Debate flies over Norwegian culture

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegians have a long and deeply embedded culture of debate. Now a right-wing politician, an admittedly bored journalist and several major media outlets have managed to stir up new debate over Norwegian culture itself. Some view the debate as manufactured and misconstrued, with undertones of pure provocation.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) has been among the major media picking up on the debate Christian Tybring-Gjedde of the Progress Party (center) started when he challenged new Culture Minister Hadia Tajik to define Norwegian culture. Here they're both appearing on NRK's nightly news program "Dagsrevyen." PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) has been among the major media picking up on the debate Christian Tybring-Gjedde of the Progress Party (center) started when he challenged new Culture Minister Hadia Tajik to define Norwegian culture. Here they’re both appearing on NRK’s nightly news program “Dagsrevyen.” PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

It all started last month, when Christian Tybring-Gjedde of the conservative Progress Party asked the Labour Party’s new government minister for culture, Hadia Tajik, how she defined Norwegian culture. Tybring-Gjedde, known for being skeptical towards immigration and worrying about a lack of integration, also wanted to know how Tajik, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan, would protect Norway’s culture and traditions.

Tajik replied that she was only responsible for culture in a political context, and that Norwegian culture was constantly changing. She didn’t feel it was within her mandate to comment beyond a feeling that culture has to do with “common experiences and expressions that are considered uniquely Norwegian.” Neither Tybring-Gjedde nor journalist Jon Hustad, a former teacher who recently led a debate program on TV2, were satisfied with her answer.

Hustad, candidly admitting to newspaper Aftenposten that he was bored while recovering from a broken tailbone and enjoys provoking others, wrote a highly provocative commentary in nynorsk (one of two official Norwegian languages less influenced by Danish) and headlined that Tajik was “Not my culture minister.”

Aftenposten published the commentary in the otherwise relatively quiet news period just after New Year last week. In it, Hustad wrote among other things: “Is Norwegian culture threatened by immigration? Of course it is.” He claimed there were more immigrants arriving in Norway every year than babies being born. He also accused Tajik of offering only a weak response to Tybring-Gjedde’s question and otherwise launched what many called an outright attack on one of the country’s youngest government ministers ever, and the first culture minister who’s Muslim. He later claimed he wasn’t aware she was Muslim.

Politician Christian Tybring-Gjedde of the Progress Party (left) claims he didn't attack Culture Minister Hadia Tajik because she's a Muslim with immigrant parents. He just wants to know, he claimed, how she intends to protect Norwegian culture. Tajik responded that she'd like to know how he and his conservative party intend to do the same, since they're often proposing budget cuts for museums that do just that. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Politician Christian Tybring-Gjedde of the Progress Party (left) claims he didn’t attack Culture Minister Hadia Tajik because she’s a Muslim with immigrant parents. He just wants to know, he claimed, how she intends to protect Norwegian culture. Tajik responded that she’d like to know how he and his conservative party intend to do the same, since they’re often proposing budget cuts for museums and other cultural institutions. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Tajik then responded with a forceful commentary of her own, in which she suggested that her critics seemed to want to broaden her mandate and confused social anthropology with cultural politics. She did go further, though, also writing in nynorsk in Aftenposten and saying that she’ll gladly wave the banner for the so-called “Norwegian Model” that’s based on Norwegians’ confidence in one another, a high degree of equality within the society and that the society is built on a solidarisk spleiselag, rather like a potluck party where everyone contributes to the dinner table. Tajik also couldn’t resist noting how Tybring-Gjedde’s own party (which she referred to as Framstegspartiet in her nynorsk instead of  Fremskrittspartiet as it’s usually called in the Danish-influenced Norwegian bokmål) wants to cut back on the potluck and Norwegian solidarity by instilling more individuality and less reliance on the public sector.

The debate took off, also via social media and online comments on media websites, just as Tybring-Gjedde, Hustad and Aftenposten clearly had hoped. Thousands either applauded or condemned Hustad’s commentary, and both he and Tybring-Gjedde got exactly what they wanted, as Hege Ulstein in newspaper Dagsavisen noted: Attention. Some commentators linked the entire debate to an alleged strategy by Tybring-Gjedde to get the campaign underway ahead of national elections in September.  Ulstein contended that their noise and the debate itself perhaps best defined norsk kultur (Norwegian culture).

Norwegian culture is more than wearing bunads and parading on the 17th of May, and, as Culture Minister Hadia Tajik suggests, is undergoing constant change. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Norwegian culture is more than wearing bunads and parading on the 17th of May, and, as Culture Minister Hadia Tajik suggests, is undergoing constant change. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

So what is Norwegian culture? Is it symbolized by the fjords and valleys, the unusual foods some Norwegians eat like lutefisk and pinnekjøtt, or the romantic notions of men and women wearing bunads and waving the flag? That’s perhaps how many foreigners still view Norwegian culture, along with rose painting and music by Edvard Grieg, and it still plays heavily into how Norway is marketed abroad. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) brought both Tybring-Gjedde and Tajik on to the national nightly news program Dagsrevy for a live debate on the issue, with their answers ranging from pinnekjøtt itself to Viking history with both a material and immaterial dimension.

“It’s our cultural heritage we have inherited through generations, which we should take further,” said Tybring-Gjedde. “Immigration from non-western countries leads to segregation, with ethnic Norwegians one place and immigrants another place. And then you don’t get that feeling of fellowship.”

Tajik disagreed, claiming that Norwegian culture is “robust” and can tolerate immigration. She also noted how Tybring-Gjedde’s party also advocates budget cuts within cultural areas, not least to museums. Its chapter in Oslo is considered largely responsible for holding up construction of a new museum to house the works of famed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, for example, because it doesn’t want to spend the money “to preserve such Norwegian cultural heritage,” claimed Tajik.

Tybring-Gjedde, like Hustad, denied he was attacking Tajik because she has a different ethnic background and religion than the majority in Norway. “Her background is irrelevant,” he claimed to Aftenposten. “She’s a fantastic example of a well-integrated woman with a fine political career.”

As debate continued into this week, Aftenposten clearly couldn’t get enough of it and announced it was launching a series entitled Jakten for norsk kulture (The hunt for Norwegian culture). In addition to questioning so-called experts on Norwegian culture, and citing a poll suggesting that Norwegians are less resistant to change than they once were, readers were invited to send in their definitions of Norwegian culture and what characterizes it. That can come to include popular pasttimes like skiing and hiking, but also feelings of solidarity and the much-hyped fellesskap (fellowship and mutual confidence in one another). The idea is to get beyond the stereotypes to define what binds Norwegians together, from their habit of saying takk for sist (thanks for last) when they meet again to exuding kos (coziness). Tybring-Gjedde liked to think that Norwegians are less corrupt than people in other cultures, although his contention came just as NRK running a series revealing corruption in local governments around Norway. Tajik defined her Pakistani mother’s pinnekjøtt (dried lamb ribs) with kålrabistappe (rutabaga mash) as “the most Norwegian” thing she thinks of. Readers of this article are invited to share their comments on what comprises Norwegian culture below.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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