Is our time’s sense of entitlement at the root of the right-wing populist upswing we see?
It’s not about you, or me, at least not all the time, but it’s always about us, as a society and where we are heading. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across an article about a professor of literature in the U.S. who was dismissed from his tenure for apparently having “hurt” transgender students’ feelings. Sadly, I can’t seem to find the article anymore, but in one of the four instances mentioned that led to his dismissal, the professor was discussing a scientific theory about a book which two students found offensive because it didn’t match their world view. Another case involved the lack of a trigger warning in a literary novel about a rape which was discussed in class. A couple of days ago, a local paper in Sweden published a debate article about how “milk is a symbol of white supremacy“… I’ll just leave this here for you to ponder upon.
Today’s post, as explosive as the topic may be, isn’t about the specific articles quoted above. It’s about a phenomenon that I find in our society today, a sort of extremism of the “I”, or entitlement if you will, that is spreading like a wildfire through our midst. A couple of additional examples (random and anecdotal):
- There are people who feel that we should abolish gender pronouns. Period. Replace he, she, they, xe, s/he or whatever, with one gender neutral pronoun to be used for all of us. Now, I have absolutely no qualms calling people whatever they feel they are most comfortable with (and I beg for forgiveness if sometimes I slip back to a pronoun I may have used on them before), and I personally like to use the Swedish gender neutral pronoun in cases where the gender of the person in question is unknown (e.g. in job advertisements), but why take it to the extreme and force others to give up the pronoun they feel comfy with? Why do to others that which has (or may have) been done to you?
- In Sweden, some cities have begun to replace certain “job titles” with new ones, which are supposed to be less “laden” with negative connotations, gender neutral etc. There are always different reasons for different words of course. One of the typical examples is the word for “handicapped”, which was replaced a few years back with “funktionshindrad” (“disabled”). However, apparently, that wasn’t good enough. Now they use the word “funktionsvariation” (“functional variation”), while at the same time reducing public support for the very people they try to linguistically “upgrade”. I understand the drive for the new word but don’t ostracize people for using an older version, because “handicapped” is still much better than the words I grew up with… Tell them instead why you’re suggesting the new one?
- Veganism vs Omnivores. Yikes, what a nightmare this one is. But yeah, wouldn’t it be great if we, as a society, could reduce our dependence on animals as a food source? Particularly reducing the production of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy and move toward a more sustainable and species appropriate treatment of animals? To expect an entire population to go vegan overnight won’t accomplish this, but produce a huge backlash and pushback from the vast majority of omnivores amongst us.
As a linguist, I’m acutely aware that language changes, evolves. However, it’s rarely a good idea to force change top down. It rarely works. When the new director for the Swedish medical board, Bror Rexed, announced to his staff in 1967, that he was going to use “du” (second person singular) in dealings with his staff, he was riding on a wave that had begun earlier. Sweden’s traditional honorific to that date had been “han/hon” (third person singular, or preferably a title). Within months, the entire country adopted the new way of talking, and it is a proud accomplishment of our egalitarian society to this day, although, in recent years, the service industry has begun using the German/French version of the second person plural instead, something I personally find strange, but that’s another post. But the du-reform is a linguistic exception. When Germany tried to “simplify” the use of German with the infamous Rechtschreibereform in the nineties, they failed miserably. You can’t have state ministers dictate how to spell mayo. People generally dislike the reform and to this date, over twenty years later, some of the biggest newspapers refuse to use it, and entire generations of German speakers feel disenfranchised because their spelling is “outdated”.
Sadly, these trends go deeper than just language, and I acknowledge that these government institutions, the researchers, and activists mean well. But, they overreach, and they scare some of the more conservative people. I can literally see my dad and his generation’s reaction to no longer being a man, but a person, to be addressed as “it” (or whatever pronoun of choice the know-its agree upon) rather than “he”. And I think this is exactly where the populists, the alt-right, and others, chime in and find feeding ground. They paint a rosy picture of a world where men were men and women were women, where men gave away women to other men at the altar, a world where men came home from work to a clean house and dinner on the table, wife, and kids eagerly waiting for them. A two-polar world, black & white. Simpler, easier to understand, comfortable, just the way we knew it when we were little (or from TV). A world without marriage equality, and no trans people. The world of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Vladimir Putin and their likes.
These people don’t understand why we allow people to use whatever religious clothing they like here in the west, while we must adjust to strict local laws when we visit certain countries. They don’t understand how we can allow mosques, temples, and synagogues to be built in our western cities while other countries wouldn’t allow the same. And so they believe their own faith to be besieged and threatened, even though sharing is at the very core of the Christian faith they claim to uphold and defend (Jesus breaking the bread, holding the other cheek etc.)
We, as western societies are risking further division, if we don’t “chill out” for a bit, and allow the world around us to catch up. We’ve been caught up in a frenzy of “me, me, me” which – quite frankly – is scary. The Internet and modern communication devices certainly seem to be a part of the explanation, the seeming distance between the device and our next shutting down our inhibitions around human discourse, enabling us to lash out at others with the vilest commentary and language, words we would never use face to face. And because we get away with so much, it emboldens us and we push further, and before long, it’s all about me, me, me. My rights, my demands, my needs, regardless of your needs, your rights.
If I don’t feel like working today, that’s fine. Many employers see a significant increase in sick leave and “unexplained absence” during days of sunny weather in the summer, causing huge problems in e.g. care facilities. My husband tells me stories from his job that’ll make anyone gasp…
So what can we do to improve things? Talk to each other, explain things. Use incremental steps, as hard as this may seem. Don’t ask for too much too quickly, and never ask others to change on your behalf. Now I understand this last one is tricky. I remember coming out (eons ago) and basically giving my parents an ultimatum in accepting me for who I was. They asked for time, and time they got. For a while, we barely spoke, but after a couple of years, they openly accepted my partner at the time, and later my husband. But still, to this day, at times, we argue, my dad and I, and he’ll never be the perfect “ally”. But I understand that I can’t change him. I had to learn to live with the discomfort of him disliking e.g. that small magnet of two men kissing on our fridge, and his fear of how it would affect my son’s sexuality. My take is simple: it’s none of his effing business what we put on our fridge door, our sexuality is not defined by pictures we see on the fridge when we grow up (or I’d be straight), and I have to accept that he probably won’t change his mind. Then again, he does, continuously, but at his pace. A few years ago he told me that “men can’t raise kids” and now he’s super proud of the job my husband and I do. People do change, but rarely under duress (unless it’s for their own benefit), there’s an entire chapter in my book Common Sense on that topic if you’re interested in reading more.
A society only works when most members work together. Every society can accept and live with a few outliers, but when too many forces pull in too many directions simultaneously, the very fabric of society begins to fail, and we can see tendencies of that in recent events like Brexit, the 2016 U.S. elections, Poland, India, Russia etc. Rapid change, pluralism, followed by that “collective” urge for the good old days, which incidentally, in that picture presented by the populist, never even existed, but that’s a different story. So chill, forgive, move on, talk to each other, rather than explode, condemn and scream. It’s not about you, at least not always, only sometimes.
What’s your take? Do you share this (mind you, completely unscientific) analysis of mine? Am I onto something? Am I missing a piece of the puzzle? I welcome your thoughts on the matter… If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, the next one due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a good weekend.