On Wednesday, sections of the country and its social media were up in arms after Pernille Vermund, leader of the stridently anti-immigration, right-wing Nye Borgerlige party, used the word perker – the Danish language’s quintessential ethnic slur – in a television documentary.
Vermund subsequently doubled down on the remark, saying “I don't regret it. Let's call things what they are. If you're a negro, you're a negro; if you're a perker, you're a perker, if you're an immigrant, you're an immigrant”.
Understandably, that got a reaction.
Natasha al-Hariri, director of the youth organization of the Danish Refugee Council, has called for a broad rejection of Vermund’s sentiments.
“Should we not show the 400,000 people in Denmark who could be considered ‘perkere’ that we don’t accept this type of derisory, racist remark? It would actually be nice if someone bothered,” al-Hariri tweeted.
Skal vi ikke vise de godt 400.000 mennesker i Danmark, der kunne gå for at være en “perker”, at vi ikke accepterer den slags nedladende, racistiske udtalelser? Ville sgu egentlig være rart hvis nogen gad.
— Natasha Al-Hariri (@NatAlHariri) December 18, 2019
She is of course completely correct, and as a target of such abuse has a lot more authority to speak on it than I do.
Politicians including Sikandar Siddique, immigration spokesperson with the environmentalist Alternative party, and Social Liberal deputy leader Sofie Carsten Nielsen have in fact spoken out against Vermund and to support al-Hariri’s view.
We’ve been here before though, and the next steps are clear.
Vermund or a like-minded high-profile person will say she can say use the word or any other word she wishes to because in Denmark there is free speech, and that will never be curbed by any kind of censorship.
The 2005 Mohammed cartoons, still a high water mark for Danish cultural tunnel vision, and multiple defences of the use of other words with overtones of racial prejudice –neger is the primary example – provide the precedents for where we’re headed here.
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It’s fine, goes the logic, to be politically incorrect and say or do something which has an othering effect on a large segment of your own society, because free speech.
Even if it makes your advanced, stable, pragmatic democracy seem like a tribute act to 19th century parochialism, that’s okay. Because free speech.
I get it. Denmark has free speech. Nothing is sacred. You can make distasteful jokes and laugh at inappropriate things. I’m all for that, it’s part of the honest, straightforward mentality that makes Denmark unique.
It’s not an excuse to piss people off for the sake of it. That is what Vermund is doing here and what Rasmus Paludan, the leader of a far-right group which, unlike Vermund's, was rejected by the electorate, was prepared to go to far more extreme lengths to achieve.
After making an unprovoked verbal attack on your chosen target community, you can then invoke free speech, make yourself a victim of political correctness and censorship, and use that to try and drive a wedge down the middle of the population.
We’ve seen the long term outcome of that kind of thing in other Western democracies which I won’t mention here (okay, maybe I will).
Last week did indeed see unpleasant opposing demonstrations in Copenhagen between an Islamophobic organization and counter protestors. But Denmark is too pragmatic overall and its political system too sensible and consensus-driven for it to go down the route of the US or UK.
Furthermore, the country is stable and, while of course far from perfect, doesn’t have societal ills of a requisite magnitude that they can convincingly be blamed on any particular segment, either fairly or unfairly.
So retrograde, racially divisive language must instead by justified by the ‘Denmark has free speech’ argument.
MPs and anyone else using this kind of language in the public debate should realize that what they’re doing is not plain talking. It’s plain embarrassing, for them and for Denmark.