Anti-Equality as Sacred Value? Reflections on Nordic Racialization | Peter Hervik


Nordic egalitarianism has historically been built on ideas of sameness, but in the post-1989 world, politicians and the news media have taken a new turn. In the 1990s, Somali refugees were singled out as being so different that integration was impossible (Hervik 1999). A decade later, the Muhammad Cartoon Affair of 2005/6 revealed that a new core value was developing. Analysis of the media coverage showed how Danish journalists and commentators were closely tied to the neo-nationalist network in the U.S. Northeast with whom they shared core values. This included the neo-conservative maxim that there can be no moral equivalency between Western and non-Western values (Hervik 2008). One of the cross-national features of the neo-nationalist surge is the ideology of anti-migrant, anti-foreigner, anti-non-Western, or anti-visible minority in various combinations, with the anti-Muslim antagonism being the most dominant. The essentialist constructions of negatively represented “foreigners” function in populistic versions as rituals of opposition (Tannen 2002) that create an in-group community. Through a language of cultural threats and the need for securitizing physical borders and social boundaries, effective discourse revolves around a nation in danger that must be protected (Hervik 2018). Within this scheme, Nordic ideas and practices of “gender equality” are being used to exclude foreigners as well as deny entrance (Siim and Stoltz 2014; Törngren 2011). In this way, both gender and cultural differences are essentialized and declared “incompatible” with “our” values in Denmark (Hervik 2011; for a comprehensive new study of Racialization in the Nordic Countries, see Hervik 2019).

This raises the question of whether the strong Nordic philosophy of egalitarianism (Gullestad 1992; 2006) is being abandoned for new “naturalized” forms of inequality, i.e., an ideology of inequality. Egalitarianism is maintained as a Nordic sacred value with contradictions that hold seeds of neo-nationalism and racialization constructing a new form of inequality. The practice of anti-equality must therefore be explored as a dynamic that arises in reaction to discourse and practice of equality.


Danish anthropologists and migration scholars have documented the emergence of the idea of incompatibility of Danish and “non-Western” cultural values. Danish debates about the management of 17,000 Bosnian refugees in the early 1990s revealed right-wing concerns about avoiding an effect on Danish cultural identity (Larsen 1997). In 1997, headlines emerged in which Somalis were depicted as different as aliens and stories highlighted their “incompatibility” (Fadel, Hervik, and Vestergaard 1999). The Danish People’s Party manifesto declared Muslim culture as incompatible; first put on paper in 2001 (Dansk Folkeparti 2001; Meret, 2010). The idea entered the right-wing government and became part of mainstream political rhetoric (Feischmidt and Hervik 2014).

Recently, comments made by interviewees illustrate the construction of the “incompatible” others. The following statements draw from “A Study of Experiences and Reactions to Racialization in Denmark” (SERR). “I love Denmark, but my country is being undermined by the immigration of people who, for the most part, do not fit into our culture” (Ann, professor, 60). “To be realistic, IQ is falling in Europe because we marry a population that is far less intelligent and has more disabilities…” (Hanne, retired, 70). A headmaster of a Danish high school has the “problem” of indigenous Danish students becoming “a minority.” Ditte, a 45-year old politician, declares: “This is a huge social problem we have; that the two cultures do not go together, as long as there is no will.” In the school statements, Danish students become “white students with ‘one culture’” and non-Danes as non-whites comprise “another culture”, which is then considered to be the “problem.” When regarding people as having “incompatible values”, it becomes a legitimacy for reducing their rights and increasing their obligations. Inequality is being promoted. Thus, the Ministry of Integration celebrates on its official website the 100 restrictive integration policies that further the gap between those who are seen to belong, and those who don’t (

Extremism as an Ideology of Inequality?

In the early 1960s, the American political conservative, corporate elite realized that to challenge the gains of the anti-racist movement they needed to rearticulate their gains. The rhetoric used phrases that did not refer to racial themes but promoted rhetoric of justice and equal opportunity: “freedom to choose,” “assault on ‘the community’” and ‘the family’” , “reverse racism” and “colorblindness” (Omi and Winant 2015, 185-219). A few years later, a shift in rhetoric was also noted in Europe. Barker talked about “neo-racism” in Britain (1981). Taguieff (1988) found“racial” differences in France were related not to color, but to cultural, national, and religious identities, and Stolcke (1995) summed up the changes of political emphasis in the concept of “cultural fundamentalism” that appeared as instinctive defenses of national territories. These analyses revealed that neo-racism had emerged as subtle coding and facilitated political denials of racism. Nevertheless, defending the nation against a “cultural threat” somehow provided legitimacy to the racialization of these groups and the naturalization of austerity policies and practices, which have been cast in left-right terms. The binary division, “left” and “right” (and the West vs. Islam, which is not being subject to the “left” and “right” opposition) is deceiving, yet in harmony with the structure of the news media and their need for simplification and largest audience reach (Peterson 2007). The political “dumbing down” follows the same trajectory (Williams 2014; see also Hervik 2018).

Upon further critical conceptual scrutiny, Mondon (2013) found that “right” and “left” could be boiled down to “equality” and “inequality.” The political “right” was preoccupied with “inequality” and its opposition“the left” was concerned about ideas of equality. The extreme right does not directly and pro-actively promote inequality, but equality is an outcome of its reaction to the left (ibid.). This inequality, assumed by the extreme right, can take various forms such as “nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and ethnocentrism” (ibid.). These forms are “…manifestations of the principle of fundamental human inequality, which lies at the heart of right-wing extremism” (Mondon 2013, 18). Now we can re-formulate Mondon’s findings and state that the right may have an ideology of inequality, but the interviews and general discourse on migrants and refugees reveals an “anti-equality”. Despite the extremist quotes, people are of equal worth, just not in Denmark. One necessary step in the argument for this hypothesis would be to analyze the routine associations and meanings of the terms “equality” and “inequality.”

Inequalities of Equality

According to Toivanen (2004), international conventions contain articles that protect the right to equality, but little about the specifics. Gullestad (1992, 2006) researched these notions in-depth finding that even if the term equalitywas perceived by Norwegians as universal, it was limited to people who were “alike,” which Gullestad found at the inter-personal level, and not on a national level or in relation to people from other countries. When this egalitarian philosophy was applied to people who were “not the same”, they could not easily be accommodated as equal (Fadel 1999). Nordic exceptionalism and the celebratory self-understanding of equalitarianism, is so strong, to uphold “sameness” and therefore “equality”, the people representing “difference” cannot stay; the core constituents of neo-racism being “different” and therefore “incompatible.” (Sandset 2019). Such emphasis comes not from critical analysis but from the Us Vs. Themdivisions within nationalist narratives.

From her study of the anthropology of law, Toivanen found the state perceives and approaches the “difference” of its inhabitants through evaluating them as “foreign” or “others”. She found that victims of differential treatment are seen as “poorer than the average person, less educated… and have less language competency to address his/her problems than the average person” (Toivanen 2004,199). There is an inequality in the perception of the “refugee as victim of racialization”, who is also incapable of expressing themselves in proper legal and bureaucratic terms. And if they are, they are either regarded as “cheaters” or “welfare tourists” or aided by domestic “traitors” (Boe and Hervik 2008).

From public debates, Facebook commentaries, and interviews with radical commentators on social media, a consistent pattern emerges in the belief that journalists and politicians do not tell the “truth” about the danger of non-Western migrants, both in numbers and cultural practices. The truth, according to the interviewees, is much like the Eurabia conspiracy theory (first presented by author Oriana Fallaci and the historian Bat Ye’or in 2004 and 2005, see van Buuren 2013, Bangstad 2014) that the asylum-seekers and refugees are undeserving of “our” hospitality and arrive only to impose their incompatibly and inferior cultural values to take over “our” nation. Domestic adversaries help them and therefore must be countered with hard facts.

Here are a couple examples: Lotte explained her anger towards domestic adversaries and rebuffed the rights of refugees to sue the Danish state . “[A refugee]…wanted to take a case to court against the Danish state since she had to wait so long to get family reunification…How hard is it to be grateful for the help you get?” And Margrethe criticizes a new organization that helps asylum-seekers and refugees with practical, legal, and administrative advice: “They often think that we should receive [refugees]kindly because we have a responsibility towards them since we have bombed their country. Their argument is moronic.”

Concluding Remarks

More research is needed to investigate the hypothesis that the supporters on the political right gain much of its outrage as opposition to those people with whom they disagree and whom they think don’t understand the “truth.” The truth, or their truth, is the truth about the numbers and motives of Muslims coming to Denmark, and Europe more broadly. If it is true that efforts made by the migrant-friendly are critiqued and attacked for trying to circumvent the belief that people, cultures, and civilizations are considered incompatible and undeserving, then a horrific new hypothesis arises. The more good things good people do in humanitarian terms for asylum-seekers, migrants, and refugees, the more resistance to those activities we can expect.



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Peter Hervik, Danish Social Anthropologist, Associate Professor at the Department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University, Denmark. Hervik has conducted research among the Yucatec Maya of Mexico and in Denmark on issues of identity, categorization, racialization, neo-racism, neo-nationalism, populism, ethnicity, multiculturalism, tolerance, and news media particularly the coverage of ethnic and religious issues.



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