“A proposal: Let’s discuss something other than girls-only swimming classes or Justin Bieber’s haircut next week? I’m not saying they are unimportant questions. I’m just saying that almost every other question is more important.”
With his sardonic wit, psychologist Svend Brinkmann summed up another outrageous week of debate in the Danish media. First there was uproar following the news that a swimming pool offered segregated classes to children to accommodate the requests of Muslim parents. Then a media storm over whether Justin Bieber was guilty of cultural appropriation for his new dreadlocks.
Brinkmann isn’t wrong to suggest that there are more important issues to discuss. Why are gender segregated swimming classes so strange given the many other areas of daily life that are similarly segregated? Toilets and changing rooms are gender segregated, so too are sports teams. Many of my peers at university in the UK went to segregated schooling until high school, their first real encounters with the opposite sex didn’t take place until age 16.
As for Bieber’s haircut, it’s hard to pinpoint who exactly loses out because of his decision to have dreadlocks. Feminist commentator Henrik Marstal said the problem was that Bieber took from another culture without giving anything back. That made him appear “privilege blind”. But as Politiken newspaper’s culture editor Rune Lykkeberg put it: “African Americans in the USA have strong historic and actual grounds to feel used. But it does not lead to greater freedom or emancipation if we close ourselves off in different cultural reserves where symbols become private property.”
And yet, there is a reason the two topics were so fiercely debated – both speak to Denmark’s existential angst about moving from a monoculture to a multiculture. In truth, this happened long ago – despite two decades of brave denial by the Danish People’s Party, multiculturalism is here to stay.
Danes are adapting to being members of a dominant culture, rather than a single culture. They are having to face up to the way Danish society can alienate minorities, particularly Muslims. When students start at university, they spend a week getting drunk together. What do you do with people who don’t drink? In culinary colleges, should you force Muslim students to taste pork dishes? What about women and men who refuse to shake hands with members of the opposite sex?
These are not unproblematic questions. The answers must balance the efforts to include those with different cultural norms, with standing up for the values that are central to ensuring a thriving free and democratic Denmark.
Linking a discussion about segregated swimming classes, to that of democratic values, might seem like a stretch. But I can sympathise with Danes who fear that compromising on values such as gender equality – or even the freedom to have whatever haircut you like – is the start of a slippery slope.
Brinkman might call these questions silly, but it’s through having these conversations that Denmark fine-tunes its own values and practices. Amidst the uproar about segregating swimming classes for students of Muslim backgrounds, others began pointing out several examples of pre-existing gender segregation in Danish society.
The debate about Bieber’s haircut didn’t prompt legislation for state-mandated hairdos, but gave rise to a constructive debate about the imbalance in power relationships between cultures.
Multiculturalism does not suppress debate, it is debate. And the more debate, the more I believe we strengthen our commitment to equality, fairness and tolerance. M