Ronan Keohane discusses Borealism by highlighting the Nordic Jante law with reference to Aksel Sandemoose’s “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks”
Borealism – a form of exoticism – has become a hot topic in recent years as Nordic nations have become subject to idealised stereotypes which glorify their societies and cultures. This is largely due to the fact that Scandinavian countries are widely-acclaimed for topping equality indexes in numerous sectors, promoting gender parity, and having peaceful and egalitarian social democracies. While these are undoubtedly remarkable achievements, such widespread praise overshadows more negative aspects of Nordic society which are not equally accounted for. Egalitarianism and conformity are two prominent cultural features of the Nordic model, largely because such traits were historically seen as fundamental to civilisational survival and inherently promoted peace and social harmony for centuries.
There is a great berth of empirical evidence to suggest such desirable Nordic egalitarianism: Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland frequently top rankings in gender equality indexes, Icelandic women comprise of 70% of domestic university graduates, and Norway is considered to be the most economically equal society in the world. This raises the question of why it is so often the case that statistics regularly reflect so favourably on Nordic countries. Many have pointed to what is known as ‘the Jante Law’.
The Jante Law – a sociological notion that refers to pluralistic and conformist attitudes within Nordic societies – is something that has been entrenched in the region’s culture for centuries. Aksel Sandemoose first outlined these existing cultural attitudes in his 1933 novel “En flyktning krysser sitt spor” which roughly translates to “a fugitive crosses his tracks”. Through the creation of the narrative of this novel, it seems that Sandemoose was able to parody and convey this quintessential collectivist Nordic mentality. The setting of the novel is believed to be imitative of his homeplace. In this novel he illustrated a small Danish town with virtually no anonymity where people have to live by ten rules known as the “law of Jante”. In short, each of the rules of the law essentially state that one is not supposed to believe they are better than anyone else, thinking highly of oneself is disapproved of, personal ambition has a negative connotation, and unique talents ought not to be pursued. The overarching premise behind the creation of these laws was to instill modesty and collectivism amongst the populace to assure stability and social harmony. Anyone who transgressed beyond these written laws became the subject of public antagonism.
While recent history has seen increasing cohorts seeking to transcend this deeply rooted social code, many striking examples of humility and frugality amongst wealthy Nordic people remain: Ingvar Kamprad (the Swedish founder of IKEA and the second richest man in Europe with a net worth of 39.3 billion USD) is a famously humble figure who still flies economy and is known for adopting a moderate lifestyle and living frugally. Similarly, Olav Thon (a Norwegian real estate developer with a net worth of 6.2 billion USD) famously buys his clothes in second hand yard sales and is known for his similarly austere attitude. Some argue that this is merely billionaire penny-pinching, however others suggest that this lack of wealth displaying is closely linked to the entrenched Jante law.
Arguably negative effects
The Jante Law has also become a subject of criticism within Nordic countries and has even been linked to depression and suicide rates by various peer reviewed journals. Many have argued that the conformity that has been instilled as a result of these laws has ultimately led to a stagnant monoculture where there is repressive conformity with little openness to cultural diversity. Niels Lillelund, a famous writer and journalist, cited how Denmark has a culture where people who exhibit any form of exceptionalness or extraordinariness are not lifted up or supported, with such mobility being overlooked and ultimately sacrificed for the so-called ‘sacred, ordinary mediocrity’. A society that values harmony and ordinariness could arguably have negative mental impacts on people who are intellectually gifted but are not given the support needed to challenge their gifted minds, they could potentially feel intellectually under-stimulated and struggle with realising their fullest potential and capabilities.
In addition to this, a society which values monoculture is not going to be immediately welcome to foreigners. While Nordic governments have been widely commended for showing tolerance in accepting large numbers of immigrants and refugees, the values of conformity and sameness of the Jante law have been so greatly entrenched within national cultures that xenophobia is still an ongoing issue. This has long been linked to a whole range of other mental health issues and sociological struggles that immigrants can experience as a result of living in xenophobic environments including identity crises, cultural alienation, internalised racism, inferiority complexes and more.
Hygge (which loosely translates to cosy) values, above all else, comfort and social harmony. This has become another form of Borealism under mass-market capitalism with the concept being turned into an appealing aesthetic. Hygge is a Danish and Norwegian word which denotes a wholesome ambiance of comfort. It has many translations in other Nordic languages too. While it sounds nice as a general principle and is widely known and celebrated, it has not been above criticism. People have remarked that as a result of this strong cultural value surrounding comfort, contentious issues are shied away from, not being brought to the table in case there is disagreement or disillusionment which does not align with the ‘hygge’ atmosphere. Hygge aesthetics have also been criticised for glamourising a more sedentary and self-indulgent lifestyle which, in excess, is known for its negative impacts on mental health. Most recently, hygge has also been criticised for being connected to the rise of a radical right-wing sentiment in Denmark which has sparked more intense political division within the country.
In short, romanticisation and glamorization of Nordic countries, aesthetics and cultures overlooks the more negative aspects of living in Nordic societies. Borealism has become an under-examined factor behind these negative sociological and psychological cultural aspects. The aestheticisation and idealisation of these societies is reductive and ultimately leads to them being not fully understood.