Danglish for beginners | Immigration debate has a powerful new voice

The 18-year-old poet Yahya Hassan reignited the immigration debate a few weeks ago when he told Politiken newspaper that he was “fucking angry” at his parents’ generation.

“As soon our parents landed in Kastrup, their role as parents ended. We watched as they passively rotted on the sofa with the remote in their hand while receiving welfare,” Hassan said, describing the experience of some immigrants who moved to Denmark in the 1980s.

“Those of us who dropped out of school, those of us who became criminals, and those of us who became bums, we were not failed by the system, but by our parents.”

Hassan touched a nerve. With low performance in school and over representation in the criminal statistics, the problems facing the immigrant communities are well known. But correctly attributing the blame has been tricky.

The right-wing, for their part, are overjoyed that someone from the immigrant community has admitted that they are a lazy bunch who sponge off welfare and show little interest in Danish culture.

“Do these people even want to be integrated, or do they want to live in a parallel society and only enjoy a social system that is already under pressure?” Jyllands-Posten newspaper stated in an editorial.

“It’s about time that things are called out for what they are; this newspaper for years has tried to cover what has been happening in these closed environments.”

The right-wing in Denmark has accused the left of political correctness and letting immigrants set themselves apart in parallel societies. Indeed the left has shied away from addressing the cultural problems brought about by immigration, instead favouring to cast the problems as a structural issue.

For example, Anna Rytter on the far-left website Modkraft wrote that the world Hassan portrayed resembled the small town she was brought up in, where alcoholism, neglect and abuse was rife among its white middle-class inhabitants.

“It’s wrong to blame neglect on a culture. Social degradation is not derived from a particular cultural background, but from a socio-economic condition.”

Both sides have an agenda and Hassan’s testimony gave the right-wing the evidence they needed to show non-Western migrants were a lazy drain on public resources. The left-wing, on the other hand, saw him as a product of a society that had not done enough to empower marginalised groups after arriving in Denmark.

These polarised arguments are an unsubtle oversimplification of the immigration debate. It is unproductive to talk about a group of people in the third person and insinuate that there is something about their ‘otherness’ that makes them less scrupulous than the average Dane, while completely overlooking the role of poverty, poor language skills and the lack of a strong network within mainstream society.

But of course people have to take responsibility for their lives, and Hassan describes how many people he knows in the immigrant communities knowingly cheat the system in search of an easy life.

Some immigrants break into mainstream society, others don’t, and the factors that affect this are also probably desperately complex. But I think a major factor is how skilled the individual migrant happens to be at navigating the highly homogenous Danish society.

Danes relish their cultural rituals: from getting the flag out on birthdays to stamping their feet on the floor at weddings. They also have strong social norms, such as flat management structures, a lack of hierarchy and inclusive policies. But these norms are unspoken, unconscious, unquestioned and, most importantly, not universal.

So while Danes might assume they have an inclusive society, their lack of cultural perspective prevents them from reaching out to explain what their norms are. To foreigners coming from patriarchal societies, the benefits of inclusion over hierarchy may not be immediately clear.

An increased cultural perspective is central to breaking down the barriers to integration. Jyllands-Posten’s attitude is that foreigners should assimilate into the Danish way. But how can Danes promote cultural norms that immigrants are supposed to adopt, if these norms are unconscious?

Integration is complex and if we are going to develop solutions to social problems caused by immigration, we need to listen to other people’s stories. I agree with Politiken newspaper when they wrote that Hassan’s biggest contribution wasn’t necessarily the content of his poetry, but the fact that he was a new voice in the integration debate.

Hassan adds an extra angle that helps reflect more accurately the complexities of immigration and how the state, Danes and migrants are all to blame for the social problems facing society’s newest and least experienced members.