Trystan: different attitudes

May 5, 2010

There’s something about Norwegian society that’s different. There are obvious things, like the reserved nature of people, or the fairly clear sense of societal money. But I think these are reflections of something else, something deeper.

Sometimes people can come off as dickish, but to be fair, that’s true in any society. Generally, I feel it’s about equal most of the time. Though when they drink, I’ve noticed Norwegians (the handful I’ve interacted with) tend to turn a little hot-headed. So perhaps the inward-looking nature of people is sometimes a bit repressing. But their societal values are, in my opinion, leaps and bounds more sophisticated.

I’ve personally felt this way for quite some time, but the last while I’ve been thinking about it more. We (finally!) got into the topic of welfare states, and how different countries run them (good, bad, and otherwise). Just today I ran across this article about the newest (and second largest) Norwegian prison. Please, I urge you to read it. It’s very much a reflection, I think, of their mindset. Yes, there are situations that facilitate this; yes, they have a comparatively low crime rate; yes, it would be impossible to retroactively convert every single prison. But the mindset could exist elsewhere.

The basic core, I think, is the belief that nobody is inherently lesser than anyone else. This fuels everything that is socially constructed here. Here, the term “welfare state” doesn’t have a negative connotation like it does in the US—they’re proud of it! And it means more than just “money for poor (and presumably lazy) people” like it tends to in the US. Yes, there is some of that. But it focuses more on other key pillars. The majority of spending is NOT “targeted” for the poor, meaning it’s available to whoever needs it. Benefits tend to be SERVICE-BASED, rather than cash-based (i.e., worker retraining programs, guaranteed and free child care, universal health care, and so on). But it’s about helping people in their time of need.

The same is true with this prison system. It’s not about “beating the bad” out of someone, but about correcting their attitudes with kindness. Does that make sense? You know how sometimes if you tell a little kid, “NO!” they do it even more, whereas if you remove the “forbidden fruit” element, it’s not nearly so attractive? I think that’s what it comes down to. So why, for example, couldn’t this mindset be implemented in more institutions around the world? Not everywhere, and not for all purposes, but more frequently. I think the US has a fiercely individualistic streak. This is damn good, and it’s certainly done us very well, but I think sometimes that is taken to an extreme. I’m not saying an individualistic attitude is bad—what I’m saying is when you take it far enough to view yourself as superior to other humans, then you run into social trouble. Of course everyone has their talents, and of course some people don’t necessarily pull their fair share, but they shouldn’t be viewed as lesser people. All this does is fuel social tension.

Yes okay, now you can scream about taxes, unfair redistribution, etc etc etc. It’s true there’s a higher fiscal penalty for that way of life. But, like college, it’s an investment in the future. I certainly don’t want to be paying as much as I am for college (especially when most of the rest of the world pays little in comparison), but I know it’s for the best. If my taxes went up 10%, and someone else got to eat and feed their children because of it, I’m pretty damn sure I could live with it. If I was rich, and my taxes went up maybe 25% and dozens and dozens of families could eat. Well, I guess I don’t see the problem. Money isn’t the be-all, end-all of happiness. It has diminishing returns once you get past the level of ± comfort.

This is how I want to treat others, and how I’d hope to be treated if I were in need (the Golden Rule and all that). It’s an egalitarian mindset.

This is the lifestyle I want to believe in.

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