Equality 101

Equality: Norwegian Style

I'm proud of my country, of that there is no doubt.  We're not perfect -- no country is -- but we've built a great society that espouses fairness and equality as our highest principles.  It is a concept called "likhet for loven," which means "equality before the law," and it is a principle ingrained in us from a very early age.  Scandinavians in general are like this; Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic society carries this ideal as well.  It is something so fiercely entwined in our cultural DNA, which is why Scandinavia is well known as the most progressive (or some may say most liberal) neighborhood on the planet.

While many countries take a wait-and-see approach to social issues, Norway and the other Scandinavian lands are countries of firsts.  The first to have anti-discrimination laws, the first to have same-sex civil unions, the first to allow same-sex couples to adopt, the first to have an Anti-Discrimination Ombudsman, the first to have a government Department of Equality, and the first to elect an openly gay head of state (Iceland's current Prime Minister is openly lesbian and has a wife).  On social issues, Scandinavia typically leads and the rest of the world eventually follows.

A mindset of tolerance and fairness starts early in the home and at barnehage, or pre-school, with songs and lessons about how everyone is the same and equally valuable -- no matter what color they are, what religion they have, what place they're from, or what type of family they have.  These inclusive themes continue all through our school years, culminating in our high school classes on Societal Ethics, which includes a broad topic on sexuality, including homosexuality.

The topic of homosexuality was first introduced into the school curriculum back in 1974, in Natural Science, Biology, and Health classes, starting in elementary grade 4 (about the age of 9).  The curriculum states that "sexual expressions which are different from the majority shall be discussed, namely homosexuality."

With each successive year the theme builds, and by the time they're finished with elementary, "students shall reflect on and discuss ethical issues related to interpersonal relations, family, relationships, heterosexuality and homosexuality, youth culture and body image."  Starting in grade 7 (about age 12), the last year of elementary school, is when we begin to learn about and talk about sexual ethics in relation to different family forms, relations between the sexes, medical advances, and different gender identities.

The following year, grade 8, which is the first year of ungdomsskole (middle school), is when we also begin formal sex education in the classroom, but discussions first begin in elementary school in science lessons.  As you may have guessed, our sex education is quite liberal, with topics including contraceptives, STDs, abortion, procreation, love, sexuality, sexual identity, and cohabitation & marriage, straight and gay alike.  In addition to classroom lessons, discussions are also done in small group settings with nurses and other health professionals doing the teaching.  Students can also get everything from condoms to STD testing to morning after pills, all completely free (paid for by the government) and completely confidential.

You may think that, because of all this sex talk in schools, Norwegian girls are getting pregnant right and left, but you would be wrong.  Studies and statistics from around Europe show that more information makes things better, not worse.  Norway's rates of teen pregnancy, STDs, and abortions are all much lower than the rest of the world.

The book and study plans used today for lessons on sexuality are "Seksualitet i Skolen," or in English, Sexuality in the School.  A book that's also found in schools is specifically for kids, called "Gay Kids," which is a lesson book explaining sexual orientation and same-sex love, and promoting tolerance, respect, and understanding amongst kids.  The book is incorporated into the elementary school curriculum during introductions to sexual orientation and different types of families.  And in addition to fairy tales about princes and princesses falling in love, in elementary school libraries you can also find several fairy tale picture books with same-sex themes.  One of them, "King & King," is about a prince who falls in love with and marries another prince and together they become king and king.

And that brings us back to homosexuality.  Schools of course play an incredibly important role in forming societal values, and discussions of homosexuality are included in various subjects throughout the school years.  Updated knowledge and science regarding homosexuality and gender identity issues are continually disseminated, raising awareness among all students to shape open, respectful attitudes.

Personally, I know that the lessons and discussions we had in school really made me and my classmates stop and think.  For example, instead of asking the class: "What do you think it's like to be gay?", our teacher first asked: "What do you think it's like to be straight?"  It entered the topic from a different angle, from the minority viewpoint, and started some excellent and heartfelt discussions.  It left the gay students and straight students finding more common ground than ever before.

Our teacher also asked us what we thought the number one question asked of gay people is, and most of us said: "When did you realize you were gay?"  Then we were given a research project: to ask that question to at least three gay people, and then a twist... to modify the question (replace the word "gay" with the word "straight") and ask it to at least three straight people as well.  It felt strange to ask a straight person when he or she first realized they were straight, but that was exactly the point of the project.

The results were enlightening -- a lot of straight people smiled and chuckled or said "Huh?" when they were asked that question, because it's something very rarely asked of straight people.  Gay people, on the other hand, seem to get asked that question quite often.  But why is it any different?  Sexual orientation is sexual orientation -- each one is inborn and each one is equally valid.  If it is valid to ask a gay person when they first realized they were gay, then it is equally valid to ask a straight person when they first realized they were straight.  It was an excellent assignment and really opened a lot of eyes.

The key factor involved is dialogue, not just a teacher giving a lecture.  It's about getting each student to join the discussions of how we as humans relate to things that are different, and why we are often skeptical or afraid when we encounter something that we may not be personally familiar with.  It's better than trying to arrive at an answer of what is "right" or "wrong."  Dialogue creates a learning environment for understanding and insight, and allows students to listen to others' viewpoints.  An ability to understand, appreciate, and respect how others feel is the very foundation of an equality-loving society.

The Norwegian Education Directorate states the following:  "Upbringing in the schools shall directly fight against prejudice and discrimination, while promoting mutual respect and tolerance between groups of differing lifestyles."   Those two words -- respect and tolerance -- are the keywords within the Scandinavian education system, and within society at large.  

To possess tolerance means that one can calmly and comfortably be around something that one may not necessarily be in agreement with.  As I remember my high school ethics teacher putting it, it means that even if I may disagree with you, I will defend your right to uphold your opinion 'til the day I die.  Respect, of course, has a deeper implication than tolerance.  To, for example, respect gays and lesbians even if you yourself happen to be straight, shows that you see the value, worth, and dignity in every person, not just those who think and act the exact same way as you.

Another theme that we focus on in school is what we call "Nestekj√¶rlighetsprinsippet" (the kindness principle), or as it is commonly referred to in English, "The Golden Rule."  This is a foundational principle in all the world's religions, as well as in secular humanism, and was even stressed by Aristotle.  Essentially, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Treat others the way you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes.  Love your fellow man as you love yourself.  This is empathy, and it's a principle that ties intrinsically in with human rights.  Children instinctively recognize this and understand this.   If it is properly fostered at home and in the classroom, it's a principle that is able to shape great children into great adults.

I'm of the firm belief that kindness and empathy do not have to be taught, per se, to children, because it's something that we all have from birth.  As humans we naturally want to reach out to the oppressed, to the downtrodden, to the bullied.  This does, however, have to be cultivated, encouraged, and built upon as children grow -- if it's not, it can be lost.  Kindness is instinctive; bigotry is not.  Bigotry, racism, fear, disdain, prejudice...all those things are learned.  If a child is surrounded by them through messages they hear at home, in church, in their classroom, or through stereotyped portrayals they see on TV, then the natural compassion and kindness will be drowned out.

A society of equality fosters empathy and the Golden Rule in its youth; it does not replace those virtues with the weeds of prejudice.

This starts in schools and it becomes firmly rooted in the culture as the kids become adults, and the mindset of equality permeates every area of life in Norway.  Even in traditionally "macho" sectors and professions such as the police and military, gay and lesbian equality is easily recognizable.  Gays and lesbians have had full rights and anti-discrimination protections within the Norwegian armed forces since 1979, and the military in Norway is quite unique in the world in terms of its complete openness and acceptance of gay soldiers.  This goes to show just how deep the threads of equality run throughout the society.  When rough and tough troopers are able to be openly gay and proud, it is a sign of great societal progress indeed.

Building a society of equals starts with children.  Fostering ideals of tolerance, respect, and the value and dignity of every person and their individual beliefs, is the clearest way to not only bring about equality for all, but also to maintain equality for all in the future. 

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Anonymous said... Best Blogger Tips

this might be kinda off topic but is it true that it is against the law to spank a child in norway? i heard that somewhere. it seems like a good idea but i'm just curious what the penalty is and stuff. thnx.

Erik said... Best Blogger Tips

Hi there! You heard right, it certainly is illegal to spank a child anywhere in Norway. It's a crime to smack, spank, pinch, pull hair, pull an ear, slap the back of a hand, etc. The max penalty is 6 years in prison if a belt or paddle or spoon is used and physical bruises are made, especially if there is a history of corporal punishment by the adult/parent. For a spanking on the butt, the penalty will vary depending on the circumstances, which is up to a judge. A child can also be taken away from his/her parent/s and be put under state care. IMO parents should never use any level of physical "correction" on a child, so the law is a very good thing for the protection of children's rights.

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