Wednesday, 22 October 2014


Go to Hell! Did you ever say that? On freedom of speech.
This short message is about the freedom of speech. The rationale is that if you try to supress the need of humans to speak out and to vent their frustrations, this need will take other forms, which will turn out to be even uglier. The worst thing you can do is to try to erase what has been said and written earlier in human history. In such a history-less-ness, which is a reality already now in many ways, anything can happen. Then the door is once again wide open to extreme ideologies, which we thought we had seen enough of in the 20th century already.

A former Archbishop of Uppsala, in the 19th century (1818 - 1900), Anton Niklas Sundberg, was known to be short-fused when it came to swearing. He was of course also a member of the first chamber of the Swedish parliament and had to go to Stockholm on a regular basis. One morning he missed the train but it was very close – he could see it steaming off right in front of his nose. He got angry and exclaimed: Here the train is going to hell, and I was going with!
This is a well-known traveler’s tale (vandringshistoria) told from generation to generation. Without trying to emulate archbishops I found myself in a similar situation earlier this year at Kastrup Airport, Copenhagen. I went quickly through the gates from the aircraft and I seemed to be able to catch a train straight to Växjö so that I also could catch the bus to Rottne. If I missed this train I would have to wait for another two hours to get the right connections. Just as I entered the platform for Malmö, about 5 metres from the train, the automatic doors closed and the train went off. I got very upset and shouted in the half-empty hall: Hell! Just one word;

Should one be allowed to speak like that? And how many of you have said to another person, probably somebody quite well known to you: Go to hell!
Did you mean what you said? Should you be allowed to talk like that? Would the other person be entitled to take you to court for such talk?
I hope you feel what I do, namely that such a way of reasoning is absurd. And my whole point is to safe-guard freedom of speech.
Recently there was a discussion about certain formulations in Astrid Lindgren’s works, world famous for her children’s stories, formulations which today could be seen as hurtful or as having a racist bent. An interviewee on Swedish TV 2, looking very serious, argued that one would have to correct such wordings. I am almost certain that the person in question did not fully grasp the implications of what she just had said.

Let me take another example, a rather drastic one, not regarding words but looks, and I hope it will stir up some emotions. Hollywood, the film industry, could be said, and this is said mildly, to be biased towards whites and towards those who are blond. This Hollywood would never say in public but one can easily see for oneself. Would it help if we said: it is now about time to favour those who are black, those who have black hair and above all those who have African looks? No, it would not help, but would make things worse. But one would need a much fiercer critique of Hollywood and of attitudes there. The very pathetic example would be Halle Berry, who made it into the Oscar’s nominations a few years ago. It was so rare to see a black person in a leading role so Halle Berry was lifted up as a good example of change away from whiteness. But, honestly, as she in American terms was regarded as black, most of us from other parts of the world would hardly see that she was black in any sense of the word!

Do not try to correct history, but try to relate to it, try to have an attitude regarding historical facts, that is far better. Let us have a critical assessment of our history, especially the still  fairly recent history of colonialism and Western imperialism, which has caused and is still causing untold suffering in many parts of the world. Let us become more knowledgeable regarding our own history, but let us not try to correct it. It is rather that on basis of our history we are called to deal with our present.

Above all, this vain attempt to correct what was before is so devoid of humour. How sad, for, if anything, Astrid Lindgren had a deep sense of humour, and my own recollections from my childhood is that, even when describing Pippi’s father as an African king in far-off African lands, it was done with a touch of fun and a lot of love (in Astrid Lindgren’s famous series on Pippi Longstocking).

History may also teach us that even archbishops, and even those of a slightly smaller size in God’s kingdom, could once in a while be allowed to swear, at least at a train that went off just in front of your nose.

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