Dr Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki Department of Geography, had the following letter printed in the Opinions column of Finland’s leading national daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat on Sunday 23 August 2009. The sub-editor chose to print this letter under the heading Finnishness is taboo to the Swedes. The following translation is submitted in good faith.
I used to find love-hate relationships between neighbours funny, but a two-year assignment in Stockholm has raised many quite difficult questions.
The Finnish language and Finnishness as a culture seem to be taboo to Stockholmers. I suspect that this phenomenon is particularly evident in the Stockholm region, as many people of Finnish descent live there.
The roots of the taboo are in the subordinate status of Finland, but also especially in Sweden’s rather efficient integration policy. This policy has been adopted so forcefully, however, that all newcomers to the country are nowadays lumped together in the same invandrare [immigrant] category.
One solid example of the persistence of this old way of thinking was our landlord’s question: “presumably you will be flying the Swedish flag on the flagpole?”, even though it was already clear that we would only spend a few years in Sweden.
Attitudes towards Finnish people came to a head in the 1970s when large numbers of Finnish industrial workers moved to Sweden. The broad caricature nowadays is that Stockholmers treat all Finns as second-class citizens, regardless of profession or education.
While I always got a good reception when I spoke English in shops, speaking Swedish with a Fenno-Swedish accent was mainly greeted with contempt.
In other words, the Finnish language and culture are not tolerated in Sweden. There have been numerous examples of workplaces where the employer has forbidden the speaking of Finnish. The same thing arises, for instance, at tourist attractions: the sign on the emergency exit at the city’s Junibacken children’s museum is in Swedish, English and Russian, but not in Finnish, even though a substantial proportion of visitors come from Finland.
Contempt for the Finnish character strongly pervades the whole of Swedish society. The attitudes of the mainstream population have made people of Finnish descent so ashamed of their roots that they no longer want to learn their native language. I also heard Swedes of Finnish descent come out with openly racist remarks about non-European immigrants, which I think is an indication of the socio-ethnic hierarchy in Swedish society. In other words Sweden’s subjugated Finnish population is perpetuating the cycle of abuse.
The attitude of Finns towards our Estonian cousins shares common features with attitudes towards Finnishness in Sweden: You never come across the Estonian language in Helsinki, even though there are plenty of Estonian tourists and workers in the city.
These attitudes are persistent and will not change overnight, but if they remain taboo, then there is no way for them to change.
The third paragraph from the end of this letter is perhaps the most compelling, as it describes the passive-aggressive mindset that arises in individuals and communities whose cultural identity has been crushed. This goes to the core of the difference between assimilation and integration, as the former requires immigrants to abandon their cultural identity, while the latter requires them to engage with society at large to find ways of expressing that identity in a new context.
One of the starkest descriptions of assimilation has passed into popular culture in the programme of the Borg alien collective as encountered in Star Trek: the Next Generation. The narrative runs as follows:
Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.
Resistance is futile. Your life as it has been is over. From this time forward, you will service us.
(Star Trek: The Next Generation, episode: “The Best of Both Worlds”, 1990)
There is a delightful scene in the feature film Star Trek: First Contact (1996) in which a 21st century character comments that The Borg “sounds Swedish”, but after encountering the collective then decides “definitely not Swedish”. Perhaps Dr Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen has given us cause to consider this question once again.
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