CW: antisemitism, racism, mentions of gender-based violence, r/pe, holocaust, n/zis, h/tler
Ida Flik | 5 December 2019
As part of a series on political communication, Sweden democrats’ (SD) party secretary, Richard Jomshof, has been invited to present at a seminar at the Department of Journalism, Media, and Communication (JMG) at the University of Gothenburg (GU) on 5 December. A group of students and academics, including myself, have spoken out against this invitation.
The freedom to express varied and controversial opinions at an academic institution is crucial, but never at the expense of the inherent worth of some members of society. As GU lecturer Adrián Groglopo states, “The question of freedom of expression becomes irrelevant and falls flat when it comes to an organization that advocates a political view and political measures that questions and threatens the existence, and rights, of some of Sweden's population due to cultural race/ethnicity, religion and sexuality.”
The Sweden Democrats, one of the political parties currently represented in the Swedish parliament, is such an organisation. Its candidates and communications regularly fail to uphold the fundamental tenet of valuing every human equally. Recent examples include that the party has advocated for libraries to be for Swedish citizens only. At least eight of 2018’s SD election candidates were former members of neo-Nazi groups. One of them stated, “Hitler was not wrong about the Jews” on a closed Facebook group. An Ex-SD member shared, among other content, a meme of a fictional mass execution camp for “national traitors.”
Moreover, the MP invited to speak at JMG, SD party secretary Richard Jomshof, has been responsible for racist and Islamophobic statements, having told a non-white politician that “he is not welcome in Sweden” and stating that “Rape is an expression of Islamic culture,” amongst many other anti-Muslim statements.
The University of Gothenburg and its departments are obliged to ensure that all students and employees feel safe and able to participate in all their events fully. This is stated in the university’s Equal Treatment policy as well as their “Vision 2020.” Over the last weeks, however, multiple concerns have been raised regarding this. A commenter supporting a petition to cancel the seminar asked from which place of privilege the decision for this seminar has come from; GU employees raised the points that this decision is “making [staff and students whose lives SD actively wish to harm] feel unsafe in their places of work and study” and that it “sends a hostile message to current students and members of staff who are people of color/ belong to ethnic, religious or minorities of any sort, and sets precedent for those to come to feel as unwelcome guests.” If the university strives to be an inclusive space, these expressions of threat, in combination with Jomshof’s track record of documented racist claims, should be reason enough to cancel the seminar. Instead, the university has not addressed these concerns.
It is dangerous to provide a platform to speakers who represent a political party with a litany of close ties to hate speech. Jomshof has openly explained that “because we are not in office (yet) we have to adapt our rhetoric to the current situation.” It is difficult to argue that the insights this seminar will offer to students are so valuable that it is necessary to invite a person with a track record of using hate speech to demean certain groups of people. Inviting someone for a guest seminar is not making them an object of study, as some have claimed. He will have full control over what story he chooses to tell, which aspects not to touch, and can use this seminar as another opportunity to craft a false, moderate image of himself and the SD. It is irresponsible to expect the audience to interject with critical questions and use those questions to successfully steer the conversation with a media-trained professional. If Jomshof does let any of his and his party’s discriminotory ideology shine through, the damage is done. No amount of critical questioning can undo the harm of yet another experience of discrimination, exclusion, or dehumanization especially for targeted members of the audience and university.
The speaker’s party has a record of inaccurate and biased communication. There is evidence that the Party’s communication strategy during the 2018 election condoned and benefitted from the spreading of discriminatory disinformation. Quoting a recent New York Times article on the rise of far-right nationalism in Sweden, members of the Sweden Democrats helped create two news websites, which “according to an Oxford University study, accounted for 85 percent of the election-related ‘junk news’ — deemed deliberately distorted or misleading — shared online” in 2018. Headlines of these junk news’ stories include “Immigration Behind Shortage of Drinking Water in Northern Stockholm,” “Refugee Minor Raped Host Family’s Daughter; Thought It Was Legal,” and “Performed Female Genital Mutilation on Her Children — Given Asylum in Sweden.”
Some of those who have spoken out in favour of the seminar have argued that protests only give the Sweden Democrats more attention. They have also argued that protests give SD another opportunity to accuse academia of being left-wing opinion makers. This logic is dangerous and self-destructive. If we followed this logic, we would not do or say anything that the right could portray as a threat against them. As we know, one of the strategies used by the right is to do precisely that – inappropriately and inaccurately labelling acts and actors that do not fit their ideology as “left-wing,” and “extreme” to dominate the public discussion with that interpretation. In light of this, it is a very dangerous tactic to suggest we should stop doing something because there is a chance that the right will make a fuss about it. Silencing ourselves means effectively handing over the power of what is done and what is not, what is said and what not, to the right. On the contrary, in this context, it is even more crucial not to let their interpretation decide our actions. Instead, we must justify our actions using the framework of our own, critical analysis.
Allowing a representative of the Sweden Democrats to speak on campus is a line which universities should not cross. It sets the dangerous precedent that hate speech and discrimination are allowable on the grounds of “academic freedom” or “democratic discourse.” They are not. To quote Anna Backman Rogers, “Not in my name. Not on my watch.”
Ida Flik is a master’s student at the Department of Journalism, Media, and Communication at the University of Gothenburg. Together with other students and staff, she helped organise the protest No Sweden Democrats lecture at GU held on December 5, 2019, from 12:30-15:00 in front of the Department of Journalism, Media, and Communication, Annedal campus.