Sweden heading towards ‘academic freedom’ as battlefield of the radical right

What appeared as a harmless series of lectures for journalism students, soon turned out to be one of the first Swedish cases of the issue of ‘academic freedom’ as a battlefield of radical right mobilization. During fall of 2019, the Department of Media, Journalism and Communication at the University of Gothenburg arranged a lecture series ‘In the Mind of a Party Strategist’ to which representatives of all parties in the Swedish parliament, including the radical right Sweden Democrats with historical origins in Neo-Nazism, were invited. A group of students at the department organized a protest, ‘No Sweden democrats lecture at GU’ together with a petition that was signed by about 100 people. Richard Jomshof of the Sweden Democrats was allowed to address his audience at the University on 5 December, accompanied by a protest outside the School of Global Studies, where the lecture was held. But the event soon morphed into the first Swedish case where ‘academic freedom’ was mobilized by the radical right in order to push forward arguments of ‘free speech’ as a battering ram of an unchecked license to extremist expression. At the outset of 2020, the discussion is still raging as different arguments are brought forward.

‘Högskoleläckan’ (‘Higher Education Leak’), the Facebook-page of Swedish academics which gathers more than 17 000 members, published a post ahead of the SD-lecture that until mid-December 2019 had generated no less than 670 comments, most of them arguing for that it must be possible to express ‘everything’ on academic premises, since it is part of critical thinking to be exposed even to questionable positions that run contrary to our convictions. The leading liberal Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published an Op-Ed signed by more than 200 academics condemning the event and stating that the University cannot be forced to host a lecture by an openly racist party. Most Swedish journalists expressed caution and were appalled by the fact that academics seemed to argue for restrictions of ‘academic freedom’. However, media was categorically unable to produce a salient definition of what this freedom implies and mainly promoted a nostalgic and idealized image of its intellectual illimitability, disregarding the fact that research always is placed on the intersection between political and ideological interests. The radical right and their apologists fumed and portrayed themselves as victims of a left-wing plot to ‘silence the truth’. The entire debate would certainly render a deeper analysis.

At the University of Gothenburg itself, Johan Karlsson Schaffer, claimed that the protests represented an attack against academic freedom from inside academia. To make statements against the Sweden Democrats would only fuel the media logic of populism and thus, any opponents of the event would only become ‘useful fools’ of the radical right’s scandalization strategy. A more sensible approach towards (the un-defined) concept of academic freedom thus appears to be: keep silent and accept whatever is done under its guise. It is my sincere conviction that such a position is not only morally wrong, but can be questioned on epistemological grounds.

In 1943, when students and staff at the University of Munich decided to release a series of anti-Nazi fliers and statements, a foolish, crude and ahistorical analysis could accuse them of having acted as ‘useful fools’ for the Allied Forces. Whatever was directed against the terrorism of the Nazi regime, this logic would imply, would also fuel larger political currents, either intended or unintended. They could have remained silent. But is this an ethical position we should encourage?

Such a view of political action neglects one of its basic foundations: trust in individuals to make up their own minds and their right to autonomous political action. If we would follow the rules of political complacency as proposed by Schaffer and in the Swedish debate in the media and in general, we would soon turn into silent witnesses as we are being stripped of these rights. But our silence will not protect us.

As anyone in the field of International Relations and Global Studies painfully is aware, the current authoritarian right-wing shift in global politics is a current or rather a wave of tsunami-like proportions in the international system – affecting interactions both between states and sub-state actors. In this sense, it is no wonder that students and staff at the School of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg grasped the broader ramifications of inviting an ambassador from a badly disguised version of Swedish national socialism to outline their party strategies.

These strategies, on a global scale, include hijacking the concept of human rights, in particular, free speech and its defense, in order to disseminate illiberal ideas running contrary to the HR-system (see Allchorn). The call for unlimited free speech is used as a battering ram to conquer the field of meta-politics, i.e. to conquer and exercise the privilege of interpretation in areas of culture and ideology. ‘Free Speech Warriors’ such as Ben Shapiro or Milo Yiannopoulos are consciously taking to campuses around the globe to defend an absurd version of free speech as a ‘positive right’ (in the definition of Isaiah Berlin): to say whatever you like without calculating or acknowledging its consequences. This, however, was never the intention of the French Declaration, the First Amendment or the Swedish Constitutional Law of Press Freedom.

Listen carefully to the Free Speech Warriors; they seldom talk about negative rights, because their fantasy is states ruled with absolute political ideologies capable of infringing upon the rights of any member of the political community. They are not interested in discussing the limits of power since they are, in essence, totalitarian. Authoritarian regimes around the globe have picked up on this and are pushing for the dissemination and legitimisation of hate speech and ideological manipulation in a wrongly perceived defense of ‘free speech’ on academic campuses. Any politician has the right to say whatever s/he wants to say, but that does not imply a) that it cannot be legally challenged and b) that there is an inherent right to say it wherever you want. And, of course, as a consequence, whatever is said is still open to the analysis of its truth value and its ethical and normative implications.

The issue of Richard Jomshof of the Sweden Democrats speaking at the University of Gothenburg is thus far more significant than a single seminar. The event, as such, is a part of a global radical right strategy to undermine the HR-regime. The ‘useful fools’ are those who haven’t analyzed this strategy before, who have provided it a stage at the University of Gothenburg and who are defending it so ardently now. Have you made a proper analysis of the consequences of your defense of so-called ‘free speech’?

I agree with Schaffer that the protest against Jomshof will fuel the pathetic perpetuum mobile of right-wing rhetoric through scandalisation – but is that a serious argument for not acting? Is keeping quiet when confronted with such fundamentalist bullying a serious alternative? The initiative against the free SD-propaganda stunt has been met by at least one reference to the popular Finspång-meme. The Swedish radical right has floated a wet dream of future trials taking place in Finspång, trials at which purported national ‘traitors’ will be summarily sentenced to death and hanged on lamp-posts. When “Augusto Duterte” (the name of the Philippine president advocating and encouraging death squads) signed the petition as “professor of rotor avionics at the University of Finspång” s/he knew exactly what s/he was referencing— the execution of those who dare to speak against right-wing statements and actions. If these are the people supporting a supposed ‘right’ of SD to talk at our University, I think those arguing against the protest should choose sides.

To sum up:

  • The right to individual autonomous political action is not invalidated by potential future interpretation or potential future retribution. This should never deter us from action.
  • Complacency with the contemporary political discourse and the silence that would be the consequence will not protect us.
  • SD is the national branch of a contemporary global current in the international system – this is not about one lecture.
  • The issue of ‘free speech’ on University campuses is part of the meta-political strategy of the radical right on a global scale – to defend this right is to become a ‘useful fool’ by helping to legitimise this strategy.
  • Finally, that we feed the radical right scandalization strategy is no argument to keep quiet. On the contrary, the radical right will turn more and more radical in bullying us into silence and not stop short of fantasies and threats of physical or lethal violence.

Dr Andreas Önnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor of History of Ideas at University of Gothenberg. See his profile here.

© Andreas Önnerfors. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

Note from Author: This is a corrected version of the blog. In a previous version, I incorrectly stated that Johan Karlsson Schaffer was affiliated with the charitable foundation Academic Rights Watch ARW, for which I deeply apologize. His colleague at the same department, Jens Stilhoff Sörensen is member of the board of ARW.