I didn’t know I was allowed to think that

As I have mentioned here before, I have been teaching myself Swedish for a while. It’s honestly more a hobby than a full-fledged intellectual pursuit, but I’ve learned enough that I can read novels fairly well and understand news programs. I don’t get to travel as much as I like, and so I use this to broaden my mind by proxy, to have some insight into a way of thinking that is, despite our commonalities, rather alien to me. Our current regime of celebrating multiculturalism and diversity holds to some basic universals that exist across all cultures, that we are more alike than unlike. This is not really true. Culture is not a dress that you one can change at will but rather a collection of cognitive patterns that may overlap with one another but just as often can exclude one another, so that any cross-cultural encounter can result in someone saying to himself, “I didn’t know that thinking such a thing was even permitted.”

Cases in point:

First off, the other day, I was listening to an episode of Ligga med P3, a Swedish-language podcast focused upon sex and relationships. A little news item in the episode dealt with a recent debate among Swedish prison officials as to whether female inmates should be allowed access to dildos. The prisoner who was arguing for such access insisted that she was more well-behaved and more psychologically stable with occasional experiences of sexual pleasure. The debate among officials centered not upon whether sexual pleasure was important but rather upon the specific need for a dildo, which, after all, could be used as a weapon, and whether simple fingers did not suffice as well.

Second, a recent editorial by Rose Carlmark in Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest daily paper, argued for a revision of the country’s freedom of religion laws in order to protect children. The author had become a Jehovah’s Witness in her teens and recalled how children who belong to that sect face the pressure to exclude themselves socially from other children’s activities, such as cultural festivities or birthday parties. It’s all fine and good for grown-ups to exclude themselves, but to force that upon children, especially backing that up with the threat of ultimate damnation, when children are not capable of understanding the cultural conflict in which they find themselves, is too much, according to Calmark, who asks that the laws of religious freedom in Sweden be amended to prevent children from entering such exclusive groups.

You can probably see how both of these cases rather strike against what we take as common sense here in the United States. Sure, we know ourselves well enough to know that we feel more at peace with the world when sexual gratification is a part of our lives, but isn’t prison about punishing people? I mean, that’s why comedian Ron White could argue years ago for keeping Osama bin Laden alive—ship him to some prison in Texas where he’ll be raped on end for the rest of his life. We take prison rape as acceptable enough to joke about but scoff at the idea of pleasure in prison. After all, in our heart of hearts, we know that prison isn’t actually about rehabilitation—it’s about retribution and exclusion. The open-minded among us like to talk about how sex is natural and simply part of being human, so by extension we must feel that prisoners are less than human.

Likewise with the proposed restrictions on religious freedom. Sure, that’s a great idea, but it strikes against some kernel of American thought we didn’t even know we had. Namely—the belief that children are the property of their parents. Because that’s what it comes down to—we hold as self-evident that parents alone have the right to decide upon the proper course of development of their children, provided they are not endangering said children unduly. After all, freedom of religion is primarily the freedom to spread one’s religion, as spreading religious ideas is inherent to the religious project. However, Sweden didn’t actually have laws allowing religious freedom until the mid-eighteenth century; laws passed in 1860 and 1873 allowed Swedish citizens to leave the state church if they joined another church that was approved by the state. Only in 1951 was is permitted for Swedes to leave religion behind entirely or join a congregation that wasn’t officially registered with the state. They have a long history of the state making decisions vis-a-vis religion—what many Americans would probably dub “interference.”

Dildos for prisoners and banning childhood indoctrination. These are wonderful ideas. And yet these never occurred to me previously. I never knew that I was even allowed to think these things. That initial gut reaction of horror, before I have time to work through the thought, reminds me of the nature of culture. But it also reminds me of the necessity of travel—even if only through the newspapers and podcasts of another land.


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