Mikael Hjerm, a sociology professor at Umeå University and an expert on multiculturalism, spoke to The Local in late March about a bus driver accused of separating “Swedish” and “non-Swedish” passengers during a trip in late December.
He explained that despite the shocking incident, prejudice and xenophobia in Sweden were actually on the decline.
One of Hjerm’s statements, however, prompted a heated reaction from far-right, anti-immigration websites in Sweden.
“The most prejudiced group is the elderly, who grew up in a different time,” Hjerm told The Local at the time.
“To put it very bluntly, when they die things get better.”
The colourful formulation was meant to illustrate that societal attitudes toward racism and other issues often require generational shifts to change.
His comments were republished by the anti-immigrant and Sweden Democrat-associated website Avpixlat (literally, “depixelated”, but also a Swedish colloquialism meaning to “reveal” or “unmask”).
Users paraphrased the professor, stating that he wanted to “kill off” the elderly in Sweden in order to make room for more immigrants. Hjerm’s contact details were also published on the site, with readers encouraged to get in contact with him. The page has since been taken down.
Since then, Hjerm has received death threats through calls, texts, and emails. He eventually appeared on Swedish television to apologize for the statement.
While the meaning of the statement is obvious in context, writers and commentors on far-right websites construed the statement to imply that Hjerm was advocating harm against elderly Swedes.
“It’s saddening to see that people with blatantly racist attitudes have managed to lift the quote completely out of context and use it to further their own agenda,” said David Landes, editor of The Local.
“That Professor Hjerm should be faced with such backlash and feel compelled to apologize is a real shame,” he added.
However, it wasn’t just the anti-immigrant site that fanned the flames. Hjerm had also been contacted by newspaper Västerbottens-Kuriren (VK) at the weekend and probed for comment.
“The VK newspaper simply played into the hands of this racist society,” Hjerm told The Local on Wednesday.
The problem, according to Hjerm, is that just like Avpixlat, VK also misquoted the professor’s words and took his statement out of context:
“In the piece, he concluded that older people are more prejudiced than younger people because they grew up in another time when there was a bigger acceptance of apartheid or racial laws in the US,” the paper wrote.
“Mikael Hjerm’s underlying reasoning wasn’t in the article, just the statement: ‘To put it very bluntly, when they die things get better’.”
The quote, which originally appeared in The Local, had also been cut in half by the VK reporter.
Hjerm was unimpressed with the newspaper’s interpretation.
“I had to get on the phone to them to fix their first translation, but even the edited version now online still takes my words out of context,” Hjerm told The Local.
“There’s much more to the story than just that one line. It’s symbolic, in a way, that the writers there made the same slip that caused the problem in the first place.”
The professor pointed to a recent piece in The New York Times about societal attitudes toward homosexuality, and how generational turnover is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the shift.
“As a rule of thumb, perhaps about half of the increase in support for same sex-marriage is attributable to generational turnover, while the other half is because of the net change in opinion among Americans who have remained in the electorate,” the article reads.
“Societal changes in attitude take time. Over a long period of time, tolerance increases in society, for example, while prejudice and other similar attitudes decrease,” Hjerm said of The New York Times article.
“The cause for this is of course very complex but part of the explanation is related to generational turnover. One of the reasons for the generational turnover effect is that the level of education has increased, for example.”
When the net hatred debate took off in February after an in-depth investigation by journalism television programme Uppdrag Granskning, worried observers said threats were a direct menace to democracy. Swedes fearing retaliation, fearing for their lives or their families’ safety may self-censor, observers noted.