Should Scandinavians Give Us Advice on Modernity?

A new Bollywood movie raises questions about multiculturalism, parenting and the loneliness that can come from an individualism which excludes community and interdependence.

Rani Mukerji portrays Debika Chatterjee in “Mrs. Chatterjee vs. Norway.”

July 26, 2023 22:23 EDT

In March this year, Bollywood released a new film called Mrs. Chatterjee vs. Norway. It is inspired by the real-life story of Sagarika Chakraborty (called Debika Chatterjee in the film), whose children were taken away by Norwegian Child Welfare Services in 2011 amidst domestic issues in her marriage. She subsequently had to fight legal battles in both Norway and India to regain custody of her children.

A cultural divide

There are aspects to the case that are mostly personal in nature, but it also raised questions about the Norwegian authorities’ right to intervene and scrutinize immigrant parents for raising their children according to the parents’ native culture. 

For example, though it’s normal for Indian parents to feed their children with their hands or sleep with them in the same bed, such practices may be stigmatized in Scandinavia because they are believed to compromise the autonomy and safety of children. 

The Norwegian Ambassador to India, Hans Jacob Frydenlund, criticized the movie, saying that a mother’s love in Norway was no different than in India. According to Frydenlund, cultural differences such as these would not amount to such an escalation that would cause children to be taken away from their biological parents.

Whatever the truth, there are examples from the movie that stand out. These include a scene where Debika and her husband visit their children after they have been taken away and placed in state custody. Debika runs to hug her toddlers, crying her eyes out, but the public official assigned to their case asks her not to do so, lest the child build an emotional bond with her. The implicit assumption is that once the child has been taken away by child services, he or she is as good as an object until placed in the care of guardians approved by the government. 

When the parents visit the children after they have been placed with a Norwegian couple, their son fails to acknowledge his biological father. 

While the intention of saving children from potentially unstable parents is noble, it merits serious consideration to ask if this Scandinavian project of rupturing biological families and building artificial ones in their place is conscionable or can create kind and compassionate human adults. Even if one truly believes in such modernized social engineering, must it not be carried out with utmost care—not like the botched-up job that was given to the Chakrabortys?

Individualistic “modernity”

This adoption process isn’t as modern as Scandinavians might believe. The reason lies in Scandinavian beliefs and values.

Michael Booth, British journalist and author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind The Myth of Scandinavian Utopia, writes about the increasing discomfort towards immigrants in the country, most notably evident in the 2011 terrorist attack by Anders Breivik. He outlines several complexities in how immigrants from Africa and Asia, often Muslims, are perceived and, more importantly, how these complexities shape the political discourse in the Scandinavian countries. 

He quotes several experts from different countries, including Norway, who remark that most immigrants would have been able to integrate better had they arrived in the 1950s, i.e., “before we became so egalitarian and individualistic.”

But who defines what is truly egalitarian and individualistic? Let’s look at what Booth writes of the Swedish worldview of modernity:

Swedes were encouraged to cast off their old ways and move as one towards the light. If something was deemed modern, it was good. A rational, enlightened country such as Sweden had no need for folklore and buckled shoes, for rituals and community customs. Trade unions were modern. Collectivism was modern. Neutrality was modern. Economic and gender equality was modern. Universal suffrage was modern. Divorce was modern. The welfare state was modern. Eventually, multiculturalism and mass immigration were deemed modern.

To achieve this, Sweden resorted to a host of measures. In the post-World War II era, it maintained neutrality in the face of conflicts between its neighbors while also becoming one of the biggest arms manufacturers in the world.

A Swede whom Booth quotes in his book points out that Sweden was also set up differently. It was the state’s goal that everyone should be self-sufficient by the time they turn 18 and should not be dependent on their family.

“In Sweden, self-sufficiency and autonomy is all; debt of any kind, be it emotional, a favor, or cash, is to be avoided at all cost,” Booth adds.

In the Swedish worldview, the goal of life, then, is to maximize one’s individual autonomy, which is ensured by the state in the form of free healthcare, education and state-of-the-art infrastructure, in exchange for higher taxes. 

In other words, it was the vision of Swedish leaders that one shouldn’t have to depend on anyone except the state in what seems like a purely transactional relationship. What this shows is a glaring misunderstanding of human character and relationships.

While the state may provide for all of one’s material needs, one’s emotional needs are fulfilled by their biological and communal bonds. In Scandinavia, the idea is not merely to save children from harmful domestic environments but to eliminate the idea of mutual dependency, accountability, and bonding within a family unit. 

To do so at a societal level feels counterintuitive, especially for a country that seeks to encourage multiculturalism. How is one supposed to respect and make space for someone of a different culture, religion or language if they haven’t learned to do that for their family or community members?

What is normal in Northern Europe can be bizarre to the world

It is no wonder, then, that when #swedengate hit on Twitter last year, many Swedes were taken aback by how the world judged them. It started when a user posted about how, if you are a child hanging out at your friend’s place and it’s time for the family’s dinner, you will not be asked to join the dinner.

Many Swedes defended the practice as part of their culture. However, children of immigrants in Sweden pitched into the conversation, saying that they too had found it strange growing up.

People from the rest of the world responded that they would never let their guests go hungry. In fact, many people from countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East even said their families would feed their guests too much in a show of their warmth and hospitality. 

As trivial as this example is, it does show how an over-emphasis on individual autonomy can make human beings self-centered and self-absorbed to the point of being ridiculous. No responsible state should overlook that building interpersonal relationships right from childhood helps us navigate a multitude of varying social contexts as per our internal emotional needs and is vital for our survival. 

The Scandinavian ideal of modernity is often foisted on the rest of the world as something to aspire to. Should that be so? To take nothing away from Scandinavia’s success, it behooves us to inspect its utopian zeal more closely in our yearning to be modern.

[Erica Beinich edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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