The setbacks that shake us obscure a far brighter story

This essay was first published in Dagens Nyheter February 7th 2018 (in Swedish).

Xenophobia, nationalism and strident anti-democrats — it is easy to get shocked and desperate about how the world is developing. But keep calm. In effect, all this is a sign of how far the civilization process has come.

Who does not feel uneasy as xenophobia and nationalism are once again rearing their ugly heads? Who does not get depressed over setbacks for gender equality and LGBT rights?

Here is a comforting thought: These setbacks could actually be illusory and an expression of how far the civilization process has come.

The most crucial steps forward are rarely visible to those who are present when they are taken. They are like the drop of water that hollows out the stone. History is a wave motion, but it strives upwards: Every new trough of the waves is a little shallower than the former.

Isn’t this provocatively naïve? How can I state something like that when a large part of the population is terrified by the powerful xenophobic, anti-democratic and value conservative wave that seems to be rolling across countries most of us thought were immune against such setbacks?

Because, shocked and in agony, we forget something important. We forget that we get accustomed. (The starting point of this article is that there is a broadly liberal and agenda-setting majority in society. I am myself a part of this establishment, which constitutes the ”we” of the article.)

Immigration has increased in the West for decades without any corresponding uptick in xenophobia — on the contrary. Meanwhile, the general view on gender equality, LGBT rights, violence as a way of solving conflicts, reasons behind criminality and similar issues about mankind’s basic conditions has shifted significantly towards liberal values and human rights in the population as a whole.

On a global level this shifting in values is apparent in World Values Survey’s over 30 years of attitude measurements. In Sweden it shows just as clearly at the SOM Institute, a veritable gold mine, whose surveys have been conducted annually since 1986.

As always, it is important to see the whole picture and not to dive into the downpipes of the present. Between 2015 and 2016 the proportion of people with a negative view on refugees increased sharply, from 40 percent to 52 percent. Without an overview this looks like a new, dismal Sweden. The uptick was, of course, due to the exceptionally large influx of refugees and migrants during these two years. Those who climb out of the downpipes will see that the increase started from the lowest level of anti-refugee sentiment ever recorded in Sweden and also that this new, higher level is still a tad below where it was in the early 1990’s. The last time Sweden received a large number of asylum-seekers, during the war in Bosnia, the spike was almost as dramatic. However, after just two years the share of refugee-negative Swedes had sunk to a level that was lower than pre-Bosnia.

Budapest, 2015. Photo: Attila Szervác / Wikimedia Commons

Since The Netherlands showed the way in 2001, almost two countries a year on average have legalized same-sex marriage. The two American continents and Europe are the beacons of progress. During 2017 this development accelerated: three countries joined and two decided to do so in 2019.

In the US, surveys carried out by the the Pew Institute (another statistical gold mine) show that ever more Americans marry across ethnic lines, and that acceptance for it increases. Support for gay people’s right to marry (reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 2015) has gone up from 37 to 62 percent in just ten years. Meanwhile, the view that immigration is more of an asset than a problem has steadily gained more support.

To most people the question whether everybody should have the right to live their lives on equal terms is a no-brainer. But only a couple of generations ago, or less, everyday racism and misogyny were practically mainstream.

Honestly, anyone who has been alive for a few decades has now and again come across people who have expressed xenophobic, homophobic and misogynous opinions; at dinner tables, standing in line, seated beside some less than tolerant travel companion on a plane. Perhaps in the occasional letter to the editor, which no decision maker or debater took seriously. Until maybe a decade ago nothing would happen, other than us telling friends, with dreadful delight, what a nutcase we had just met, before we forgot about the whole thing.

Today the ”nutcases” have the entire internet at their disposal, and political parties have emerged — new or polished old ones — which collect their voices. In the old world these people were spread across several of the established parties, to the left as well as to the right, and they often were not even aware of each other’s existence. All these new platforms that enable joining forces make them realize that they are not alone, which in turn strengthens them and gives the false impression that they constitute a new force and that they are more numerous than they actually are. As we all know, this is not just about election results, it is about large chunks of the torrent of opinions in our new, wide public arena.

But if what we see are not real, profound setbacks, what is going on? A widening of democracy, probably. Democracy is not a cozy club for mutual admiration, it is a messy arena where world views clash.

A people which is both well informed and independent has been a widespread political goal for a long time. Voilà: here we are. Never in history have the citizens been better educated and informed than today. And how do they act on that? The question the establishment. Nobody bends their neck, says amen and casts their vote for a certain political party just because some ruler says so. Nor because their family and colleagues always have. Global surveys confirm this decline in willingness to follow the established leadership.

People think for themselves. The snag — from the point of view of the liberal majority — is that not everyone thinks like the liberal majority.

Now a door has been opened for those who want to rebel against what they perceive as a dissolution of familiar norms and categories. The rebels are probably both angry and afraid, because they cannot follow, do not recognize the landscape: ”Don’t try to erase the gender differences. Stop coddling criminals. Keep the borders.”

Every opinion-maker who is eager to civilize society should contemplate this: changes that are too large and come too quickly scare many people. What ”too large” and ”too quickly” means, however, is unknown until the protests arrive. Of course, those who now step into the spotlights of the democracy stage are not right just because they are visible, and they do not even constitute a formerly silent majority but a formerly silent minority (albeit significant), which in fact has shrunk a bit. But the point is that we who have dominated the scene for decades hardly even knew these people existed. Those who now raise their voices, on the other hand, know exactly what the liberal establishment thinks and therefore have an advantage — for now.

The sooner our astonishment gives room for analysis, the better.

It is important to differ between hate and concern. If only racists and misogynists voted for far-right parties, those parties would not gather between 15 and 40 percent of Europe’s electorate, and few would worry. What has changed is not that the most extreme opinions suddenly are allowed into the debate, but that the well-behaved protest against modernity are.

A fairly well-established hypothesis in political psychology states that a person’s inclination to define herself as liberal/left-leaning or conservative/right-leaning depends on how the ”big five” personality traits are allocated. People who score high on ”openness” tend to see themselves as liberal/left-leaning, whereas people who score high on ”conscientiousness” tend to consider themselves as being conservative/right-leaning. The American psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has shown that differences in personality to some extent decides who votes Democrat and who votes Republican.

If you look upon the ongoing battle of ideas, or ”culture war”, in this way, you quickly realize that it is pointless and doomed to fail to describe this quarrel as a fight against ”post-truth” or against the opponent’s inability to absorb facts. In all honesty, how many of us immigration-liberals would outright change opinion if the gloomiest xenophobic scenario — which we always rejected — were to materialize? How many green activists quiet their warning bells when calming reports are published? Not many, I would say. It is all about values and world views.

With this in mind, one understands that many people in the immigration-critical camp feel offended when they are being called idiots. If you do not want the opinions of these people ever to be heard it is not ordinary democracy you seek, it is something else. Well-educated, thinking people with traditional, authoritarian and nationalist values exist among us, and we need to be pragmatic about this.

Photo: Rafandalucia / Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, we can feel strengthened by this knowledge: People’s values, on average, actually move slowly towards a direction we appreciate, and there is no evidence that a political counterattack can reverse that trend. Especially not a puffed-up counterattack. One cannot overestimate the psychological significance that lies in the fact that the number of doomsday warnings we are fed with wherever we direct our attention has increased exponentially. It is quite plausible that the mood had been brighter in our camp had the outcome been different in only two polls, Brexit and Trump. And the margins were small in both.

Now, if we once again make an effort to think through our best arguments and take this culture fight calmly and methodically, there is every chance in the world that the future will behave exactly the way history has: small setbacks (which shock us) but large steps of progress (which we gradually take for granted).

Recovering news journalist with deep interest in society, science, spirituality & how they merge. Communicate and bridge. Podcast, text, talk.