Traditional and Future Values

In the fall of 2000 the Council of Nordic Ministers summoned a number of countries to a conference on "Values and Visions".  Participants came not only from the Nordic and Baltic countries, but also from Great Britain, Holland, Germany, Poland, Russia, and Egypt, even from the US, South Africa, and Japan.

The conference focused on moral values and ideals, and especially the Scandinavian countries emphasized the need for teacher role models, not only as far as knowledge is concerned, but in an overall way.  Teachers should be "in character" in all their doings, not only unblemished, but also robust, grown-up personalities.
   The contributions from the Nordic countries focused on the following issues, each typical of their sender:

Denmark: community and individuality;
Norway: human rights should include character building besides political rights;
Sweden: ethnic minorities;
Iceland: tolerance and Christian morals;
Finland: internationalism and cultural pluralism (probably due to Finland's proximity to Russia and the ensuing wish to make a stronger appearance in Europe).

It was also interesting to note that in Scandinavia the concern for democracy, care, decency, cultural tolerance, energy and zest are all on the agenda for the raising of the coming generations.

The underlying reason for the conference is, of course, the relatively high number of immigrants to Scandinavia that have created a wish to re-establish or re-examine the moral values we think of as Scandinavian.  To many Scandinavians the above virtues are not only the reason why we should receive and accept the many refugees and immigrants from foreign contras, but also an attempt to clarify for ourselves what it is we hold dear in the North.  Understood, what are the values we want to convey to immigrants?

But, as it was pointed out by an American delegate, the attempted assimilation of immigrants in Scandinavia is a voting down of minority rights whereas an integration would be more fair to minority values and rights.

Most likely, the Nordic countries are just plain immature when it comes to tackling the problems related to multi-cultural societies.  As stated by a British delegate; "Ethnic minorities are not in themselves a problem in the labor market.  The issue is downright racism."

Perhaps the key to the problem is a redefinition of values, away from or in addition to Christian morals.  Certainly, all of the North have lived by Christian values for a thousand years, and our laws are permeated with Christian values which we usually accept as understood, even if most Danes are agnostics.  Thus our private ideas have become synonymous with the public ideas expressed in our legislation.

But no so in the UK: public values are rational ideas like democracy, rights, and duties whereas private ideas belong to the realm of religion and the individual culture.  Also the American representative commented on the Scandinavian habit of regarding multi-culturalism as a problem: instead of a problem we should regard a multi-cultural society as an asset - who knows what is "right"?

True, unlike the situation in the US (and in the UK?) Danish youth is not obliged to learn about the immigrant school mates' cultural background or values, and Danish teachers are not taught how to deal with the issue.

It should not be forgotten, however, that a comparison cannot be made between the experiences of the black community in the US and the many relatively small groups of immigrants in Scandinavia (a total of some 7-8 percent.)  The issue is simply too diverse to draw any conclusions as far as culture is concerned.  Only when Scandinavia has a substantial percentage of immigrants of long standing, can any comparisons be made.

However, the Scandinavian focus on long established (Christian) values and virtues should not be slighted, only, it remains to be discussed how these values can work side by side with other values from other cultures.  Because without an acknowledgment of the rights of other cultures to be - well - "other" cultures in their own right, we will be facing multiple problems in the time to come.

There is, however, yet another "problem": just as soon as we have looked nearer home and disciplined ourselves to accept "other" ways of behaving, we may happen to remember that fairy tales are the same throughout the world.  That's a fact.  Most of the tales told by the brothers Grimm have an equivalent story in the folklore of other cultures, in Africa and elsewhere.

Since fairy tales deal in morals and common values, it is interesting to note that what used to be apparent common values to all the world has now been split up or forgotten. The old, global "reading" of human life from childhood through adult life, from the unknown to the familiar, of power and loyalty, magic and the sexes, openness and generosity... these common values ought to be enough to ensure a common platform for our understanding of other cultures.  After all, humans are not that different.

Well, they seem to be - or do we focus on some unimportant outer difference?

Why is it that we cannot put aside the differences and focus on what we have in common?
   Could it be that many cultures have very strict religious demands, demands that were originally intended to separate people instead of uniting them?  (All religious denominations, sects and factions have started out small and weak, and their initial need for strict social rules is obvious.)
   It is, indeed, strange that the call for a decent behavior is present in all cultures, all the more since that decency seems to be common ground for many peoples.

But just like fairy tales change their outer appearance in accordance with the special living conditions in the particular culture, just it is also to be expected that immigrants will gradually lose their bonds to the old country and assume some of the habits of the new, i.e. dress their values in new costumes.
   The only thing to stop them might be too strict an adherence to values that were formed under other conditions and thought of and carried out as "fundamental" values that cannot be argued.

Thus neither Christianity nor any other religion has the answer to all questions, and hurting as it may be to some, it seems that the only passable way to a common future runs contrary to the road of righteousness.

And then again: isn't the above attitude just ducking the issue in the typical and truly Christian way of turning the other cheek, of not casting the first stone?  Surely, other cultures may perceive that as a weakness, but if we believe in its being the only passable way BECAUSE we acknowledge the need for giving, taking, and not the least, sharing if only to survive ourselves, we have to take it.

See also "Culture Clashes"

October 2000
Erik Moldrup