A commentator recently asked us here at MT whether pointing the finger at racism will ever make it disappear. It’s a fair question and deserves a good answer.
Other ideas that came up in the same comment thread discussed people’s reasons or justifications for not liking immigrants. The suggestion was that the reason for racism is basically grievance, that [some] native Finns see [some] immigrants getting special treatment or simply ‘leeching off welfare’ and that this creates bad feeling which in turn means people are negative towards immigrants and then indulge in what comes across as ‘racism’ by way of expressing that grievance.
It is all too easy to confuse justifications (grievances) as the cause of racism. And by buying into the justification all too easily, people fail to consider the very real possibility that there may be other ‘reasons’ for this grievance towards immigrants. In other words, people justify ‘racism’ by saying that immigrants behave badly.
Let me give more detail. The most obvious fact when it comes to immigrants and their entitlements is that they are set out by the laws and rules of the public administration in Finland, decided not on the basis of comfort, but against very strict criteria designed to facilitate reasonably normal living and integration. Extremely poor immigrants do not have good prospects of integration, after all. This work to tailor the system effectively is done by Finns, with long experience of a Welfare State behind them. Immigrants are treated like any of the millions of persons in Finland that receive public support at different times in their life, on the basis of need.
Everyone, if you can forgive the generalisation, wants more than they need. Whether they try to get more and whether they get more is down to those same rules, which seek to give EQUALLY to all based on their specific needs. I.e. the principle of equity. Thus, comparing immigrants, whose needs have been clearly decided to be different, with other people requiring support is pointless. You might as well compare someone with a cold to someone with heart disease and then complain that the person with heart disease is gettting more in the way of treatment and services.
Second, if for some reason, immigrants get more than they would normally be entitled to because they are immigrants and because of the fears or opinions of the individuals working in the public administration (Finns I assume), then again this is not a matter for immigrants, but a reflection of the unprofessionalism of those individuals, a matter that should warrant investigation if it were to come to light.
So that is the system – designed by Finns and largely administered by Finns.
Next, the need for services is by no means unique to immigrants. Every man, woman and child in Finland receives State services at some point in their lives. Some receive considerably more than others. Many receive more services because of their own poor decision-making, e.g. obese people/smokers/alcoholics/addicts require more health or welfare services as a result of poor lifestyle choices. Young Finns are supported from the womb to the day of graduation and even beyond in their long journey to becoming productive citizens themselves, by their parents and to a large extent by the State. Many people fall ill or fall on hard times and the State is once again there to support them.
So if it was merely a matter of immigrants being in need of support that is the ’cause’ of grievance, i.e. the reason for the grievance, then those unhappy complainers would easily find a lot more to complain about in Finnish society. So why do the immigrants come in for so much special attention?
Further, the grievance centres on the feeling that there are ‘problems’ in immigration, and that if people are not allowed to express that sense of grievance, whether it is overt racism or mere skepticism, then the problems of immigration have been ‘shoved under the rug’, as they would say. But notice how the ‘problems’ are presented as a given. They are not a given, and we are right to question whether the problems are legitimate in scale and kind to warrant such a strong sense of grievance.
Something in this defence of grievance doesn’t add up:
1) The reasons for grievance are not unique to immigrants, so why focus on immigrants?
2) Grievance assumes something is unfair, and yet the system has been designed by Finns and almost certainly designed to be fair.
3) Grievance assumes that immigrants have done something wrong merely on the basis of needing State services, while such criticism is totally indefensible in a so-called ‘Welfare State’.
4) The grievance is based largely on myth and gossip and is not supported by State-gathered data.
So if the grievance is not justified, then why do people have such strong grievances towards immigrants? “I’m unhappy because they are getting more than me! How come I’m not worth as much? That feels like a kick in the teeth! What’s wrong with me? Am I not good enough? Of course, I deserve more than them – I’m actually better than they are. I was born here, my family built this place etc.!” Notice how superiority creeps in as a function of ‘compensation’ for insecurity.
It is no accident that those that complain about the welfare needs of immigrants also complain about the threat to Finnish cultural identity, even though Finland has much more existing cultural diversity than the additional diversity brought by immigrants. E.g. The cultural diversity between religious and non-religious Finns is far greater than the diversity between Christian and Muslim Finns. But the cultural self-defence that we see points to what seems to me a much more plausible reason for these ‘grievances’, that is, psychological insecurity. There is something about this need to bash immigrants that suggests it is almost a rite of passage for some, but passage into what? And why all the anxiety?
It has been said of male gender that you are not born a man, but that you have to prove you are a man somewhere in your teen years. Manhood is a prize, not a birthright, in the world of gendered society. Odd, really, because biologically speaking, ignoring complications, if you have a penis and testicles, then you are a man. But socially, it’s not so straightforward, and especially if you are not straight!
The same applies (by no accident) to the notion of national identity. Some Finns are not happy to accept themselves as Finns simply because ‘they were born and bred in Finland’, but rather have to ‘prove’ their Finnishness by claiming and holding to an identity, and a contested identity at that. In other words, if you say you hate hockey, sauna, makkara, beer, war, forests, lakes and snow, then chances are other Finns would not think you were very Finnish! Of course, that’s rubbish to demand such prerequisites to being Finnish, but that doesn’t stop it being in some way true of people’s attitudes.
Finns argue amongst themselves (like all peoples) about what is best for Finland, and what best represents Finnishness. National identity is something of a project, after all.
And it’s because of this, and the insecurity perhaps of not belonging to the world’s most obvious power hiararchies, that many people become a bit insecure about their Finnish national identity. It is no accident that those that complain loudest are also those that are otherwise the most powerless and in need of proving themselves – i.e. often young, unemployed, single men. And one thing that proves you as a Finn more easily than anything else is to point at a foreigner and say ‘hey, we are better than them, we are FINNS! Long live Finland!’. There you go, signed up member of Finnish society, give the guy (and it usually is a guy) a medal and tell him he’s served his country well (and who cares if he doesn’t have a job!).
Now this free and easy access into Finnish national identity is none other than using racism (or overt cultural superiority) to gain membership of an exclusive and insecure club! However, doing this openly smells too much like sabre-rattling machismo, so it obviously has to be dressed up as something else. Hence the long hunt and search (typical masculine pursuits) for negative info (meal prize?) about the foreigner to ‘prove’ Finland’s superiority by way of facts, though the conclusion was, of course, always a foregone conclusion.
Funny how you never really hear Finns saying that other people’s cultures are superior! That’s a bit surprising given the great number of other cultures in the world, don’t you think? Well, that would be an obvious no-no and would lead to automatic excommunication from the Finn club!
Now back to our commentator’s most important point, which is, what to do about it, apart from wave the finger and accuse the numpties of racism? Indeed, we cannot merely point the finger at racism, and hope it goes away. We have to give people a genuine reason to not want to be racist in any way. We have to show clearly how it reflects on something rather pointless and futile, and how there are much better alternatives out there. There are alternative ways of creating national identities, without getting caught up in pointless comparisons and proving who is superior.
The problem with nationalism is that it can create as many problems as it solves. We do need some national cohesion and, in that, states and nations function very well as ways of ordering the complexity of human society. However, when the sabre-rattling, initiation rites and national celebrations that come with that nationhood start to overdo the ‘we are superior’, all sorts of potential conflicts begin to arise. The problem is then one of any masculinity/hegemony allowed to run riot – destruction. Destruction of trust, of understanding, of knowledge (real knowledge), of security, of freedom, of tolerance, of diversity (natural), of hope.
In condemning the cultural inferiority of outsiders, we systematically work to undermine any semblence of our own state of cultural advancement. It is no accident that the more the Far Right have gained in political power historically, the more society as we know it has changed for the worse. For all the happy justifications and talk of the glorious ‘community’, the reality is something else, as it would be when it’s driven by insecurity, manufactured hatred (gentle or otherwise), fear of not belonging, fear of change, or fear of being ‘too different’.
To sum it up – we become a neurotic and paranoid entity. Do we just wag the finger at this entity? No, we must call out this near-insane, childish, macho, power-mongering neuroticism for what it is. And hope that people stop for just a second to ask if it’s really all worth it, i.e. trying to belong by proving we are superior! There are other ways to create belonging, that are far less neurotic, after all. There are human values that absolutely transcend national identities, and which make life between people and nations more or less civilised.
What the original commentator, who I mentioned at the start, was saying or was saying other Finns were saying in as many words, is that:
Finland needs better immigrants to better fit into its better society
Now, let’s strip out the ‘superiority’ built into that for a second; let’s take out the ‘better this’ and ‘better that’ and see what we have left?
Finland needs immigrants to fit into society.
I have no problem with that. And that really is the difference between a racism-fuelled debate about immigration and a normal debate about immigration.
Just to reiterate an important point from the analysis, it is my belief that with racism, superiority gives rise to the need to find grievances as a form of justification. Anger against immigrants is largely manufactured, as a justification for the implied superiority of the host nation, and as a means of belonging and a short-cut to building a sense of nationhood. But it comes at a price.
So it’s not just about pointing out the racism – it’s about understanding it and not letting the fears that drive it become the norm in our society. Let’s not be paranoid. Let’s not seek to be superior when building our sense of nation and of self.