Political intolerance limits debate in Sweden

16 June 2022

Illustration of a group of people with speech bubbles over their heads

"We must be able to disagree without depriving one another of our rights, so long as no one group is seeking to dismantle our democracy," says Sten Widmalm.

Political intolerance is high in Sweden, and more than half are reluctant to express their views in public. This is shown in a survey conducted by Uppsala University and the SOM Institute in Gothenburg.

“Much of this has never been investigated before,” says Sten Widmalm. “Now we know that there are major problems with political intolerance and self-censorship in Sweden. Political intolerance largely concerns different groups than we anticipated, so there is much surprising about the results."

Together with Thomas Persson, Widmalm leads the research project ‘The Open Society’, which has measured tolerance in Sweden. They are also the editors of the new anthology ‘Skör demokrati’ (Fragile Democracy), which focuses on the same issues.

Sweden Democrats most disliked

Participants in the study were asked to select a group in society whom they disliked. Sweden Democrats came first (22.8% disapproved), followed by vaccine opponents (17.4%) and, in third place, abortion opponents (16.8%).

"Minorities appeared very far down the list, in fact they were hardly mentioned at all," says Sten Widmalm. “This is positive, since it shows that those who are homophobic or hate Muslims are in no way representative of the population. It is small groups who are stirring up hatred on those issues.”

More worrying was the large number prepared to curtail freedom of expression. One in three believe that members of the disliked group should not be allowed to participate in demonstrations, and one in five that they should not be allowed to express their views. As many as 64 per cent believe that members of the disliked group should not be allowed to become prime minister - even though these are all constitutional rights.

“One has not really understood what democracy is all about, in that case. We must be able to disagree without depriving one another of our rights, so long as no one group is seeking to dismantle our democracy," says Sten Widmalm.

Restrictions on freedom of expression

The debate on freedom of expression has been intense this spring, since right-wing extremist Rasmus Paludan toured Sweden and burned Korans. The riots in Örebro, where several police officers were injured, led many to question whether freedom of expression had been taken too far. But restricting freedom of expression to avoid hurt feelings is a dangerous path to take.

Sten Widmalm has seen examples of this in his research on de-democratisation in South Asia. In India, for example, special laws have been introduced to restrict the right of certain groups to meet in the streets and squares and to speak out in public.

"It is used politically and what is done for an assessment becomes very arbitrary. If freedom of speech only applies when no one gets angry or disturbs the peace, then you are empowering those who want to thwart democracy.”

Populism on the rise globally

So why do we see a decline in freedom of expression even in Sweden? According to Sten Widmalm, this is clearly linked to perceived threats.

“A large number of people feel that life has become more insecure in the last decade, and threats have a very powerful effect on political tolerance.”

For example, Widmalm believes that growing problems with organized crime and shootings could have devastating consequences. At the same time, populism is on the rise all across the world.

"Tolerance is premised on the idea that we all should be able to think differently, while populism is based on the idea that some people in power believe they have a monopoly on talking to the people. Populism is part of a de-democratisation movement that has been ongoing for almost 17 years.”

Cancel culture on social media

The SOM survey also investigated the extent of self-censorship in Sweden. Over 50 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: “In today's political climate, I cannot openly express my views because others may find them offensive." This figure is surprisingly high, says Sten Widmalm.

“It indicates that we have very strict opinion corridors. People are simply afraid to reveal what they think for strangers. These can be difficult issues, such as immigration, integration, schools and healthcare.”

This is reflected in cancel culture on social media, where people who express their opinions can be punished.

Singled out as racist

In the debate on immigration and integration, for example, various commentators have been singled out as racists, or have been told: "Now you’ve crossed the line, you're agreeing with the Sweden Democrats". If this happens too often, debate stops, according to Sten Widmalm.

Sten Widmalm
Sten Widmalm, Professor at the Department of
Government. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

“Then people don't want to talk openly about difficult political issues any more. This has happened in the US to a large extent. People can no longer talk to each other about difficult topics, such as abortion rights.

How are electoral politics affected?

“This may prevent pressing issues from coming up in the election campaign. In Sweden, people don't stop voting, we have a great turnout, but people lose an understanding for the meaning of democracy and how it works.”

Widmalm sees it as a worrying sign when politicians, civil servants, teachers and researchers say that democracy is all about having the same opinion.

“On some issues, reaching an agreement is a good thing - but it is quite another thing to say that our opinions should be the same. Getting people to think alike is the business of authoritarian regimes.”

The Open Society

  • The research project "The Open Society" is funded by the new Swedish Psychological Defence Agency, and led by researchers at Uppsala University.
  • The survey was conducted in cooperation with the SOM Institute in autumn 2021, with a random nationally representative sample of 3,500 people. The response rate for the entire SOM survey was 48%.
  • The book ‘Skör demokrati’ (Fragile Democracy) includes contributions from nine authors and researchers: Torbjörn Elensky, Kay Glans, Anna Victoria Hallberg, Johannes Heuman, Mats Hyvönen, Emma Høen Bustos, Håkan Lindgren, Sharon Rider and Siri Sylvan. The editors are Sten Widmalm and Thomas Persson.

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