They called it the Swim Test:
Suspected witches would be stripped naked, bound by their hands and feet and thrown into a body of water. If they sunk, they were deemed innocent, and if they were witches, the water would reject them and throw them back onto dry land. This trial-by-water was considered fair, as a higher power was set to judge the fates of the accused. Before it was used to conduct witch trials in the 17th century, the swim test had been popular judicial method in Europe in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
Sweden is one of the countries that has been impacted the most by the #MeToo campaign. Mere weeks after the Weinstein saga unfolded in international media, over 10,000 Swedish women across eight different professions – from law and tech to acting and medicine – had started their own hashtags and campaigns related to #MeToo.
The heads started rolling, large and small, and everyone from the Swedish royal family to the most senior members of the government were siding with the movement and lending their support. A senior editor at the major Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter called it, “the biggest Swedish women's movement since women secured the right to vote almost a hundred years ago.” The country found itself in the midst of a revolution.
Eight months after the initial reports, the Swedish #MeToo movement has garnered three major scalps. Most notably, the institution responsible for the Nobel Prize in literature — the Swedish Academy — was rocked by allegations of having covered up numerous sexual assaults perpetrated by the husband of one of its members. The accused perpetrator, a well-respected figure in Swedish cultural life, was outed through a Weinstein-style expose in a Swedish daily, where 18 women spoke out about having been assaulted by him on numerous occasions.
The scandal prompted several members of the Swedish Academy to resign their prestigious lifetime appointments, and in April, the Academy released a statement saying that there would be no Noble Prize in literature in 2018. Instead, the Academy would spend the year reviewing its practices. As for the accused man, he will face his accusers in court later this year.
The second scandal involved a female media figure who accused lauded Swedish journalist Fredrik Virtanen of rape. The details of the alleged crime were described in a lengthy Instagram post that went viral within hours. Having rumours and accusations run rampant on social media may not merit any raised eyebrows, but in this instance, the accusation was picked up by traditional media outlets. Virtanen was named, shamed and eventually fired from his senior position at one of Sweden’s most reputable newspapers, despite Swedish police having dropped the case and Virtanen’s employer having been unable to independently substantiate any of the claims made against him.
A few weeks before Virtanen’s dismissal, the cultural director at the Stockholm Cultural Theater, Benny Fredriksson, committed suicide after several Swedish media outlets accused him of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in the workplace. Fredriksson had been outed by name in two of the largest Swedish tabloids, each seemingly attempting to one-up the other with salacious details about his alleged crimes. However, after Fredriksson’s suicide, a more thorough review showed that the accusations could not be substantiated; they were simply workplace gossip about a stern and sometimes unpopular boss.
Of these three stories, two proved to be nothing more than rumours or lies that had been amplified through re-tweets and old media-legitimacy.
In other words: Two of the witches sank, but they can take little comfort in having been exonerated, as they lie on the bottom of the ocean.
The Press Council, responsible for regulating ethics in Swedish press, recently deemed 10 of the aforementioned published articles on #MeToo as having “blatantly violated journalistic ethics." Ola Sigvardsson, the head of the Council, went on record to say:
“Swedish journalists seem to have used their professional role to contribute to a good cause” and that, without pointing fingers, he believes that many went from journalists to activists during the most intense months of the #MeToo movement."
It is interesting that Sweden, a country known across the world for its progressive politics and radical gender equality, was hit this hard by the #MeToo campaign. One possible explanation might be the identity crisis the country has suffered over the past few years, where traditional Swedish values has clashed with the changing Swedish population, neither phenomenon having being acknowledged by the powers that be.
After having suffered a major immigration crisis in 2015 and 2016 — the country, just shy of 10 million citizens, received over 260,000 immigrants in just 11 months — has seen rape stats skyrocket. Several stomach-churning cases of multiple-offender sexual assaults shook the nation and divided it along strictly divided political lines.
Progressive Sweden identifies as a feminist country, its political leadership having gone as far as calling itself the “the world’s first feminist government,” but the progressive ideals also include a refugee-friendly stance that has clashed with the last few year’s spike in sex-crimes perpetrated by predominantly immigrant offenders.
The result has been an identity crisis, where the intelligentsia and media has adopted a "hear no evil, see no evil" policy toward these societal changes. Meanwhile, the common man is turning rightward at the polls. In just two elections, the far-right Sweden Democrat party has gone from just under 4 per cent to over 22 per cent in the latest polls. As the national election approaches this September, this former niche party is expected to at least become the second largest in the land.
Rather than face the crisis head-on, Swedish politicians have opted for a more roundabout type of solution. Two weeks ago, a new law came into effect recognizing all sex that does not include explicit consent as rape, radically changing the definition of rape and sexual assault. This new law will, of course, do little do stem the tide of sexual assaults or clashes between the old and the new, but rather lead to many more trials by water, condemning the many while saving the few.
#MeToo became an outlet for this growing frustration, and a way for Swedish society, or at least its intelligentsia, to re-establish its credentials progressive feminists. Journalists and legislators joined forces with activists and score-settlers and before long, all the accused had to be thrown in the water to be judged by a higher power: the all-knowing righteous mob. It was sink or swim for anyone unlucky enough to be named, and even those who passed the test failed, losing either their lives or their livelihood at the hands of the anonymous masses.
The immediate and seemingly unquestioned impulse to publish names and images of the accused under the #MeToo banner stands in stark contrast to the consistent unwillingness of Swedish media to publish the same information about genuine sexual offenders from an immigrant background, even after they have been convicted of their crimes in a court of law.
Through this crisis, Sweden has become a prime example of what happens when your nation’s sense of self is based on identity politics rather than on a value system against which all cases, actions and reactions are judged and measured. In this land of identity politics, two identities are at war: immigrant rights are being pitted against women’s rights, and neither side is winning.
Sweden is a nation in shock, and the immediate reactions – toothless legislation and ballot box-rage – are, while quite understandable, completely misguided.
The #MeToo campaign was the pinnacle of “truthiness,” where journalistic ethics were set aside, along with due process. A handful of legitimate and upsetting cases of assault became an excuse for blanket judgment and blind rage. In Sweden, it became a huge national movement because it provided an outlet and an alibi for all those politicians and journalists who had, quite rightly, been accused of failing women by downplaying rape-stats and misrepresenting the change Swedish society has gone through over the past few years.
#MeToo was their time to signal their feminist virtues, but unfortunately there was little virtue in their craft.
The post-#MeToo backlash has revealed a flawed Swedish feminism, where the most vulnerable are left unprotected for the sake of the subjectively "good," and the politics of optics has reduced a cause to little more than broad generalizations. Men are villains, immigrants are victims and the women we supposedly care for are, as always, left holding the short end of the stick.
The dangers of these campaigns, as well intentioned as they are, is that the backlash that inevitably follows is so fierce that it sets the entire issue back not by years, but decades. In a world where everything is rape, nothing is rape, and where everything is racism, nothing is racism. This type of thinking leaves us with dangerous leaders and lawless lands and I fear that after September, Sweden will have found itself with both.