22 July, 2011. Oslo

Guest post by Thomas Hylland Eriksen

It was only a matter of hours between the blast in central Oslo and my most extensive and exhausting engagement with international media since I started out as an anthropologist in the 1980s. Between Friday night and Wednesday, I spoke on radio, on television (via a mobile phone), to newspapers and magazines from China to Chile, and wrote articles for nearly a dozen publications in five countries.

My priorities shifted in a matter of hours. Our holiday house was turned into a makeshift media centre, and the computer was online almost 24/7.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Thomas Hylland Eriksen in Cuba, 2007. Courtesy of the author.

My engagement with the terrorist attack on Norway is easy to explain. First, although rightwing extremism is not my field of research, cultural diversity in Europe and Norway is, as well as nationalism and ethnicity. Second, I have first-hand experience of the new, Islamophobic kind of nationalism, having been on the receiving end of relatively unpleasant attacks from these quarters for several years.

Actually, I am the only contemporary intellectual mentioned by the terrorist in his writings and YouTube video – a symbol of everything that went wrong with Norway. I have asked YouTube to remove the video.

A few words about the articles: The earliest piece, for OpenDemocracy, was an initial attempt to make sense of the catastrophe and to begin reflecting on the consequences for Norwegian society. It overlaps substantially with articles in Sydsvenska Dagbladet and Information, which, respectively, cover southern Sweden including Lund and Malmö, and a smallish, but select left-leaning audience in Denmark. The title of these Scandinavian-published articles, “Men who hate social democrats,” plays on the Scandinavian title of the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy (Men Who Hate Women).

I then focused on some unpalatable aspects of Internet networks. The new, Islamophobic right does not march or create organiations, but consists largely in loosely connected networks on the Web and Facebook. A long version of this article was published in the social democratic Dagsavisen (Oslo), a shorter version in the liberal/conservative Svenska Dagbladet (Stockholm). At the suggestion of Sean Carey, I wrote an even shorter article for The Guardian, choosing to focus on the same topic.

Aftonbladet, Sweden’s largest evening newspaper, asked me to reflect on the consequences of the shock for the Norwegian self-understanding. Many foreign journalists have been interested in the same topic, seeing Norway as a peaceful, almost empty place of great natural beauty. I first contrasted the serene scenery of Utøya with the brutal atrocities that took place there, ending the analysis with a brief critique of Norwegian nationalism, pointing out that Mr. Breivik was 100 percent made in Norway, a perverse end-product of some of the murkier currents of Norwegian nationalism and contemporary Islamophobia.

The quest for purity in Mr. Breivik’s mind is, provocatively, mirrored in the purity of the lovely landscape around Utøya.

As someone who has been the victim of vitriolic attacks from the new right for years – I have been labelled cultural marxist, spineless multiculturalist, nihilistic cultural relativist and so on (add invectives as you like) – and who figures prominently in Mr. Breivik’s pantheon of evil ideologues, I finally felt a need to clarify my own position on these issues. I therefore wrote an op-ed for the liberal/conservative Aftenposten (Oslo) where I explained the difference between multiculturalism and diversity, outlining my own position, which was somewhat different from the positions attributed to me by rightwing nationalists (who often accuse me of trying to deconstruct and destroy the entire country – would have been quite a feat, by the way, were one to succeed!).

Finally, I co-wrote, with the author Jostein Gaarder (Sophie’s World), an op-ed article for the International Herald Tribune (also published on the New York Times website) where we emphasize the need to take right-wing thought seriously, especially when it masquerades as a defense of democracy and liberal values.

Therapeutic writing? Doubtless. An attempt to come to terms with the unthinkable? Definitely. Anthropology? I hope so – among other things.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is an anthropologist based at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, Norway. His work is motivated by the concern to understand the present world and what it means to be human. He has done fieldwork in several ethnically and culturally complex societies, and he is currently directing a research project based in a suburb of Oslo.

One Response to “22 July, 2011. Oslo”

  1. [...] • On the Norway massacre Thomas Hylland Eriksen, professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, commented on the terrorist attacks in Oslo in several media sources. Please read his essay describing a week of media involvement. [...]

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