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Terri He (Linköping Universitet, Sweden)

Utopianism and Social Violence: exending thoughts from Elin Frykman’s “The Cutting Edge”


Starting from 1935 to 1976, with a peak around 1946, 62,888 Swedish people were sterilized. Some of these Swedes during these forty years were sterilized against their own will, some of them without the consent of the Board of Medicine in Sweden. This part of history was first uncovered by a Polish/Swedish journalist Maciej Zaremba in 1997 on the most influential newspaper Dagens Nyheter, and thus created a stir on every corner of Sweden. This text at hand aims to re-tell the story of the forty-year policy of sterilization as it will be primarily derived from Elin Frykman’s contribution that sets out the contextualization of this very time period in her “The Cutting Edge: A Sterilization Campaign in Sweden” in Enlightenment and Genocide, Contradictions of Modernity. Elin “attempts to give an account of the reasons and the ideas behind the laws of sterilization, the debate and its practice” in a down-to-earth manner, with the supplementation of a historical perspective (213). Given this specific writing of Elin’s, I would like to take this discussion on sterilization further to a level that directs at social engineering, utopian thoughts, the pursuit of the best of all possible societies, and the violence inherent within these utopian discourses.

Sweden, one the prominent countries nowadays that thoroughly carries out the logic of the welfare state, around the mid-twentieth century forcibly sterilized more than 58,500 women (93% of the total number of the sterilized people) in hopes of creating a pure race—pure in the sense of being Swedish, middle-classy and strong. This was already a shocking report with the high percentage of women being the principal victims, and even more so if we consider “[t]he fact that men reproduce exactly as much as women (because it takes two to make a baby) was of little importance when sterilizations were being discussed and implemented” (229). This phenomenon can be laid parallel to the fact that reproduction technology focuses chiefly on women instead of men, and that it implies women are placed as an Other that requires more studies and gazes. In her article, however, Elin does not think that women constituted the large part of target group because they were regarded “as an enemy within society that must be eliminated for the comfort of the majority,” but because women were “wardens of the reproduction.” In fact, only those women who, as Yvonne Hirdman suggested, did not fulfill the social contract – meaning they did not secure their roles as producers and fosters of the children that belonged to the nation— were put to sterilization (230-1). Women were diminished to their function of reproduction, as if they had been nothing but walking wombs, and if they failed, they were labeled as bad mothers.

Bad mothers went to somewhere under the umbrella category titled “the Other.” The modern society, as Elin characterizes, possessed the inherent tendency of incessantly categorizing people (235). This was where the social welfare system stood upon: the handicapped, the impaired, the non-white, the anti-social, and the working-class. As Elin points out, Ingemar Hedenius in Liv och nytta (Life and Utility) “described utilitarian moral as the leading principle of the welfare state. Its essence was to create a maximum of comfort and happiness for a maximum of people” (237). This utilitarian view was precisely the discourse that legitimized the good intention of violent acts of sterilization, its ensuing genocide and a so-called maximum profit for the majority. The categorizing stresses on the normal as opposed to the Other, or the non-normal. Categorization in this case created a new identity for the citizens. Those who were unwanted, non-desirable and simply bad, on the other hand, are the crucial roles that keep the stability in shaping a social identity for the majority. In an endeavor of taking care of the majority, the Swedish experts have long the tradition of casting themselves as “the ambassadors of a modern, rational state with the best of intentions towards its citizens” (214). But clearly with the cruelty and violence that comes along with social categorization and a self-other binarism, the best is simply imaginary. The best never existed and never shall exist because we can never be sure it will be best for whom. The objects are not stable and fixed, but changeable and elusive. And the objects can simultaneously be us or them, and them will always be the excluded.

The revelations of the sterilization history in Sweden turn out to be anything but Swedish. This long admired as a model of the enlightened and humane social welfare state has done a magnificent job, but it does not follow that there is no violence. The violence within the social welfare state was, and probably still is to some degree, invisible and yet long-lasting. Since there is no innocence at any rate when it comes to violence, both the government and the people as a whole participated in the violence. Due to the utopia-tinted glass through which everyone saw oneself as well as the society, the nation (allow me to simplify the situations here) silently tolerated the genocide, or even some of them might have fully supported the sterilization laws for a better society and possibly the best of all possible societies in the future. Under such circumstances, the utopian aspirations, aiding the violence, became dangerous.