On Breivik and Feminism

GUEST POST: Dear friends, I will be back at it in a few days. In the meantime, I would like to share with you this post by my Norwegian colleague, the biblical scholar Jorunn Økland, about the recent tragedy in Norway.

One of the strongest impressions last week—and there were many—was the sight of Gro Harlem Brundtland on the square between the Town Hall of Oslo and the harbor.

A march was supposed to take place on Monday night to show grief, compassion, and defiance, but a third of Oslo’s population turned up, so movement was impossible and the march turned into a mass meeting.

There is nothing naïve in meeting murder with roses, as some U.S. commentators love to say. In a country that has been colonized for 400 years, occupied by the Nazis for five years, where drowning at sea or freezing to death for centuries has been intrinsic to making a living, where there has been a problem with right-wing extremism for the last 40 years, naïvete was lost in the Medieval period. But we all have a choice with regard to how we as a community meet and live with conflict, death, and violence, and Norway is perhaps making different choices than many other countries.

Close to the scene, she stood silently like the personified terra firma, this now elderly lady. Gro Harlem Brundtland was the first Norwegian female prime minister (1981) and one of the longest-serving; among the world’s first female heads of state; Director General of the World Health Organization; UN Special Envoy on Climate Change; part of Desmond Tutu’s council of  “The Elders”—in addition to filling a host of other roles.

For the gunman (we try to limit the use of his name over here), as for the youth at Utøya interviewed before the massacre, there was no doubt that Gro was this year’s main attraction, and she had spoken at Utøya just hours before the massacre.

She represents everything Breivik hates about contemporary Norway, and was the reason why Breivik selected this particular day for his attack. In comments on a right-wing blog he calls her not “The Mother of the Land” (as she is frequently called), but “The Murderer of the Land.” It turns out that a traffic accident and the usual roadworks carried out during the Norwegian main summer holidays delayed him so much that he only arrived at Utøya after she had left. That probably saved her life.

Earlier this year, the 25th anniversary of Norway’s—and the world’s—first “women’s cabinet” was marked. It was not an all-female cabinet, since only eight out of 18 cabinet ministers were female. But Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s 1986 cabinet set the standard for gender equality in government around the world.

In 1987, the year after the “women’s cabinet,” the German-Norwegian political scientist Helga Hernes published a book entitled Welfare State and Woman Power: Essays in State Feminism, in which she launched the term “state feminism” as the designation of a political system where gender equality is promoted through legislation and politics, where women’s full exercise of citizenship and participation in all areas of society is a main political priority.

I think we find here at least part of the explanation behind the problem with right-wingers experienced by state feminist political systems like Norway and Sweden. Political opposition is by definition different from the governing party, and this opposition can be taken to the extreme. In many parts of the world, patriarchy and open display of weapons and military power are acceptable and unquestioned, and in fascist regimes, opposition is often gathered under the banner of socialism.

Breivik, on the other hand, lives and writes and kills in a society that is consistently ranked close to the top of the UN ranking of gender qquality and “women-friendliness.” The identity of the enemy within, then, is to a certain extent culturally contingent, although this enemy is contained most of the time.

In his 1,500-page online manifesto, 2083 – A European Declaration of Independence, Breivik is explicit that feminism is the most prominent facet of “political correctness” in Western European life today ( p. 28), and that the “feminisation of European culture is nearly completed,” as “the last bastion of male domination, the police force and the military, is under assault” (p. 29).

Gender-equality policies are very different in Scandinavia and in the rest of Europe, but he fails to see the difference and projects the Scandinavian situation onto Europe as a whole. He identifies very much with the Anglophone world and is inspired mainly by British and American writers, so he prefers to talk about that scene, but projects o to it the facts on the ground in Norway.

This procedure creates an odd discrepancy between map (UK/US) and territory (Norway) in his text. We will leave that for now, but let me just add that his suspicions against Islam are shared by many in Norway—frequently because Islam is seen as incompatible with the gender equality that Norwegians value so highly.

Breivik wants to come across as learned, well read—an intellectual. He is well read. But it has been pointed out by Norwegian philosopher Lars Fredrik Svendsen that in spite of all the references and name-dropping, there is “no one at home” in Breivik’s text. Yet there is a very clear and visible scarlet thread, and his readings, quotes, and references are supposed to support his main points: that Europe is under threat from Islam, and that “cultural Marxism” has prepared the way for Muslim invasion.

“Cultural Marxism” includes multiculturalism, feminism, socialism, collectivism, activism in favor of gays, the disabled, animals and the environment (!), and other progressive social movements. There is no doubt that he wants to restore some kind of idealized patriarchy where a man’s authority would not have to be constantly justified in order to be respected.

Interestingly, Breivik has also noted how feminism has influenced the academy in general and particularly the way a range of cultural subjects dear to him are currently being taught: “Literature is, if not the most important cultural indicator, at least a significant benchmark of a society’s level of civilisation. … Literature, as the words society collectively holds up as exemplary, is then a starting point of sorts—a window into the culture” (p. 27).

He then goes on to lament the various “isms” influencing current studies of literature, like Marxism, Freudianism, deconstructionism, feminism, and so on. He particularly singles out feminist criticism, and when he mentions other types of critique such as deconstructionism, the examples are still gender- and sexuality-related. Also, his main point of critique of the Frankfurt school, the main source of “cultural Marxism,” is gender-related.

He concludes: “Critical Theory as applied to mass psychology has led to the deconstruction of gender in the European culture. … The traditional roles of the mothers and fathers are to be dissolved so that patriarchy will be ended” (p. 30).  This conclusion does include an obscure quote from the “Frankfurt school” (no author or work mentioned), but the main rationale behind it is probably the Norwegian legislation on parental leave, which has turned the father into a much more important figure in the lives of children and widened men’s repertoire on a number of levels. (Out of 47 weeks of fully paid parental leave, 12 weeks are reserved for the father. Parents are often allowed to divide those weeks between them as they wish, which means that highly educated Oslo fathers tend to take much more paternity leave than the 12 weeks reserved for them.)

Feminist literary criticism of various types, then, seems to be something he detests only vaguely less than Gro Harlem Brundtland, multiculturalism, and Islam. He says, for example, that “that has not stopped the cultural critics from indoctrinating this new generation in feminist interpretation, Marxist philosophy, and so-called ‘queer theory.’ Requirements for reading Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, and other dead white males are disappearing, to be replaced by options to take studies in ‘The Roles of Women in the Renaissance’ (an excuse to lament the sexism of the past) or ‘The Bible as Literature’ (a course designed to denigrate the Bible as cleverly crafted fiction instead of God’s truth). The reliable saviour of the intelligentsia is the common man and his common sense.”

My response would be that cultural and literary critique does not mean that we “reject” the works we examine—as cultural expressions, how would that be possible? But it does mean questioning and sometimes even rejecting the authority some of the texts are enjoying on grounds that we no longer share today. Cultural and literary critique transforms the way we relate to our own cultural heritage, and authority can no longer be taken for granted in any corner.

Breivik’s resentment of feminist approaches to text and literature is not unique among Norwegian right-wingers., a blog scene where Breivik has been active along with others who share his opinions on culture and immigration, includes negative comments about the fact that the top positions in Norwegian gender research are currently held by scholars with a background in literary studies of various kinds.

But the lurking feminism is clearly not the only problem with such approaches: Breivik admits he is not a strong believer, but he considers the Bible and the (Catholic) Christian tradition a powerful instrument of containing the authoritarian structures of traditional European culture. The Bible and Christianity can only serve this function if their authority is not questioned, discussed, or transformed as part of ongoing, human discourse. Reading the Bible as literature and cultural artifact means approaching the Bible in a way that is accessible to both believers and unbelievers.

It can bridge Jewish, Muslim, and Christian appropriations of this major cultural text. Its ability to bring together scholars of all faiths and no faith is probably the reason why Breivik so much detests literary/cultural approaches to the Bible. They completely undermine his project of mutual suspicion and hatred.

Jorunn Økland is director of the Centre for Gender Research at the University of Oslo, a biblical scholar, and co-editor of Marxist Feminist Criticism of the Bible.


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