'Sweden is the most extreme country in the world'

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'Sweden is the most extreme country in the world'
Swedes celebrating National Day in Stockholm. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

In terms of values Sweden is the most extreme country in the world, argues Patrik Lindenfors, associate professor at Stockholm University's Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution.


First, some key points:

– There are no values that are exclusively Swedish. All values exist in all countries. If we can at all possibly talk of “Swedish values” we must therefore focus on the values that are particularly common in Sweden.

– Swedish values are not static but changeable. We had different values in the past and will have different values in the future. If we are going to talk about “Swedish values” we must therefore instead focus on the values that are most common right now.

– Swedish values are not shared by everyone in the population. Exactly like how when we speak of average height, we actually mean an estimated average.

With that said, there are important lessons to learn from research on values, especially in terms of gender equality and equal opportunities. In Sweden, for example, 81 percent answer yes to the question “is it important for democracy that men and women have the same rights?” according to the World Values Survey (WVS).

By comparison, only 18 percent responded yes to the same question in Iraq. Sweden is second in the world in terms of gender equality, according to the Global Gender Gap report, while Syria is in 143rd place.

In Egypt over 90 percent of the population say that homosexuality is unacceptable, according to the Pew Research Center. Generally, in western Europe the figure is just over 10 percent (examples are taken from an article in Research in Progress, January 19th, 2016). Note that these surveys are about people's values, not the state apparatus, and again, are about averages – individual variation can be found everywhere.

Things continue the same way, measure after measure, research project after research project. The best known of these projects is probably the World Values Survey, which regularly brings out a global culture map, showing value differences between countries. The project has identified two summarizing variables that explain many of the differences that are found.

One of the variables covers the freedom of the individual to decide for his or herself the importance of financial security – in other words, problems with managing supplies are not seen to be a priority in itself. The second variable summarizes religious beliefs, and respect for authorities towards more secular values.

In Sweden, we are more individualistic and have more rational, secular values than in any other country on earth – in terms of values, we are actually the most extreme country in the world. To say that our values are universal is to project our own wishful thinking on the rest of the world – the values we have in Sweden are very different. Generally speaking, the secular countries in the northwest of Europe are in their own corner of the global cultural map, with Sweden as the most extreme example.

What happens when a person from another country moves here, to the world’s most extreme country? Do they maintain the values of their country of origin, or switch to those of their new host country?

Two people who have researched this are sociologists Antje Räder and Peter Mühlau, who looked at immigrants in Europe. They found that the longer you have lived in a host country, the closer your values come to the host country’s. Attitudes towards gender change in about a generation, after which people basically think the same as the rest of the population.

Negative attitudes towards gender equality were also explained by factors like older age, low education, religion (especially Islam) and sex – women embraced equality faster than men.

Another analysis by the Russian professor Veronica Kostenko indicates that the difference in attitudes between different host countries is sometimes even greater than the difference between migrants and natives within each host country – immigrants to Sweden for example are more feminist than ethnic Brits.

This change is not something that happens automatically however. If you want an idea of how difficult it can be to change values, imagine that the situation had been the reverse, and it was you who fled to Syria. How willing would you be to change to a more patriarchal mind-set? Would you encourage your children to do the same? The option of locking yourself in and trying to preserve your original values perhaps no longer seems so foreign.

From where do we get our values? There is research available even there. Four Canadian researches have studied a total of thirty “attitudes”, including attitudes towards gender equality and birth control. Domestic environment explained about a quarter of the variance in responses, while factors outside the home explained three quarters. When it came to different attitudes, similar results were produced, but with an even lower degree of influence from the home environment.

Migrants also bring with them (measurably different) values from their country of origin, but these change (measurably) over time in the meeting with a new social context, above all for young people, who pick up the values of their new surrounding environment.

It is not easy to flee – especially not to the most extreme country in the world – so integration problems are difficult to solve. If we in Sweden want to uphold our values on equality and non-discrimination of homosexuals, this is an issue that should be taken seriously.

An option is of course to let people think what they want, for who are we to decide what others should think? But that risks producing enclaves in the community where people believe that gender equality is less important, and that homosexuals do not have to be treated equally. Or to put it more pointedly – ethnicity will determine your opportunities for self-fulfilment if you happen to be a woman, or how decent a life you can expect if you happen to be gay.

Leaving for example women and LGBTQ people in the lurch because of their ethnicity should be unthinkable. The solution in this case are the schools, because it is easier to learn something new when you are young. In addition to an overall improvement in the Swedish school system, values must therefore continue to be given an unwaveringly clear place in the schooling system, and segregation in schools counteracted as far as is at all possible.

This article was written by Patrik Lindenfors, an associate professor at Stockholm University's Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution. It was first published in Swedish by Dagens Nyheter.


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