The game between civility and uncivility: Complexity of public shaming as anti-racist struggle

Karina Horsti

The public reaction to the nationalist Finns Party MP Olli Immonen’s Facebook post where he called for fight against ”nightmare of multiculturalism” was something new in the country. In July 2015, thousands of people in different cities in Finland gathered to mass demonstrations in support of multicultural society and against racism. This movement shows that a large part of the Finnish society has become alarmed of the political rise of the Finns Party, and specifically its anti-immigration faction. The Finns Party would not have become the second largest party in the parliamentary elections in April 2015 without candidates that pushed forward anti-immigration and Islamophobic agendas. The electoral success paved the Party’s way into the government. The party chairman, and currently also the foreign minister of Finland, Timo Soini has outsourced the Finns Party’s anti-immigration stance to this faction, continuously playing with the border between civility and uncivility.

As research on media and populism(1) clearly demonstrates, the transformations of mediascape and media technology have created opportunities for the anti-immigration movement in Finland. Nevertheless, in the process of integrating this movement into representative politics, namely within the Finns Party, the decentralized online sphere has not been unproblematic for the movement and for its programmatic coherence. The Finns Party politicians who have voiced their anti-immigration views in often like-minded online ”echo chambers” have regularly been ”caught out” by the mainstream media and by political rivals.

While the reaction to Immonen’s Facebook post was unprecedented, the communicative mechanism of the scandal was not so new. Raising public awareness of racist speech, which the Finns Party has strategically called ”manhunt”, has been one of the main strategies of anti-racist activists in Finland. The rationale has been that if political figures are shamed in public the extreme speech might cease to be politically appealing. However, publicity is paradoxical. First of all, focusing on the openly anti-immigration figures and extremists can create the impression that racism is located only in these ”exceptional” spaces in a way that normalizes the rest of the political and social spheres. Secondly, legal measures and public scandals against hate speech can also spread prejudiced ideologies, which is exactly what the emerging movements hope for. Such attention can lend credibility to what otherwise might have been a marginalized phenomena.

The political career of Jussi Halla-aho, who now is a Finns Party representative in the European Parliament, exemplifies well the complexities of publicity. He started his political involvement as an unknown blogger, creating constituency and gaining followers online. It was only after he achieved electoral success in the municipal elections of 2008 that the mainstream media and the anti-racist activists began paying attention to his online presence. Court proceedings around his offensive blog writings followed in 2009, making Halla-aho the most googled politician in the country. While most of the media coverage was critical of his opinions, he was able to transform the attention into political success. Thus, his political image transformed from a provocative figure to that of an expert on immigration and a respectable leading politician of the Finns Party. Halla-aho has been rather successful in navigating through political scandals and in balancing between the interests of the anti-immigration movement and those of the party.

A number of scandals around racist speech acts have followed the same communicative mechanism, and we can see it emerging again in the aftermath of Olli Immonen’s Facebook posting. First, Finns Party politicians shared racist, uncivil or provocative comments and these circulated in social networking sites. Mainstream media tapped into these debates and began to pressure the Finns Party to take responsibility. And finally, the party leadership either dismissed the seriousness of the speech act and/or symbolically punished the ”black sheep”. In the case of Immonen, initially the strategy of the party was to ignore, dismiss and wait for the summer vacation to take the sharpest edge of the criticism. As soon as the parliament returned to work, Immonen resigned from the parliamentary group for a temporary period of 1,5 months – again diverting attention away from the Finns party. This is nothing new, it is the strategy that the chairman Timo Soini has used in previous cases related to MPs Teuvo Hakkarainen’s and Jussi Halla-aho’s racist comments. Avoiding the topic of immigration in general is Soini’s strategy. He rarely mentions immigration in his blog or comments on racism controversies in his public speeches; a strategy that reflects his policy of outsourcing immigration to the anti-immigration faction. In so doing, he maintains a certain division – of labour at least – within the party.

The most interesting technology in this navigation through political scandals around racism was the use of scapegoat mechanism in the case of James Hirvisaari in 2013 when he was expelled from the Finns Party. According to René Girard(2), a sacrifice of a scapegoat provides psychological relief to a community in crisis. The presentation of one individual as the one who has transgressed the border between civility and uncivility brings the rest of the community together. Even former enemies and rivals can come together.

Hirvisaari was a convenient figure for sacrifice. Despite originally being Halla-aho’s protégé, he was a rather marginal and inexperienced politician. Moreover, his final mistake, the invitation to a well-known Finnish neo-Nazi to visit parliament, where Hirvisaari photographed him raising his arm in the ”Hail Hitler” salute inside the chamber, perfectly fitted the imaginary of extremism. His expulsion from the parliamentary group of the Finns Party offered an opportunity for the more elite anti-immigrant politicians such as Juho Eerola and Jussi Halla-aho to emerge as rational politicians and moderating forces. Expelling one individual offered a strategy for coherence and further integration between the anti-immigration faction and the rest of the Finns Party.

Immediately after Immonen’s racist opinion began to circulate in social networking sites and the mainstream media, commentators criticized Timo Soini for his lack of public condemnation of Immonen’s comment. Many demanded that the Finns Party should expel Immonen for making such anti-constitutional comments in public. However, Immonen is too precious to be sacrificed so easily. He is the chairman of the nationalist Suomen Sisu association, but most importantly, loosing him would make the Finns Party parliamentary group equally large with the group of the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus).

Public scandals, particularly when they involve scapegoat mechanisms are complex. What if Timo Soini had immediately rebuked or even expelled Olli Immonen? Once again, the Finns Party would have drawn the line of acceptable and non-acceptable speech in a high profile platform, and doing so, the party would have emerged as the agent that has the ultimate power to define the terms of immigration debate in Finland. I am delighted that this time the massive demonstrations for multiculturalism showed that a large part of the Finnish society is willing to participate in the debate and voice their views on the kind of society they wish to live in. Their voice clearly outnumbered the one of the anti-immigration movement’s. It is high time for the Finnish society to counter the anti-immigration movement seriously, yet at the same time it is necessary to be aware of the complexities of the public debate.

Dr. Karina Horsti, Academy of Finland Fellow,Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of Jyväskylä

This blog text builds on arguments developed in Horsti, Karina, ‘Techno-Cultural Opportunities: Anti-immigration Movement in the Finnish Media Environment’, Patterns of Prejudice, vol 49. No 4. September, 2015.

  1. Karina Horsti, ‘Techno-cultural opportunities: Anti-immigration movement in the Finnish media environment, Patterns of Prejudice, 2015, vol. 49 no. 4; Karina Horsti & Kaarina Nikunen, ’The ethics of hospitality in changing journalism: A response to the rise of the anti-immigrant movement in Finnish media publicity’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 2013, vol. 16 no. 4, 489–504.; Reeta Pöyhtäri, Paula Haara and Pentti Raittila, Vihapuhe sananvapautta kaventamassa (Tampere: TUP 2013).
  2. René Girard, The Girard Reader (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company 2000), 69 – 93.