“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth” – Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD)
Swedish discourse oftentimes makes absolutely no sense to foreigners learning the language. When I read the newspapers I often pinch myself to make sure that I am not having a Marxist nightmare. The truisms, platitudes and clichés are thrown around as if the country has devolved into a religious sect. As a reader I can only imagine how absurd that sounded but give me a chance to explain before you place a tin-foil hat upon my head.
We like to think that our free will is absolute and that our actions stem from this free will. To some extent this is true but we often ignore the uncomfortable truth; that we have a genetic predisposition for certain types of behavior.
e.g. addiction, mental illness and aggression
Society and habits also influence our thinking. If something is repeated often enough we tend to think it is true; this is called groupthink or mob mentality. There are other subtle ways in which society changes our behaviour without us knowing it. One of those ways is the language we speak and the words we use. Take a moment and imagine growing up in the territory that is controlled by the Islamic State. All your friends, family members, politicians and journalists would refer to the jihadists as freedom fighers. Is it really that hard to believe that even we would start seeing them as freedom fighters?
Mao Zedong utilized this knowledge and the terminology he created is used to indoctrinate Chinese children to this day. The Chinese and the Swedes both share one important trait; humanity and thereby share similar flaws and strengths. Whilst Mao actively used the language to influence the population, Sweden can attribute some of its terminology to a faulty translation.
It all started in 1948 when Sweden decided to adopt the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Every single country that signs it translates it into their respective language. Unfortunately for us, one translator was overly confident and his error has influenced every aspect of Swedish society. Take a look at the first paragraph of the forementioned declaration.
- English – All humans are born free and are equal in dignity and rights
- Swedish – All humans are born free and are equal in value and rights
- German: Würde = Dignity = that something is worthy of respect
- Swedish: Värde = Value = that something has importance or usefulness
How can this one phrase have influenced all of Swedish society?
Over time the phrase “All humans are of equal value” evolved into day-to-day use. Children are taught it in schools and it has even been implemented into the Swedish constitution. It sounds ridiculous to you and me but if you were to view a political debate in Sweden you would notice that the politicians are constantly reminding everyone that they believe that “everyone is equal in value” and that their opponents do not. You must take the semi-religious phrase to heart otherwise you are regarded as cruel and cold. 66 years of this one error and the Swedish version of the declaration has still not been corrected.
It has gone so far that if you ask a Swede if:
“Alla är lika mycket värda?”
he will give you a strange look, raise his eyebrows and blankly say
A wise man once said
He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)