Contemporary Norwegian 'Individualism'

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After my centennial piece on Ibsen I received an e-mail from a reader who wondered about Norwegians’ relationship to Ibsen considering the collectivism of our "welfare state." I have decided to follow up on the article.1

First of all, many Norwegians see Ibsen as the radical who opposed the social norms of his time. This is of course not a false perspective. However, this perspective is not necessarily the individualist perspective. I.e., it is not — as far as I can tell — the individualist perspective that dominates. Very often when one brings up Ibsen, it is not An Enemy of the People that comes to mind, it is A Doll’s House. Many perhaps see this as an early feminist piece, attacking the "bondage" of a wife to her husband.

Ibsen’s Ghosts touches the phenomenon of living in love with children without being married. In today’s Norway roughly 50 % are born out of wedlock, in a country where the concept of committing in form of a marriage before having children, who potentially will have to live without that commitment, is increasingly viewed as obsolete. In addition, divorce rates are high. One could wonder what Ibsen would have thought of this "liberation."

Few Norwegians would even know of Henrik Ibsen’s speech to the Association of Women’s Cause in Christiania on May 26, 1898:

I am not a member of the Association of Women’s Cause. Everything I have written has not been of some conscious tendency. I have been more of a writer than a social philosopher than one in general is inclined to believe. I thank you for the toast, but I must decline the honor of having consciously worked for women’s cause. I am not even aware of what women’s cause really is. For me it has been the human cause. And if one reads my books observantly, one will understand this. It is probably desirable to solve the women’s issue, at the side of it, but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been human description. But it is, no doubt, such that when it fairly goes home [hits], the reader adds his own feelings and moods. One attributes it to the writer; but no, it is not so; one rewrites it nicely and neatly, each according to his personality. Not only those who [actually] write, but also those who read, "write"; they are co-writers; they are many times more poetic than the poet [writer] himself.

I will allow myself the modification to thank you for the toast that is made for me. Thus, I do see that women have a great task in those special fields that this association works for. I will make a toast of thanks to the Association of Women’s Cause and wish it luck and progress.

For me it has always stood as a task to lift the country and give the people a higher standing. Under this two factors have effect: it is for mothers by tense and slow work to awaken a conscious feeling of culture and discipline. This must be created in people before one can raise the people further. It is women who are to solve the human issue. As mothers they are to do so. And only as such they can. In this lies a great task for women. Thank you and cheers to the Association of Women’s Cause.

One could note the resemblance of Ibsen’s "I am thinking of that minority, which is ahead, where the majority has not yet reached. I mean, he is in the right who is most in line with the future" and Everett M. Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations — also known under the name of the Product Diffusion Curve. This could of course just be me "writing" — as Ibsen accuses his readers of. On the other hand this is something he said in a letter.

Today, the theme is the "right" to place your kids in kindergulags — commonly known as daycare centers and kindergartens. If anyone should decline this "right," they should expect great suspicion. How could a woman give up her right to "self-realization?" It must be because of some tyrannical man, who keeps her in subjection. One could wonder what Ibsen would have thought of that considering his statement on women as mothers.

Moreover, Norwegians have a strong tendency of not considering the "welfare state" as collectivism. To them our modern society is all about "individual rights." It’s about the "right" to government health care. It’s about the "right" to send your kids to public "schools." It is about the right to old age "pensions." It is about the right to "unemployment benefits." It is a "rights-based welfare state." The tax-payers also have some rights to some extent, but when the "old age wave" comes in with all these people who have worked "all their lives" demand the "right" to the pensions which politicians have promised them out of other people’s pockets, we should be very surprised if it’s not these pensioner "rights" that will "have to" be paid for by those who still work. Taxes will rise.

If you come to Norway on business, do not be surprised if you are "welcomed" by a smoking "welcoming committee" in front of the main entrance. Smoking inside is not allowed, and those who smoke see it as their "right" to go outside and have a smoke, notwithstanding the effect it may have on customers or partners paying a visit. Furthermore, if you in the lobby see someone bending over to assemble or dismantle a table showing his entire underpants, do not be surprised either. It’s their "right" to go about "dressed" as they wish. That they walk about in "representative" areas does not matter. It is their "right." There is a "right" to look like you still have a need for diapers notwithstanding any dress code. These are not specifically listed as "rights," but any Norwegian employer who has tried — or considered trying — firing someone for not dressing decently will know what I mean.

It is all about "individual rights." If — in the unlikely event of — someone coming to the Royal Department of the Treasury as the department’s head should ask the department’s officials and civil servants to have the total taxes halved in four years, the poor Cabinet Secretary would soon experience all the cries for "people’s acquired rights."

Further there is the "right" to tell your customer — at least figuratively speaking — to "go to hell" without facing the risk of getting fired. There is the "right" to go out and eat at whatever restaurant you please without breathing smoke-filled air, regardless of what the proprietor might think of it. There is a "right" for waiters and waitresses to work in a smoke-free environment.

In addition, there is a "right" — or at least it’s on the way — for both genders to have a seat on corporate boards. There has been for a long time the "right" for employees to choose representatives on the company board.

We could probably go on all morning, all afternoon, and all night with such "rights" and this "individualism."

There might be a few things Norwegians would vote out in a referendum if they got the chance. But the "welfare state" is probably not one of them. And the "welfare state" is to a great many Norwegians not collectivism.

Note

  1. I also feel obliged to be more precise about the term stokk konservativ than I was in my previous Ibsen article. While stokk translates into cane, and thus symbolically in the name Stockmann could denote someone stiff, in the phrase stokk konservativ it is an adverb, and the phrase translates into very conservative or arch-conservative. However, the adverb is mostly — or at least very often — used in this phrase, and the phrase is quite often used to denote someone who is staunchly, uncompromisingly, or stubbornly conservative. Stokk døv would translate into stone deaf. Please note that this reflection on the word stokk, by no means suggests that Dr. Stockmann is a conservative.

Jørn K. Baltzersen [send him mail] is a senior consultant of information technology in Oslo, Norway.

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