Comment on the current affairs program Godmorgon världen, Swedish Radio, 15.7.2018.
The Human Identity
The second vice chairman of the Swedish parliament, Björn Söder, recently had a tough job explaining what he meant by saying that Sami and Jews living in Sweden were not Swedes. As I understood it, he meant that Swede is an ethnic-national category and that Sami and Jews therefore cannot be Swedes since they belong to different ethnic-national categories. To Björn Söder, being a citizen of Sweden and being a Swede is not the same thing, and apparently it was important for him to state the difference.
You could also say that he thereby only stated his party’s identity politics. Until some ten years ago the party of Björn Söder, the Sweden Democrats (presently the third largest party in Riksdagen), programmatically stated that the identity Swede was an ethnic-national identity and that Swedish citizenship mainly should be “a privilege” for ethnic Swedes.
Although the party since then has chosen to tone down the link between ethnicity and citizenship, emphasizing instead the primacy of cultural affinity and community, it is still apparent that the Sweden Democrats is a party to which identity, or rather the incompatibility of identities, remains a crucial issue. Thus the need to assert again and again who is to be a Swede and who is not. And by extension, who is fitted to be a member of the Swedish community and who is not.
The Sweden Democrats are in no way the only ones doing identity politics these days. Identity politics has in fact come to penetrate political milieus where only recently it went without saying that what human beings had in common, whatever their identities, was more important than what separated them. But where now categories of gender, sex, color and origin, to take a few examples, are seen as increasingly important in defining our identity – and what separates our identities is more interesting and important than what binds them together.
It is thus not unusual in these milieus to encounter claims that people with different identities are not able to fully share each other’s experiences and fully understand each other’s views of things; that the experience of belonging to a particular gender category or having been born with a particular skin color can be fully understood only by someone having shared the same experience; that our capacity to identify with other people has identity political limitations.
With the increasing impact of identity issues in today’s politics, be it on the right or on the left, the emphasis on the difference between people will thus again become prevalent. This development as accelerated by the relentless avalanche of echo chambers and filter bubbles provided by the internet, in which ever new identities and identity differences can be created, confirmed and maintained.
Humans are different and will so remain, there is no discussion here. Cultural and ethnic difference is a profoundly human peculiarity, and the handling of human difference a peculiarly human task. Human difference can make for conflict and war and it can make for creativity and civilization, and humans may decide for themselves which it will be.
It is not hard to understand why issues of identity have gained such prominence in our time. When existing answers to questions of who we are and where we belong no longer seem to function, we tend to seek new ones. Harder to understand is why so many are attracted to identities that emphasize what makes us distinct from other people, instead of identities that emphasize what we have in common. This more so since there has never been a time in history when so much is binding humans to humans – as humans; a time when the term humanity has evolved from poetic proclamation to political reality.
To make human difference the main issue in today’s world is like making a main issue of the color of the ship in which humanity is sinking.
The rising seas will not ask for nationality or skin color.
Our human identity can of course not be our only identity, and in our daily lives surely not the identity we mostly think of as defining who we are and where we belong. But I also believe that an identity politics making a main issue of who is to be called a Swede and who is not has not fully understood what it takes to be a human today.