Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Hygge, ethnocentricity and war - Musings on the European experience 1

On my first morning in Copenhagen, I left the flat early in the morning just to wander. I wanted to familiarise myself with the immediate area. By accident, I ended up in the Christiansborg Slot precinct. I will describe my full reactions later. For the moment, I want to focus on one things I found, a public art photographic exhibition.

Studying the exhibition in the early morning light, I found that it was an expression of what in Australia would be called progressive views. The first section focused on refugees, the second on families, families of all types and compositions - single. merged, gay couples, a whole pot pouri of relationships.

In the period leading up to my departure, the Australian and European media had been full of the growing European refugee crisis. For that reason, I was very interested in the display. I apologise for the standard of the photos.

The introduction to the refugee component is set out below. You can see the focus on refugees and conflict, on the local experience. You can also sense underlying tensions in the use of first names for the sake of "their own and their families safety."  

By comparison with Sweden, the number of refugees in Denmark appears relatively small both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the Danish population. On the streets of Copenhagen or on public transport, the proportion of those visibly different whether by ethnicity or dress is very small compared to say Sydney.

Australians forget or don't  always realise just how diverse Australia has become especially in the big cities compared to many other parts of the world. In Denmark, difference stands out.

While the values coming from Denmark's Lutheran heritage continue, modern Denmark is a very secular society, more so than Australia measured by the proportion of the population professing religious faith or engaged in religious activities. In these circumstances, it is the evolving values of the secular society that provide the dominating glue that holds the society together.

I discussed hygge in Introducing the Danish concept of hygge. As an Australian and especially one from a country background, I found aspects of hygge instantly familiar. The Australian equivalent is mateship. Like hygee, mateship is a secular phenomenon. Like hygge, mateship can be interpreted in various ways. Like hygge, mateship is incorporated in national dialogue and affects behaviour in different ways.

While hygge and mateship have significant differences, both have a common origin in the need for people to combine in the face of adversity. Hygge with its emphasis on coziness, harmony and cooperation can provide a vehicle for integration, for admission. Indeed, I saw aspects of this on the streets of Copenhagen. However, it can also be a vehicle for exclusion, for a restatement of them and us.

Denmark has experienced war in a way Australia has not. This is true for all European countries. It affects attitudes. This quote from the German Lutheran theologian Martin Niem√∂ller was included in the display.

The Second World War was all about ethnicity. Yes, other elements were present, but ethnicity was central. In saying this, we generally focus on the treatment of the Jews and Gypsies, but this was a result of a deeper ethnic divide.

The concept of lebensraum was central to the Second World War in Europe. Lebensraum involved a desire to bring together a scattered people considered to be superior, the Germans, and give them an expanded homeland. More than 50 million people died as a result, many millions more were forced to relocate during and after the War, The scars exist to today.

The political battles now going on in Europe represent a conflict between those who want to re-assert national or ethnic identity and those who seek a broader vision. There is actually nothing wrong in wishing to preserve identity, although many on the left would deny this. However, it becomes very problematic indeed when the desire to preserve identity becomes wrapped in language that asserts superiority, the special value of difference.  .

I will continue this muse in my next post, looking at further aspects of the European experience.


Anonymous said...

Jim, I went searching for something/where else to connect 'hygge' and 'mateship' and stumbled upon this blog - - a specific post, but do please go back to the home page and have a browse. I think it is an excellent blog, and very well written.

Just for the hey, I am going to reference this post on that blog, in the hope that the author might be willing to give an opinion. I think that would be very interesting.


Lone Veirup Johansen said...

Thanks for a great post and thanks to kvd for putting me onto your blog.

I too saw the exhibition in the court yard of Christiansborg Slot, the pinnacle of Dansh power and home of that great tv-show Borgen. I think Niemuller's poem is one of the more profound things that has been written about the consequence of prejudice and injustice on the democratic freedoms of the Western world. It describes how the 'thin edge of the wedge' quickly devastate those values. and come to affect all of us

To me the refugee crisis in Europe challenge the concept of national borders (a relatively new concept in the history of homo sapiens) and, much more existentially, our humanity.

As you observe, recent Danish history has been one of homogeny and this has made adjustment to the relatively small influx of people of 'other ethnic backgrounds' more difficult. A fear of loosing Danishness, Danish culture, in all the new, the scarf wearing women, the attack on Krudtt√łnden in February ( and the erosion of Danish language. Indeed, it is said that a nationalistic, Danish language protecting policy saw Denmark loose South Schleswig to the Preussans in the war of 1864 ( and in spite of a referendum after WWI, this territory was not regained.

You note that Danes experienced WWII in a way that Australians never did - a view I share. Occupation still lives in the memory of every Dane today, whether or not they lived through it ( In Australia Indigenous Australians are the ones to have experienced occupation, as well as those arriving as refugees after or during wars. Yes Darwin was attacked, the Brisbane line was drawn in the face of the Japanese threat, and lives were lost, but this has a different, more platonic effect on the national cultural experience than that of occupation.

These tendencies pull in different directions in the Danish psyche. On the one hand pride at being an open nation, willing to give a helping hand ( and on the other fear of being obliterated by difference, by its status as a lilliput nation in an international game. Of course, in the mix the Danish welfare system is seriously challenged by influx, not so much of refugees, but by EU's policy that all EU citizens are treated equally in Denmark.

I had never thought of hygge as a potentially us-them factor, but I see what you mean. A bit like the mean girls in the school yard excluding those less pretty, less popular, less in. Danes can be very hard to get close to, in spite of their jovial exterior. Hygge might make that even harder.

I will keep exploring your blog. Thanks for writing.

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, thank you for a wonderful connection. Lone, congratulations on your first 5000. That is, of course, just a start.

Early this year Helen, eldest, started working for Maersk. My visit to Denmark and beyond was a birthday present particularly connected with the Rugby World Cup. The posts I am writing now are just an initial exploration of some of my reactions, one that I want to share with some of my broader readership. And how fantastic that you should have seen that exhibition and consequently know what I was referring too.

I will follow up the links that you have given and look forward to continued conversation. Mean girls I'm not sure about, but all the expats seem to agree that Danes can be hard to get close to. It's not that Danes are unfriendly, just hard to get that closeness. Australians are, I think, more casually friendly. However, to get that closeness that is the essence of hygge is actually just as hard in Australia.

Once again, my thanks for responding and to kvd. Be assured that I will follow up.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Jim, reading about hygge in Michael Booth's book I was also struck by the similarity between hygge and mateship. I get the impression that hygge may be more about insiders and outsiders, but it is difficult to generalise because of the "looking after your mates" phenomenon in this country.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, Winton. Lone's blog above may provide further insights if you haven't already checked.