“I worry a lot about Sweden”.
These are the words that wake me up during an early morning stroll along the streets of London’s Soho. I’m listening to an episode of the podcast “Waking Up with Sam Harris” in which Harris has invited the human rights campaigner Ayaan Hirshi Ali to talk about Islamism and the European immigrant crisis. This leads the two to talk about free speech and how growing censorship is playing right in the hands of the extremists.
As a Swedish ex-pat living in London I have gradually removed myself from the political landscape of my home country. I often hear news updates through friends and co-workers who ask why xenophobic politics is becoming so popular in Sweden. Normally they refer to the growing popularity of the Sweden Democrats, a far right national, anti-immigration party that recently grew to become the third most popular political party in Sweden. My answer to these questions normally go something like “it’s the same trend we can see across Europe where racism and nationalist parties are growing as a result of increased immigration and fear for the unknown and of what it might bring, and what it has already brought.” However, after listening to Ayaan Hirshi Ali I am forced to rethink my answer.
It’s not only immigration or fear for terrorism in the West that result in chocking election results and growing popularity of xenophobic parties. It’s also political correctness. The narrow “opinion corridor” only allows a one-sided worldview to push through, creating frustration and disappointment over government. Isn’t it ironic that the first country in the world to guarantee freedom of the press is now increasingly censoring public opinion by shaming people who express themselves without a PC-filter? Political correctness is what keeps us from tackling real concerns and issues that will only grow bigger if not addressed early on.
Immigration, if handled well, is positive. It strengthens the work force and brings in new ideas, perspectives and businesses. It also opens up an understanding and tolerance towards other cultures. But it can also create xenophobia. Sweden’s multiculturalism, and acceptance of it, has taken a long time to manifest and is still very much in its infancy. The country has been far removed from the world’s wars and issues, protected by neutralism and geo-location (and perhaps also climate), becoming the “nice guy”. However, recently Sweden has had to get down from its pedestal and get to work. The country welcomed the greatest number of refugees in proportion to population than any other European country, because it’s the humane thing to while also being politically correct. However, once the government realized there where not enough resources to let everyone in they closed the borders. These borders are still closed because there is still no strategy in place to integrate the refugees who where let in. It looked great from the start and they were certainly able to help many people in need, but then they tripped and fell and the Swedish Democrats got even stronger.
Just this year 55% of people in Stockholm said they wanted to illegalize begging. One can only speculate but the increasing Romani population often making their living this way in the capital might have been a trigger. Because their answers were anonymous people could express their real opinions without being cast as racist or xenophobic. To have free speech everyone has to become less sensitive and meet differing views with respect and rationality. Being offended by controversial opinions is also a sign of close-mindedness and sometimes one has to realize that our own view of the world might not always the popular one.
However, this is not just a Swedish issue. The rise of nationalist parties across Europe is not the only indicator that we are doing something wrong: many people did not foresee Brexit as well as the recent result of the USA election. Why? A majority of voices were never heard because they were too scared to utter them. If media stopped their one-sided reporting and everyone stopped shaming people for their political views we would have seen this coming. Pro-Brexit politicians and Trump-supporters were labeled racist, no matter how rational and educated their arguments were. While the Remain side and Clinton-supporters drove political correct campaigns, avoiding making anyone uncomfortable. Evidently, a majority of people are tired of this rhetoric.
These trends tell us you cannot silence people who think differently from you. To cite Dr. Jordan B. Peterson “Making hate speech go away does not make hate go away.” Stopping people from talking is like stopping them from thinking. Sure, freedom of speech might not automatically make it okay to say certain things. But if we censor and hide racist or sexist opinions it means they will grow underground and eventually punch us in the face before we had a chance to address them. We need to remember that words are just words and treat them as such. They might hurt your feelings, but being offended by words is a choice not a mandatory reaction. We need to learn to look beyond the person saying the words, rather than the words themselves. Your hurt feelings should not impact someone else’s right to speak their mind.
Freedom of speech does not exist for people to only say the “right” things. We cannot always be comfortable by turning a blind eye towards reality. If controversial opinions and attitudes aren’t being expressed with words, what is the next step? Violence. Or even worse these voices end up in forums where xenophobic discussions can flourish and grow without being challenged. If your thoughts deviate from the norm and you express them in a respectable manner people should listen. The more the opinions deviate from each other, the stronger the weapon we can build against prejudice, and the better we can understand other people. And the better we can understand people’s fears and concerns the better we can tackle them by providing the right information, education and solution.
By not opening up the discussion we are giving the extremist groups the power - on both sides of the fence. It means they’ve won. It means they will elect a president who speaks their language, because they haven’t had a chance to publicly express themselves without being silenced. And we have not given ourselves the opportunity to challenge their views to provide a better solution to their fear. If you silence and shame people who have worldviews that deviate from yours, you are just as close-minded as them. Let people talk, no matter how stupid you think their words are. Don’t silence them, instead invite them for a discussion.
We need to accept and respect that fear is a factor. And that it’s not irrational. Fear is a natural reaction in a world where terrorism is increasingly knocking on our front door. People are right to be worried about Islamism. Most people know this but it has become taboo to speak of because you will be silenced and deemed racist if you do. Our elected politicians cannot even talk about these issues for what they are and have to blame them on other issues that sound less xenophobic. If you have grown up in a civilized society where one trusts one’s neighbor, where one can leave the door unlocked at night, where one’s children can walk safely to school alone and suddenly an outside civilization threatens your way of life, being scared is a natural reaction. We live peacefully not because we are more peaceful, but because, for thousands of years, we have worked hard to get here. We can easily lose it if we do not dare talk about the real issues. Democracy needs to be taught and we need to stop naively assuming that this will come natural to everyone in the world.
We are always going to be scared of what we don’t understand and we should be able to criticize what we don’t understand. But we also have to invite people from all groups to the discussion. Having an open attitude will lead to new perspectives and better understanding of the thought processes of other people. It will help us say “I understand where you are coming from but…” even if we do not agree with what the other person is saying or doing.
Imagine if we historically silenced norm deviating opinions as we are today, perhaps the world would still be flat, slavery would still exists and women would not be allowed to vote. This is how important the freedom to express ones opinion has been throughout history. It’s what has driven us forward. And it is the only thing that will keep driving us forward.