Jul 31, 2011

Scandinavia: The Best Place on Earth - What Emile Durkheim Never Knew!!

The empirical fact, easily  and freely accessible to anyone who can do as much as a goggle search, is that the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and for all intensive purposes Finland, Iceland and Netherlands) ARE...

...at the top (or the top category) of pretty much EVERY meaningful metric of human well-being LIKE...
      Kalmar Union (A.D. 1500): Forerunner to the
      idea of Scandinavia as an integrated whole
      ….. and these are just the “measurables”, anybody who has been to Scandinavia (as I have) can attest to the brilliant even if unquantifiable cultural achievements of the region. It has the lowest incidence of racism, bigotry, fundamentalism and all the other eternal scourges of human cultures. It has the most progressive, liberal and open public discourse informing governance, legislation and administration. The citizens are more friendly, more trustful of each other and more forthcoming with social contribution than any other region of the world. To me, Scandinavia represents the pinnacle of contemporary human culture and indeed the quintessential Social Democracy. 
      Based on all said above, and on much left unsaid, I’d assert that Scandinavia represents the cultural gold standard that can(and ought to be) the normative goal for social change (even social engineering) efforts everywhere.
      There is at least one statistic that SEEMS to buck this general trend... the Suicide Rates. Finland is placed 14th, Sweden 18th, Norway 36th, Iceland 38th, Denmark 40th on the "suidice list" (see the link below)
      Emile Durkheim: One of the 
      fathers of modern Sociology
      Now adherents of Anti-Westernism, Post-Modernism, Cultural Relativism, Orientalism and other regressive post WW2 philosophies and esp. the cultural commentators amongst their chums, have tried to pick on this one point to suggest that there is something structurally wrong with Scandinavian society and they often cite Emile Durkheim’s path-breaking-nonetheless-now-slightly-anachronistic sociological treatise Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897) to APPARENTLY corroborate their argument. Durkheim explained Suicide as a sociological variable (as opposed to individual variable) associated with(i.e. loosely speaking caused by) other sociological variables like “social control” “connectedness” etc. which he thought were lacking in the Protestant cultures. Detractors of Liberalism, taking a leaf from that, like to conclude that somehow high suicide rates in Scandinavia are CAUSED by “western type prosperity” (and by implication that the so called western type prosperity is undesirable)

      I have a few observations to make here.

      1. That suicide rates are “high” in Scandinavia is a statement that warrants heavy qualification. While Scandinavian nations are on top of all indicators of human well-being(mostly in the top 10) their ranks on the “suicide list” are 14,18,36,38 and 40. A fairly poor correlation b/w prosperity and suicide rates and mostly only of mathematical significance as any statistician will tell you.

      2. Even if some intellectual significance is forcibly insisted upon to be projected onto these moderate correlations then I will argue THAT... 
                                       ...Emile Durkhiem was at least partly incorrect and this could be on many counts, not the least of which is that he did not have sufficient data to theorize with (he generalized his thesis based on data only from the German Speaking regions of North-Central Europe). Suicide, as the copious amount of extant psychological literature will attest, is AT LEAST AS MUCH a phenomenon related to Personality Variables as to Social Variables. Neuroticism, for example, is positively related to suicidal tendencies. Personal Psychopathologies like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, and drug abuse are also related to suicide. And NONE of the aforementioned variables are related positively to ‘western type’ prosperity, in fact quite the opposite.

      3. The slightly higher-than-average Suicide Rate can very well be a GOOD thing and a sign of progress.  Throughout history all religions have irrationally sanctified human life beyond all limits and promoted the idea of suicide as a crime against god. On the other hand, in recent history secular but totalitarian state-philosophies of Law have led to criminalization of suicide(even attempted suicide) in most countries - almost presuming that individual  life is a property of the state. This is tantamount to promulgating that the individual has no choice over the decision to end his life voluntarily whenever the hell he wishes!!! I find this totally absurd - a secularized version of an essentially religious hang-up with sanctity of life. Such fossilized views have also prevented any intelligent debate in the US (and elsewhere) over Abortion Laws, Stem Cell Research, Euthanasia and what not!!!!

      The correct explanation, in my view, of the phenomenon under consideration is...

      the Scandinavian countries have the largest proportion of people who identify themselves as NOT belonging to any faith based creed (85 % by some estimates). Presumably this has freed them of irrational and traditional “received wisdom” about important 'matters of life', that has otherwise been (and continues to be almost everywhere) transmitted by religious institutions and agents. So in cases when life is absolutely devoid of enjoyment or worth, for myriad reasons as it can be, not being religiously blinkered will somewhat reduce the fanatic consecration of human life that otherwise forces people to continue living (and suffering) without realizing any joy or pleasure. 


      Scandinavians, on the whole, are able to think about life and its meaning free of religious or mystical pedagoguery. And anyone who is able to do that is likely to make an informed choice on the value of life and decisions to end it. AND THAT IS A GOOD THING. Just merely existing for the sake of existing, while the "popular norm" across contemporary human cultures, is NOT a philosophically superior position.

      BTW... It's NOT that everybody in Scandinavia is jumping off buildings and the country faces a suicide epidemic that threatens to bring in its wake imminent self-inflicted extinction, far from it!! It is only that there is a SMALL DIFFERENCE b/w the average global suicide rate and the Scandinavian suicide rate.... and some buffoons insist that that is a scathing reflection of the state of society there... which i think is absurd.
      I rest my case.


      -I do NOT endorse suicide as a solution to percieved worthlessness of individual life. 
      -I do endorse CLEAR thinking about the meaning of life without any irrational romanticism or unwarranted sanctification.


      Me backpacking there.. 
      ..in Copenhagen

      ..in Stockholm

      .. in Oslo


      Akshay K. Gupta said...

      Ya man..
      Regarding the suicidal tendencies..
      One who is really able to understand life in its fullest 'sense', perhaps, does understands that it has no 'purpose' as such !
      The purpose is deliberately created, just for the sake of it !!

      Siddharth Kaushal said...

      Absolutely agreed man.

      And i suppose that understanding has to be seen as a marker of progress.. howsoever inconvenient it may be.

      Thanks for the comment.

      beep said...

      No denying the high living standards of the European North, but if you're a rightist, there are places where you'd be happier.

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