'The Dark Side of Egalitarianism'
October 27, 2004 3:59 AM   Subscribe

The Law of Jante (Janteloven) was codified by the Danish-born novelist Aksel Sandemose while he was living in Norway. The Law comprises ten 'commandments', and describes an unspoken code of conformity that Sandemose felt as a stifling inhibitive influence in the town where he grew up. Later commentators have used the term more generally to refer to the anti-individualist tendencies that have traditionally pervaded Scandinavian culture, and to denote 'the dark side of egalitarianism'. Of course, the Law needn't be interpreted in such a negative light, and egalitarianism has its good side too, the difficult question being: do the benefits of equality make it worthwhile suffering the strictures of Janteloven?
posted by misteraitch (31 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Although I've been in Scandinavia a while, and have felt & suspected the influence of such a Law, I only just heard about the Law of Jante's formulation itself by way of the materialist, who is currently posting fascinating accounts of his anthropology fieldwork in the Arctic north of Norway.
posted by misteraitch at 4:02 AM on October 27, 2004

God how I despise the jantelag. It's such a outdated concept and should therefore be buried in the same backyard as phrenology and Montequieu's laws on climate and culture.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 4:32 AM on October 27, 2004

Your question presupposes that egalatarianism must come hand in hand with a set of fictional laws written down by a novelist who thought he had a bad lot in his childhood. You can line him up next to Ingmar Bergman, whose panties were in a similar twist.

But it ain't neccessarily so.

Religion shoots through the Northlands like a speedball, and the one thing Christianity is not, at least as practiced by Christians, is equality. Even if you disagree with that, take a good hard look at the Amish... another group of egalatarians. On the surface.
posted by Perigee at 4:36 AM on October 27, 2004

Can one have a society where everyone is equal without suppressing those who are better than average?

I don't know, you tell me.
posted by spazzm at 5:35 AM on October 27, 2004

... hand with a set of fictional laws written down by a novelist who thought he had a bad lot in his childhood. You can line him up next to Ingmar Bergman, whose panties were in a similar twist.

Ever listen to Garrison Keillor? It's a twist that got transported to the American midwest more or less intact -- the "jantelag" sound like something I'd have expected to hear on Prairie Home Companion.

And it's not too far off the ideals that I could have codified from my own childhood -- except we might have added an 11th and over-riding commandment: "Thou shalt not care what we think." (After all, my father's people did all flee the scandinavian-dominated parts of the midwest...)

FWIW, this is pretty consistent with old Norse moral ideas -- look to Havamal (sorry, don't know a good online translation), which is riddled with admonitions like "if you're too quiet, they'll think you're stupid, but if you talk too much, they'll think you're a fool."

I think it's pretty common. The Australians talk about the "tall poppy" (it gets chopped off), and Canadians joke about dragging each other down to make sure that no one really does too much better than anyone else. Furthermore, you can make a pretty convincing case for jealousy arising from this kind of de facto code being behind a lot of witchcraft prosecutions (and especially so in places like France and England, where witchcraft was punishible by fines and jail time, rather than always by death). The anthropological literature on witchcraft accusations is full of cases that make it look like a mechanism for keeping down the uppity -- people who hoard too much of their own wealth, rather than spreading it around a little.

... take a good hard look at the Amish... another group of egalatarians. On the surface.

Good catch. The Amish as we know them are really our own myth of the Amish -- they're an ideal, not the actual Amish people. In their own world, they keep very tight control on members. I wonder if there's any history of our myth of the Amish, and how it changes over time to call out the things we most prise or that we think are most in jeopardy in our own world. I haven't seen it gain much traction yet, but I half expected Rumpsringa to become a big touch point for people interested in the hedonization of society. Maybe it's just too far out there for people to really accept into their Amish myth; maybe it's just that nobody outside of the neo-Calvinist right cares much about that...
posted by lodurr at 5:57 AM on October 27, 2004

and the one thing Christianity is not, at least as practiced by Christians, is equality

Really. Funny, when I go to church, I never see people kneeling before the wealthier members of the congregation. I do, however, see people kowtowing to the wealthy on reality television, which is secular.
posted by unreason at 5:59 AM on October 27, 2004

I think the remark was meant to emphasize that Christianity is about being saved or not-saved, blessed or not-blessed. In Calvinist/Lutheran moral systems, this stuff can get really intense. To seem better than everyone else would mean to seem "more blessed"; it stands to reason it should make others resentful.

To be sure, this is a gross oversimiplification of any kind of "rule"-structure that would define this kind of Calivinist ethics. But it's literary, it's not scientific; it's not a novelist's job to be precise, it's his/her job to be accurate, and in literary terms, sometimes a little imprecision can improve your accuracy.
posted by lodurr at 6:16 AM on October 27, 2004

This is a fascinating post. Thank you.
posted by jennyb at 6:30 AM on October 27, 2004

Christianity is about being saved or not-saved, blessed or not-blessed.

Yes, but in traditional Protestantism (not the fundies), the saved/not-saved is not due to your personal worthiness or flawlessness. It's due to a choice that anyone can make regardless of class or background. And there's no degrees of "savedness", really, you're wither saved or not. So it actually is pretty egalitarian when you think about it

Oh, and good post, by the way.
posted by unreason at 6:47 AM on October 27, 2004

I just got back from Iceland, and this phrase [from...] made me smile: "Sober living is deep in the Scandinavian soul."

This guy needs to take a stroll down Laugavegur at 3am on a weekend... then again, I'm not sure if Icelanders think of themselves as being particularly "scandinavian"....

ON PREV: That depends on what you mean by "traditional protestantism". In Lutheranism, as I understand it, you're actually saved or not-saved by the predetermination of God. You can appear to be saved by your own choice, but that's only because God pre-ordained it that way. Yes, it's fatailistic, but again, as I understand it, Luther thought that kind of fatalism constituted a good test of your virtue. (Yes, I know, it's inconsistent...that's Calvinism for you...)
posted by lodurr at 6:58 AM on October 27, 2004

Yes, the idea of the prechosen "elect". I actually wasn't thinking of Lutherism, although, of course, it's as traditional as you can get. I was actually thinking of the more non-deterministic branches of Protestantism. Even determinism, though, was fairly egalitarian; you could be "elect" regardless of class, and you could never be sure whether someone's elect or not.
posted by unreason at 7:04 AM on October 27, 2004

Oh, I agree with you about the egalitarianism of determinism; but then, it's always seemed intuitively clear to me that there's no real contradiction between a belief in free will and in predetermination by an omniscient/omnipotent god.

My experience is that a lot of people kind of short circuit when you start talking about the real "theology" of the faith they ostensibly practice. I don't think most people really believe the real theology of, say, Methodism or Lutheranism. They go to church, they worship, they listen to the preacher. When they find out there are are real rules they have to follow, and they're breaking them, they get upset. (Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that, I just find it interesting.) I think that's at least partly behind the rise of more ad hoc sects like Assemblies of God -- within some constraints (no speaking in tounges!), an AoG preacher gets to make up whatever he wants...
posted by lodurr at 7:12 AM on October 27, 2004

Like soundsofsuburbia, I despise the jantelaw. Another thing we have in common is that we are from Sweden. I honestly don't know if the attitudes that bother me really stem from the jantelaw or not. The unspoken rules where you can be different, as long as you are different in the currently accepted in vogue kind of way. You can't brag about your abilities and skills, unless you did something utterly useless like drink a liter of vodka in ten seconds flat. You can't get animated or passionate about anything because it is so "unSwedish" and frowned upon. Etc.
posted by dabitch at 7:14 AM on October 27, 2004

and on the other side of the coin you have Ayn Rand's social darwinism...
posted by srboisvert at 7:39 AM on October 27, 2004

Actually, I don't think the sect that stresses predeterminism is Lutheran. In fact, the Lutheran-Catholic Agreement of Justification states, "justification comes through faith alone, but that good works are an essential sign of true faith. " But it can be interpreted that way, if you choose.

The very interesting thing for me is the advent of the Protestant idea of The Elect, i.e., someone who is bound for heaven from birth, (conversely, no matter how good you are if you are not in the book, you are literally Hell Bound), is actually a reactivation of the philosophy of Manichaeism, whihch was refuted by St. Augustine.

I swear, there are no good, original heresies anymore.
posted by Dagobert at 7:41 AM on October 27, 2004

I wasn't aware of this and it's very interesting. Sounds like it's "moderation in everything... or else!" I'd be curious to hear from our Scandanavian members whether this is a rural, small town phenomenon, or if it's found in the big cities as well? And how are famous people treated there, people who have stepped outside these rules in one way or the other (movie stars, brilliant scientists, great humanitarians, etc...)?
posted by picea at 7:43 AM on October 27, 2004

I call it "bymentalitet" meaning "small town mentality" but in large cities such as Stockholm (well, large-ish) it's still quite dominant. To me anyway.
posted by dabitch at 8:04 AM on October 27, 2004

This jibes completely with my brief experiences of office work in Sweden and Denmark. All the individuals were really sweet, unassuming people who were a joy to work with, but the team dynamics were really hard to get used to for an American. You always have to maintain the appearance of consensus. It was often difficult to get a decision made, because the manager always had to look to the entire team to make the decision together. When things were going well, everyone pulled together and the teams were really productive, but when things were behind schedule, no one was willing to rock the boat to force changes.

One manager confessed to me that he wanted me around because as a foreigner, I could stand up in front of everyone and propose a plan of action, which no one there (including him) was willing to do for fear of appearing that they thought they knew better than the team. Another guy told me that he envied Americans for the confident way that they express their opinions.
posted by fuzz at 8:23 AM on October 27, 2004

I hate janteloven too. I find it to be changing, ever so slowly, as Scandinavia becomes more 'worldly' - but man, is it deeply entrenched in the Scandinavian psyche.

My family was very different from the average Norwegian family and we bumped heads with janteloven frequently. My father was successful and famous, which is just a deadly combination there, especially in the more rural areas. You simply are not supposed to call attention to yourself by being different or 'better than' - which, as you can imagine, severely restricts your dreams and aspirations.

Janteloven permeates every aspect of life - for example, when I was there, grades were very much skewed towards everyone being 'the same'. In the States, an A is 90% correct and above, B 80%, C 70% and so on. In Norway, when I was growing up, a C was about 65-85%, a B was 85-96%, and A's were 97% and above. They deliberately made A's almost impossible to achieve (and the tests were HARD, considerably more difficult than the ones I subsequently took in the States) because they didn't want anyone singled out. I firmly believe this has a chilling effect on the desire to excel and achieve.

The upside is that most Scandinavians are fiercely egalitarian and put a lot of energy, time and money into making sure everyone is taken care of. However, the cost is great, especially in terms of individuality.

then again, I'm not sure if Icelanders think of themselves as being particularly "scandinavian"....
Scandinavia is made up of Norway, Sweden and Denmark only. Iceland is part of Norden (the Nordic countries), which is comprised of Scandinavia plus Iceland and Finland.
posted by widdershins at 10:34 AM on October 27, 2004

widdershins: My apologies. Here in the US we usually include Iceland and Finland; that's how it was in my textbooks, back in school, at least. Anyway, both my comment and the original were intended to strike at cultural identities; if we just look to terminological issues, we could note that Germans apparently don't regard Denmark as part of Scandinavia.

With that in mind, and in view of common cultural heritage, Iceland might make a good contrast -- they seem to be take nearly an opposite attitude, in some regards. If you don't do something like write a book or compose music, you're an oddball -- or so the myth goes. (It's tempting to point out that they also put a lot of expense toward taking care of people -- but their situation is sufficiently unusual that I don't think it would really counter your point.)

On the other extreme of the nordic world, does anyone have a sense for whether this attitude would hold in Finland? I'd kind of expect not, from what I've read. Anyone?
posted by lodurr at 11:26 AM on October 27, 2004

Another Scandinavian here. I remember reading the Jante Law with some disappointment the first time I saw it. It's good to see these unspoken things in print for once, but the Jante Law is too soft. The real law, which is nameless, is much harsher.
posted by Termite at 11:42 AM on October 27, 2004

lodurr, don't worry, it's not uncommon for a Finn to refer to himself as Scandinavian (as an incorrect translation of 'pohjoismaalainen'). Geographically Denmark is not in the Scandinavian peninsula either.

Few people in Finland have ever heard of the term, but the mentality surely exists, although in lesser extent compared to Sweden. The amount of emphasis on equality and harmonious decision making in Swedish business culture has become as a bit of a surprise to us Finns in the recent fusions of the two countries' businesses.

There is also considerable regional variation within Finland. Most prominently Ostrobothnia (the Eastern shore of Gulf of Bothnia), where individualism and personal freedom have been held important, differs in this respect. Incidentally, a disproportionate amount of the Finnish immigrants to Canada and US came from there.
posted by ikalliom at 1:37 PM on October 27, 2004

arite so when is the scandi-meetup going to happen folks? We have to do that someday.

Like Termite just said, the unspoken law is much harsher somehow. Oddly enough I first met the law in print when I stumbled onto Aksel Sandemoses book written in Swedish in a copy-shops "take a book leave a book" section in New York City while I was living there. how weird is that?

A northern Swedish comedian jokes: "You think your jante-law is bad? Ours begins like this: Nobody should ever believe that anyone ever amounts to anything.
posted by dabitch at 2:29 PM on October 27, 2004

Sorry about the late return; Just a quick illumination on my parallel about Christianity. I don't see it as a question of any basic Christian tenant as much as it is a case of what one might call "Virulent Humility."

With the Amish, with the Pilgrims, with the more vituperatively Maxi-Christian, pride is a flagship trait of the unholy, humility a sterling virtue. In most places, one can be superior in some way, but as long as it's played off - or at the very least, not played up - a person can be considered an "OK Joe."

However, in truely restrictive views, simple acceptance of the differences goes right out the window. Humility turns into self-abasement. Simple recognition of ability becomes obnoxious pride. Not at all to pick a bone with unreason, but as apparently a good church attending Christian the concept of "Servants of Christ," "Christ-as-Master," and "All-Ability-and-Christian-Action-comes-from-God-through-men, not-from-Man" can not be foreign concepts. Man is abased; man is without worth utterly.

As to equality in Christianity... well, the exclusionary view of Heaven speaks to that. We (whoever 'we' are) are in - They (whoever 'they' are) will burn in the firey, everlasting pit of hellfire with much gnashing of teeth and wailing. Ergo - we are acceptable in God's eyes; they are not. We will all be given crowns (!!!!!) and then (in abasement) we will lay them at Christ's feet.

That is the biblical line, as I remember it...

Exclusionary. Not equal.

Societal expectations are rarely formed in a vacuum - Sven probably didn't suddenly decide it was unspeakable that Ollie was able to cut more wood per day. Kings - being obviously 'superior' - probably didn't give a rat's butt about the relative woodchopping ability of Sven and Ollie, so the 'codicile' we're looking at is not based in law.

So from where? The logical inference is to look towards those who guided social mores. And, throughout Europe in the middle ages, that was the mother church.

I am reminded (from dear Ingy's "Seventh Seal") of the self-flagellants. The power of God compels you.
posted by Perigee at 7:35 PM on October 27, 2004

Perigee: (apologies for my even later return to this thread) My question presupposes that social equality does have a repressive cost attached to it - Sandemose's 'Janteloven' is a convenient name which crystallises a diffuse set of such attitudes. I agree with lodurr and others above that this kind of mindset is far from unique to Scandinavia. Picea: I think this is indeed something you'd notice somewhat less in central Stockholm than in small-town Småland, for example. And I would guess that its power will weaken slightly as Scandinavia continues to become more cosmopolitan. I don't know how this affects the attitude towards 'stars'… it does seem to me that sports-stars, medal-winning athletes & the like, may be an exception to this law, seeming to be widely admired and respected. Dabitch: yes, we should attempt a scandi-meetup at some point!
posted by misteraitch at 12:30 AM on October 28, 2004

There's a strong streak of Janteloven in England, of all places!

I say this because, surprised as I am to realise it, this is the name I would give to the put-downs that the Northern folk give to their uppity young 'uns: 'Get him! who does he think he is, eh?'

Maybe it's about small towns, though we have plenty of them down south; maybe it's about resenting poncey southern softies. But I think the clue is this - Eastern and Northern England was the region of the Danelaw, and Lancashire/Cumbria was heavily settled by Vikings. They experienced working class growth and community building in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, when prospects were limited and tall poppies would not have had a hope apart from manual labour.

Northern folk are very proud of their unpretentious, communitarian attitudes (it seems to me), which is the less harmful side of this culture.

Seanyboy, where are when we need ya?
posted by dash_slot- at 9:15 AM on October 28, 2004

I'm working my job at the Dean Clough office park, refusing to lake about on 'tinternet, wondering if it's gonna sieve it down.
And I can't believe people would even think there's any kind of Scandinavian link to Yorkshire. That's preposterous.
posted by seanyboy at 9:27 AM on October 28, 2004

By sieve, I meant, of course, Sile. I can feel the old words leaving me by the year. I blame the internet.

Although I feel a difference between the North and South, I'm unsure what it is. I wouldn't call it tall poppy syndrome. I leave that to the Ozzies, but there is a definite attitude towards success which seems different to that shown in more southern towns. If anything, I'd probably blame the Southern Softie stereotype on the Industrial Revolution. The phrase "Bradford Millionaire" springs to mind as a counterpoint / possible explanation.
posted by seanyboy at 10:12 AM on October 28, 2004

misteraitch: I suppose it's possible that social equality has a repressive cost - it's not something I prefer to believe is a neccessity, but I know myself well enough to recognize blind idealism. I grew up (and now grew old) on Star Trek, so I'm about as Humanist as they come.

But the one thing that remains in my mind is whether this 'Level Playing Field' is something that we - as purely social animals - would find neccessary, or if it remains tied to our old time religion. (Of course, there are those who might say that religious tenants came from deifying social contracts, so we end up as ring-round-the-rosey, right?)
posted by Perigee at 10:29 AM on October 28, 2004

Well, seany, I'm perfectly willing to take back my comment on the tall poppy (riffing on others before me, really). But I look at the map of the Danelaw, look at the (Danish) Law of Jante, see similar characteristics between the areas and think: hmmm. Might be something in this.

I have a few stereotypes about Northern English folk: less stuffy, pretentious and private; more social, maybe more resentful and also more 'hardy'.

Some of that matches Janteloge, but then, some of my prejudices would...Anyhow, why shouldn't a Bradford Millionaire wear a silk hat? That's very Jante (as opposed to jaunty!)
posted by dash_slot- at 12:26 PM on October 28, 2004

less stuffy, pretentious and private; more social, maybe more resentful and also more 'hardy'
I think the all-encompassing word you're looking for here is Drunk.
posted by seanyboy at 4:08 PM on October 28, 2004

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