THE SANTA CLARA
January 15, 2015
There I was, sitting at the dinner table with my floormates and my Danish residential advisers. It was my second week living in Denmark, and my first exposure to the concept of “hygge,” a Danish word that describes the cozy feeling you get when surrounded by good vibes. Candles flickered, wine flowed and jokes were cracked. Then, suddenly, one of the RAs told a disrespectful joke about black people, and an awkward hush replaced the hygge in a flash.
“What, you guys don’t like slave jokes?” asked the comedian innocently.
Two months and many more brazen wisecracks from the Danes have passed since this incident. From Ebola to terrorism, it seems that no topic is off limits. The Danish sense of humor is undoubtedly an important part of the citizens’ cultural identity, but as further integration is pursued in every corner of the globe, it is necessary to start talking about the potential consequences of throwing these jokes around.
Jokes Without Boundaries
“We have a lot of irony and self-criticism. I think there are very few boundaries of what we think is hilarious.”
This is how 20-year-old Copenhagen University student Harald Hersted sums up the Danish sense of humor.
“Political correctness,” Harald says, “is not something we really have.”
Harald’s words ring especially true when looking at the past several years in Danish culture.
Despite being available in theaters for less than two weeks in 2010, “Klown,” a comedy known for its extremely raunchy humor, was the most-watched movie of the year in Denmark. A movie about a canoe journey of two men and a 12-year-old boy, “Klown” makes light of heavy subjects like homophobia, pedophilia and racism.
And then there is the cartoon controversy. Denmark is rarely featured in world news unless about it’s uniquely happy populace, but for several months in 2005 and 2006 the country was subject to protests, boycotts and threats on a massive scale. These came mainly from the global Muslim community after Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, printed “humorous” cartoons portraying the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.
What these instances seem to suggest is that while Danes may not mean to offend, they lack the empathy necessary to understand the potential harm behind their words. This begs the question of what accounts for this lack of empathy.
One of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the Western world, 89.6 percent of the Danish population is of Danish descent. This statistic has led some to label Denmark as a tribe rather than a country.
The main benefit of such a population is a tight-knit community in which people look out for one another. This aspect can be seen in the country’s extensive welfare safety net and high levels of happiness. The drawbacks of this homogeneity are mostly felt by those outside of the majority, namely immigrants, especially those of Muslim descent.
If there has been one major critique of Denmark since the cartoon controversy, it is that their fervent nationalism leads to difficulty integrating immigrants into society. A September 2014 inquiry from the Danish think tank Fonden Kraka found that non-Western immigrants fare worse than Danes in every phase of development, from elementary school to the labor market.
Meanwhile, the Danish People’s Party, whose leader has gone on record saying, “I do not think there is room for more with a Muslim background,” is now the majority representative of Denmark in the European Parliament.
The flipside of this struggle to integrate is beautifully summed up by Palestinian-Danish poet Yahya Hassan, who argues that Muslims are not doing their part in mixing into Danish culture. Indeed, assimilation is a two-way street, and Hassan’s accusations that Muslim immigrants are content to take advantage of the generous Danish welfare state while refusing to learn the language and culture provide a compelling counterpoint to this debate.
Humor is a very fickle thing. Where a 10-year-old might be left rolling on the floor from a fart joke, an elderly woman might scoff in disgust. The same goes for different cultures. Many Danes most likely found the image of Muhammad with a bomb as a turban funny, but due to a difference in values, a Danish-Iranian would rightfully be incensed.
A Funny Future for All
Like cultural integration, dealing with the issue of humor is a job for both sides. The Danes need to exercise restraint. They need to realize that just because they can legally say whatever they want, does not mean that they should. The immigrants need to understand that the culture they are now a part of carries no malicious intentions.
They need to attempt to educate the Danes instead of labelling them heretics. The sooner these two groups begin the level-headed conversation, the sooner healthy relationships can be forged and the sooner we can all start laughing again.
Tyler Brown is a junior economics major.