Faten goes to the polls/Norwegian in 33 days

By Fanny Falkenberg

No one could foresee it becoming an issue in last year’s Norwegian General Election: the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s (NRK) launch of the TV show ‘Faten goes to the polls’. Before the show was even aired, NRK had received around 6000 complaints, different in nature, but all deeply dissatisfied with a hijab-wearing woman being the protagonist of the show. The discussion around what the hijab symbolised, and whether it was compatible with Norwegian values, fired off.

However, the NRK’s stated position was clear: the programme breached no rules. NRK’s general director, Tor Gjermund Eriksen, was upset by the complaints and called them the ‘dark forces that didn’t accept the Muslim youth’.

This article is not yet another attempt to draw a normative line on whether this show was acceptable or not. The aim is to show how a reconceptualization of national culture can provide deeper understandings of the dynamics behind nationalist movements. Instead of seeing national culture as a noun, something that is given and fixed, I argue that national culture should be understood as practice. This means that rather than analysing whether Faten fits in to a given ‘Norwegian national culture’ (however that might be defined), I can instead focus on how national cultures are differently practiced. Here, I draw attention to how NRK has itself produced contradictory images of ‘Norwegianness’. In some cases, such as in ‘Faten goes to the polls’, Norwegian culture is seen as inclusive and fluid. Here, we learn that Faten is Norwegian. She has a Norwegian passport, speaks Norwegian, and tells us that what she wears does not make her ‘less’ Norwegian. Other times, as in the programme Norwegian in 33 days, Norwegian culture is presented in a much more fixed manner.

The crux of the argument is that national cultures are practised on an everyday basis, implicitly or explicitly, by politicians, ourselves, and – as examined in this article – the media. Claims of Norwegianness happen daily throughout society – opinions over what it means to be Norwegian differ, contradict and change.

Norwegian in 33 days

‘Norwegian in 33 days’ was aired in March last year. The programme documents a research project aimed at integrating Syrian refugees into Norwegian society. On NRK’s webpage, we find the following description:

‘In 33 days, Syrian refugees will learn everything about being Norwegian. They will live exactly how Norwegians live; from attending kids’ parties to live in elderly homes. It reminds us of a reality show, but it is a tool to help refugees find their place in society’

I will let the pictures explicate the content:

Norwegian Constitution Day:

Norwegian Youth Life:

Norwegian Friday Nights:

Norwegian Christmas:

Embracing ‘Norwegianness’/Problematising difference

As one can observe, this programme presents a very clear idea of what being Norwegian ‘is’. To be Norwegian is to do certain things in a specific way. There are Norwegian Friday nights, Norwegian youth life, Norwegian Christmas, etc. The key success for integration is then to understand Norwegian culture and adapt thereafter. Yet, what is here considered ‘Norwegian’ differs from what Faten claimed it was. Faten’s understanding of Norwegianness was plural and changing, whereas this understanding is monolithic and fixed.

The point is simple but deserves to be restated: cultures are practiced differently in the everyday. Drawing from this finding, we can gain deeper understandings of the dynamics behind nationalist movements.

First, nationalist movements do not emerge from the fringes of society, but from the centre. When studying nationalism, we tend to focus on the exceptional, the ‘outsiders’, the ones who differ from ‘us’. However, the success of nationalist movements is not limited to the success of persuasive demagogues. In fact, nationalist movements are made possible by a sense of belonging that occurs in the everyday. In ‘Norwegian in 33 days’, the refugees are told that to understand Norwegian culture they need to embrace Norwegian routines that are carried out through a national filter. For instance, when Norwegians decorate their Christmas trees with small Norwegian flags, the nation becomes imbricated in the celebration of Christmas. These mundane acts appear non-political and are often overlooked at present. Nevertheless, these dense webs of mundane practices executed through a national logic result in the possibility to distinguish Christmas from Norwegian Christmas. A national consciousness emerges and through the continuity of these practices it is maintained. This nationalist consciousness – whether it relates to Christmas, sports, songs, myths, jokes, or whatever you claim as national – can be used for political purposes. When nationalists claim that we need to protect ‘our’ own culture, people link it to these daily practices as they are embedded in a national logic. The nation becomes challenged, and so does the daily routines of its adherents. Consequently, these everyday practices are not counter to exceptional nationalist discourses – they co-constitute one another.

Second, even though we see distinct claims of Norwegianness, these claims are always contested. None of us are born with the idea of what a national culture is, but are instead socialised into different understandings. Our conceptions of national cultures are neither something most of us often express, reflect upon nor are concerned by. Nevertheless, when people feel that their culture is threatened, they feel the need to speak up, either for a more plural understanding or a more rigid one. As noted, NRK simultaneously speaks for both. Some of its programmes indicate a clear fixed vision of Norwegian culture (such as ‘Norwegian in 33 days’), whereas others indicate a much more fluid vision of what it is to be Norwegian (such as ‘Faten goes to the Polls’). Of course, I do not claim that there exists a direct causal link between ‘Norwegian in 33 days’ and the 6000 complaints NRK received. Yet, NRK, along with a range of other societal factors, plays a part in presenting narratives – narratives that can either reinforce people’s conception of Norwegianness or challenge it. These 6000 people are therefore not just the ‘bad apples’ that ‘don’t get it’. They are the products of a variety of societal forces, claiming that Norwegian culture is fixed and should not be changed. This allows us to see how fixed rationales are not limited to the ‘dark forces’, but fluctuate throughout a variety of societal practices. Hence, it is crucial to direct our critiques at not only the outcomes of these rationales, but also at the rationales themselves.

Finally, we are now in a better position to criticise claims of fixed cultures. In fact, this programme, if anything, shows how difference can be problematized in unexpected places. The intention with ‘Norwegian in 33 days’ is not to foster a fear of migrants. It is not to blame them for our grievances. Rather, it represents an attempt to show how immigrants are capable of adapting to Norwegian culture, and even more impressively, how this can be done in 33 days. One might ask, then; what is the issue? The issue is how the programme links norms to culture, and projects that culture as national. By projecting it as national, they claim that ‘everyone is doing it’. Well, I can assure you that a lot of the cultural traditions these refugees are introduced to are not something everyone does. This Norwegian culture is not the essence – it is a claim. By solidifying this essence and idealising our culture as solid, fixed and unified, we problematize difference on unjustifiable grounds. Not celebrating Norwegian Christmas becomes a problem. Not going cross-country skiing becomes a problem. Not eating Norwegian food (which apparently is now tacos) becomes a problem. It is not fair to expect refugees to integrate into an idealised society, for it is one that does not exist. Therefore, when essentialist claims are made, we need to point to these exceptions that allow us to create cracks in this smooth edifice of Norwegianness. Only by so doing, can we open up spaces for difference. For if there is one thing that makes a culture truly rich, it is exactly this: to recognise difference as a strength.

Fanny is a third-year IR student at King’s College London. She is particularly interested in politics of security and identity, and the role of the everyday therein.

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