A short while ago an elementary school in the small town of Laxå placed a ban. The ban was preventing children, when participating in the annual Lucia celebration, from dressing up as gingerbread men, as is the tradition. The reason, it is claimed, was to not cause offense to anybody brown-skinned. This decision has caused a storm on social media and news media around the world. The school later backtracked and lifted the ban, claiming the whole thing was a misunderstanding.
Whatever the reason, this is a great example of the fragility of a tolerant society. Sweden is a tolerant society in comparison to many countries around the world. However, in a tolerant society, the question always arises at what point should we say no to something in order to reinforce our own values, traditions and beliefs. It is my experience in Sweden that many people are afraid of standing up for what they believe for the fear of being labelled racist. Sweden is in a very sensitive political shape at the moment with the right-wing nationalistic party, the Swedish Democrats, being the third largest party in the country. So, the issue of tolerance and racism has never been more relevant than now.
There is a definéd process of development that people and societies go through when developing intercultural competence and understanding.
– The first stage is ‘denial’ – in which people refuse to accept that others are different.
– The second stage is ‘duality’, where people start to see that there are other ways but the other ways are wrong.
– The third stage is ‘relativity’ where people understand everything is relative and that there are lots of right ways. And this is the stage in which I believe Sweden is ‘stuck’ politically and socially.
– There is a fourth stage, which is difficult to achieve, and it is called ‘commitment in relativity’. This is the stage in which people can say that they understand that there are different ways but that certain behaviours/attitudes etc are not ok here. This is the stage when we feel strength to stand up for what we believe without being racist or afraid that we are perceived as racists. Racism and racial discrimination are often used to describe discrimination on an ethnic basis and not, in my view, the same thing as standing up for what you believe is right or wrong.
The example of the gingerbread ban, be it a misunderstanding or not, is a good example. Let’s say for argument’s sake that the school’s decision to change the tradition was based on the fear of being perceived as racist. In my mind, this is a social decision springing from the third stage described above. In other words, from their perspective, an acceptance that people are different and that we should tolerate this means that we should change our traditions and attitudes so as not to cause offense to them. I am not saying this is easy, but I think this is an underdeveloped decision.
Take another example – the hitting of children. In most countries around the world, violence against children is not illegal. Does this make it ok? The relativist would say yes, based on the circumstances and traditions in that country, it’s ok. But I would say no. It’s not ok. It’s not ok here, it’s not ok there, it’s not ok anywhere. Does that make me a racist? No it doesn’t. But what it does mean is that I commit to my values and stand up for them.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying tolerance is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. Tolerance and understanding are essential for human interaction. But if Sweden is to meet the genuinely racist tendencies in society, people have to face up to the fear of being perceived a racist, and instead, without racial prejudice, stand up for their beliefs and values. The beliefs and values that make Sweden the unique place it is.