Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Sweden: Give me gender equality, but don't mention the immigrants

I now live in Sweden, a country which is, to many in the English speaking world, a synonym for decent intelligent social-democratic society.

Of course, there is much truth in this. But there is much falsehood too. As part of bidding farewell to 2013, Sweden's Dagen Nyheter ran its obligatory end of year analyses. This is one of Sweden's high-brow papers. And this included a section on the most important blog (posts) of the year. Unfortunately I read this in paper, so there is no link here. But if I remember correctly a full 7 of the ten were gender related.

Now this may be unsurprising: Sweden is known for its gender equality, and, as these posts were happy to reveal, gender inequality still persists in some shape or form even here. However I must admit to feeling uncomfortable in this concentration of attention.

With the very important exception of females being the victims of violent acts, gender inequality in Sweden is becoming highly nuanced. And five of these blog were clearly unrelated to the violence question (memory accuracy assumed). Yes - women earn less than men. But they chose less remunerative careers. This could reflect societal bias against women, or it could reflect personal choice. In which case enacting social engineering remedies aimed at altering the phenomenon risk 'destroying the village to save it'. If females have certain norms and aims, and gender is socially constructed, re-engineering these norms and aims does not empower the group, it eliminates it.

You may disagree. Or at least disagree that we are at this point. If the latter you are probably correct. But increasingly, gender discrimination in the concrete requires some major prejudicial assumptions of its own. The female interviewer was asked by her male interviewee who wrote her questions: The interviewee would never have asked that of a man! (Why not?) The nobel prize winner was asked if she simplified her writing by a male interviewer: He would never have asked that of a male! (Why not?) Now to some degree this is a matter of prior and posteriori probabilities. But to some degree it also reflects a willingness to prejudicially impose negative motives in order to discover gender prejudice.

What is the problem with this?

The problem is that Sweden has much un-nuanced prejudice. No evidence I have seen indicates that that a women would be likely to be refused a job interview because she was a woman. Nor would her education achievements be dismissed on the basis of her gender. Yet research shows than Swedish citizens with non-European names routinely face such overt discrimination. Stockholm has the most highest educated taxi drivers in the world. Unemployment amongst immigrant communities languishes far above the national average even though they have a higher proportion of university graduates. A political party with roots in extreme Nazi ideology now has members in parliament. My wife teaches at gymnasium (upper high school) and her 'immigrant-named' students talk opening of having to research the ethnicity of an employer before bothering to apply.

Yet in the midst of this, Swedish politicians note that "Sweden is not a racist country." Yet they do concede that sexism still exists.

It is this that makes Swedish preoccupation with nuanced sexism unforgivable. I agree that gender inequality is incomplete. But politics is about focus. Concentrated focus on gender issues is only defensible where they eclipse other issues. That is no longer the case in Sweden.

The reasons for this are both fair and foul. Partly it is because (a) generation(s) of Swedes have been raised to see gender issues as the central political issue of our time.

But it is also because those who identify as 'ethnic Swedes' have little willingness to confront the fact that the social inequality that now exists in Sweden is now emphatically in their favour, male or female. Many view the very existence of non-ethnic Swedes in Sweden as a favour to the latter and refuse to note either the reliance of the Swedish welfare system on the importation of immigrants or the fact that 'ethnic Swedes' are experiencing upward social mobility while immigrants face the reverse (despite their aforementioned education advantages, many of which are unrecognised).

But perhaps the most plausible explanation of the media's preoccupation with gender issues is the most mundane: It permits them to preoccupy themselves with a problem that can then be used as a means to self-congratulation. For while sexism occurs in Sweden, we can easily show that it does so less than in those god-forsaken foreign lands. And thus the Swedish media's readers leave satisfied both that they have touched a problem and that their society is deservedly lionised in its attempts to remedy it. The ills that actually cause such damage here, though, remain unaddressed.

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