How to avoid deadlocked debates in permanent culture wars.

November 16 2023

“It takes differences of opinion to have a debate. When the stakes are high, discussions pick up momentum, but a high level of conflict combined with an irreconcilable tone raises concerns about democracy per se,” says author and social geographer Anja Sletteland, who has earned a PhD in ‘deadlocked debates’. The controversy surrounding the NRK programme Brainwash got her interested in debates ‘that go bananas’, and in cancellations. Now she is writing a book about why this happens and how to avoid sliding into perpetual trench warfare, where no one listens to each other. See the grants that Fritt Ord awarded in October (list in Norwegian only).

Author and social geographer Anja Sletteland received funding to write the book ‘The Age of Perplexity’. The book will address how some public debates ‘become deadlocked’, stopping the parties from moving forward, and what can be done to ensure that individual discussions and, in the worst case, entire societies can avoid ending up in perpetually polarized trench wars and so-called ‘culture wars’.

“The title is a working title that refers to the widespread feeling that life today is difficult to grasp completely and rife with political minefields,” says the author.
“Freedom of expression has been expanded to a new level, historically speaking, but for many people the latitude for expression is perceived as narrow and uncomfortable. Especially on social media, people with opposing opinions tend to meet each other with hostility. Arguments are replaced by labels, and counterarguments become hate speech. The elevated level of conflict and the irreconcilable tone raise concerns about democracy itself," says Sletteland, explaining the main issue in the ‘age of perplexity’. Her book will be an analysis of the conflicts simmering beneath the surface of public culture in Norway. The former associate professor at Oslo Met, now turned full-time writer, earned her PhD in ‘deadlocked debates’. She believes that Norway and the West are experiencing a democratic revolution in which more and more groups are demanding recognition and equality, leading to friction and a struggle for the power to define.

Polarisation engenders momentum
The social geographer reminds us that polarisation is a result of something positive.
“There have never before been so many perspectives present in the public debate as there are now," she comments.
“The world has become unimaginably larger, and no one accepts being excluded from the conversation or the story anymore.”
This follows decades of building up the rights of different groups, culminating in the technology that makes social media possible. However, the conflicts this creates are not solely negative for society.
“It takes differences of opinion to have a debate. When the stakes are high, discussions pick up momentum.”

From Brainwashing to Israel-Palestine
For a decade, Sletteland has been an expert commentator on Norwegian conflicts in Samtiden, Morgenbladet, Klassekampen and Minerva, not least on topics such as ‘Anjalysis’. Me too, Islam, racism, trans rights, wolves, the online ‘manosphere’, and right- and left-wing populism are among the debates Sletteland has ‘anjalysed’. Her interest in debates that “go bananas”, as she puts it, began with a debate in the NRK programme ‘Brainwash’, about whether men and women are “born that way or become that way”.
“That whole debate embodied a downward spiral of hostility, largely based on mutual misunderstandings. I got the feeling that there was something about the dynamics of the discussion, something relational, that contributed to escalating the conflict.”

Her PhD examined the world’s foremost example of this: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The fact is that the conflict does not simply have two sides, it has multiple parties that do not recognise each other at all. Everything that one party writes and says is systematically misunderstood and misread by the other parties.”

Anomie and broken dreams
Her dissertation on this topic led to a theory about how conflicts become deadlocked – or end in ‘political anomie’. The term anomie is taken from sociology, and refers to a state where society’s norms and rules erode so much that they are no longer sufficiently robust to regulate people’s behaviour.
“Anomie often occurs during periods of rapid social change, and when there is a gap between society’s cultural goals and individuals’ ability to achieve them,” explains Sletteland.
The classic example is the US, where the American dream promised immense success if only one has sufficient will and talent, but the reality for many Americans was that they faced structural obstacles along the way.

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The storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 is one of the best known and most extreme manifestations of a polarised social debate. Photo: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“Norway’s version of a shattered dream”, continues Sletteland, “is the gap between society’s promises of full equality and full freedom of expression on the one hand, and the actual hierarchies that shape relations between groups and what you can say without encountering fierce opposition on the other.
“This mismatch leads to a range of strategies that keep people from accessing the public sphere, where conflicts hinge around the right to freedom of expression. This has happened in today’s political USA, in what many are now calling a culture war. We are seeing such tendencies in a growing number of Norwegian debates as well, such as those on racism and the war in Gaza.”

The age of group identity .
“We now live in the ‘age of group identity’. When individuals are associated with a group identity, controversies arise about what one is allowed to say and do on behalf of the group. The problem is that group identities never accurately reflect reality. All individuals have multiple identities, not to mention values, ideologies and firsthand experiences," she expounds. She hopes the book can help people find a way forward.

“Not all difficult debates need to end in political anomie. What is needed are norms for diversity of perspective that are better suited to today’s society. The expansion of democracy has meant that we have to deal with radically different perceptions of reality and to find new ways of dealing with problems. ‘The Age of Perplexity’ will explore four debates in depth: men’s vulnerability, trans rights versus women’s rights, racism and #Me too. The idea has been many years in the making”, according to the author, but the actual writing work will begin in autumn 2023. The book is scheduled for publication in February 2025.

Theatre about the new China
In October, Fritt Ord also provided support for the theatre production ‘Made in China’ by playwright, director and actor Espen Klouman Høiner. The play will challenge the ‘Eurocentric view of China and the great and all-powerful ’I’’. Meanwhile, it is also an artistic reflection on a Chinese state system that increasingly uses its high-tech innovation to monitor and repress its citizens, and is exporting these methods.

Dramatist Høiner calls the play a “futuristic mythical story of creation” about a future civilisation, based on a fusion of ancient Eastern spirituality and modern Western technological philosophy, where Daoism meets cybernetic technological understanding. Høiner is particularly interested in silence.

“Silence brings something new to life, invites us to be aware of our surroundings and creates space for what has not yet been said or thought.”
The play will be performed five times at the Brent Busk Theatre in Nesodden in May 2024.

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The script for ‘Made in China’. Scene from "The Shining City". Espen Klouman Høiner. Forest where ‘Made in China’ will be made in 2024.
Photo reproduced with permission


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Satire exhibition in Drøbak in 2024
In the same round of allocations, Fritt Ord awarded NOK 75 000 for a solo exhibition by caricature and satire artist Fadi Abou Hassan, known as Fadi ToOn. The planned exhibition ‘I have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’ will open in March 2024 at Avistegnernes Hus. The exhibition is, as described, a visual commentary on world crises, e.g., wars, the climate, refugees, violence against women. Fadi pursues his art, as he says himself, “with black humor, and sometimes irony” and his drawings are comments on the war in Ukraine, ‘the deadly Mediterranean’, artificial intelligence and LGBT+ rights.

“We know that cartoons convey a universal language. Sometimes the text needs to be translated, but that is not even necessary for most cartoons. You can cry, laugh, or get excited about them at first glance," he says.

Fritt Ord has supported several exhibitions by Fadi ToOn, including “A Colorful Human World” (2017) and “Cartooning for Climate Change”. He was also the recipient of one of Fritt Ord’s “first satire grants in 2021.

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Illustrations: FadiToOn

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