground and listen to people, there is always a price to pay. I just wonder: can we afford to pay it?