The debate over Swedish values


Every summer in Sweden, there is a politics week held on the Baltic island of Gotland. Over 8 days, each of the main political parties gets a chance to promote their agenda. This year, there has been a lot of talk about Swedish values, which in turn has started a debate about what are Swedish values and if they even exist. 

If we are looking for values that are exclusive to Sweden, the answer is no. If however we are looking for values that are prioritised in Sweden and function as a way to move society forward then, yes, they do exist. It is a matter of definition.  They may not apply to every Swede, but researchers have seen clear values in Swedish society that, while not unique to Sweden, are very strong. 

There has been a lot of talk about values of equality and tolerance. These values have been strong in Swedish society in the past and have enabled the welfare state, the laws and the political systems we enjoy today. 

According to the World Values Survey, which is a credible and extensive body of research that looks into what values drive society, there are two main value sets that separate Sweden from many other countries in the world. Those values are so-called secular/rational values and values of self expression/self actualisation.

Secular/rational values. In other words, the importance of the church and religion has deminished in Swedish society, religion and politics are separated, traditional family structures exist side by side with less traditional structures. Decisions are made ‘rationally’ and not based on scripture or a religious morality. This is very different from most places around the world.

Self expression/actualisation. The right and the need to say what one thinks is a strong driver in Swedish society. The right to your own opinion, your own perspective and to live the life of your own choice are considered undeniable human rights. This is different from many other places around the world. 

Many behaviours we see in society, in families and in the work place can be traced to these underlying driving values in Swedish society. 

The danger in discussing Swedish values lies in the belief that these are static and fixed. As society changes, so do the prevailing values. As the world around us changes, so do the values. As the environment is impacted, as war and crisis occur, values change. 

When political parties want to reinforce Swedish values, they are romanticising and simplifying. This is dangerous rhetoric as they are wilfully and deliberately using values to exclude. 

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