By Marina Dokken
New Year’s Eve 2016 was a relief for many. After a tumultuous year of dead icons, a controversial US president, the Great Barrier Reef’s virtual death and much more, reaching that strike of the clock – that moment of closure and new beginnings – felt like an achievement. Maybe, we hoped, this had been just a random, terrible year, and now everything would return to normalcy. However, 2017 has shown that this is no trend, but symptoms of a Western identity crisis of clashing values. Looking at the right to free speech, preservation of our past, and sustainability of our future, here is an analysis of this year’s events and possible developments in 2018.
Free speech has been hotly debated throughout 2017. The alt-right’s rise in Western society has posed the difficult question of where free speech ends and citizen protection begins. A pivotal event in Swedish history was the Nazi march in Gothenburg. The demonstration was squandered by a much larger crowd of counter-protesters, who flooded the city to protest the values of the Nazi ideology. This led to criticism of the lacking debate, some even claiming that the alt-right movement has grown from censorship of the popular debate and the vilifying of alternative beliefs. Counter-arguments claim that the alt-right ideology is incompatible with free speech itself, as it would gag minorities through policies or simple fear. Though these two sides may seem incompatible, that is not necessarily true. A central issue is the value we attribute to people’s struggles, whether with class, race, gender or something else. Intersectionality must become a buzzword in 2018; to acknowledge the struggles of unemployed Swedes, of Syrian refugees, and of unemployed Syrian Swedes. Because these struggles are not as different as one would think.
Another related controversy is that of heritage. With the current refugee crisis, concerns have risen about the preservation of receiving countries’ cultures. Many criticise the “political correctness” that has become a focus in everything from education to cinema, claiming that the inclusion of another group’s story eradicates their own. The narrative is rigidly dual – multiculturalism as either assimilation or friction – which allows for easy manipulation of the masses and provides clear scapegoats that justify their actions and fears as self-defence. However, the narrative, like a black Hermione or all-female Ghostbusters, is fiction. It is easy to forget the complexities of cultural exchange, but it has in fact shaped traditions across borders for all of human history. Furthermore, this exchange is not only natural, but beneficial. Where would we be without Roman roads, Ancient Greek geometry, Chinese compasses, Arab numbers? A cornerstone of evolution is genetic variety; without it, a species cannot adapt to its environment or develop useful abilities. I believe that this applies – and always has applied – to culture as well.
Finally, there is our materialistic idea of achievement. Why do we consume recklessly in the face of environmental catastrophe? Why, in an era of unprecedented comfort, is there a concurrent mental health crisis? Our society cherishes wealth, as is logical since resources historically have been scarce. However, as cheap, low-quality products have become widely accessible, we must acknowledge the limitations of a system based on continuous expansion on a planet with limited resources. This is harder than it sounds –environmental issues are not visible from shopping malls’ overfilled aisles, and it is difficult to link two so different realities. However, the high levels of mental illness among youth today show the futility of materialistic rewards when everything is purchasable. If we are to adapt to the dual challenges of mental well-being and environmental sustainability, we must rethink our competitively consumerist values. A promising hope comes with the growing transition movement: Through engagement and investment in local communities – economically, by buying local products, and socially, by organising the community around small-scale projects – we can both shorten the chain of production and create a sense of community that achievement pressures do not.
This is an important time in human history. It might feel overwhelming, as the society we have relied on is proving unfit to tackle these changes, but it also brings great potential. The West today has many adolescent characteristics; confusion, nervousness, and unexplored potential. And like a teenager – or a young adult – our path towards the unknown future begins with self-reflection. By establishing respect and compassion as the basis of our collective identity, accepting the complexity of our cultural heritage, and living in touch with our surroundings, we can meet the changes and challenges ahead as a unity. If achieved, the frightening future will arrive, stall, and become the manageable reality we have created. So I invite you, this New Year’s Eve, to ask yourself this: Who do I want us to become this year?