The myth of “the opinion-corridor” in Sweden

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Back in 2017 journalist, Tim Pool made his reportage about the situation in Sweden regarding immigration, crime and social problems. One of Pool’s claims was that in Sweden there is “an opinion-corridor” when discussing topics like immigration. A claim that was based on personal opinions from persons he interviewed but without any rational or empirical evidence.

In his recent article in The Guardian Nick Cohen writes that:

“Sweden has resisted the global turn towards demagoguery. Every foreign visitor notices the respect for institutions and the faintly stultifying conformity. Richard Orange, our correspondent in Stockholm, offered me the wonderful word åsiktskorridoren, “opinion corridor”: the narrow range of views that respectable people hold.”

For several years, the term åsiktskorridor (opinion-corridor) has been discussed in the public debate in Sweden. After 2015 and the refugee situation the term has become known more globally.

So what is “the opinion-corridor”? In this text, my ambition is to explain both theory and mythology behind the opinion-corridor.

The theory of opinion-corridor

Henrik Ekengren Oscarsson is among the more famous political scientist in Sweden and his work at Gothenburg University is mainly about elections, voting behaviours and political spectrums. During 2014 Oscarsson made several statements in the media presenting his arguments about the opinion-corridor. Oscarson’s approach was at that time that the (voting) population in Sweden was divided into two general categories:

  1. Those with “right” opinions
  2. Those with “own” opinions

According to Oscarson’s reasoning, those who are having “own” opinions are thinking more independently and often exposed to the criticism of “right” opinions from those individuals who are more group-thinking.

Oscarsson’s has partly defined that the opinion-corridor is (my translation):

the buffer-zone where you still have a certain elbow-room for expressing an opinion without being required to take a day-fresh diagnosis of your mental condition.

According to Oscarsson, the opinion-corridor means the existence of a norm where opinions and positions that are “differing” are being categorically rejected. This explanation is a describing one, meaning that Oscarsson is not taking part of any side in the public debate. And after all, “social tabus” and “diverging” opinions are nothing new in history. For example, in southern US states during racial segregation, it was considered “diverging” to be against racism and repression.

Evidence

In the creation of the opinion-corridor theory Oscarsson argued that in the Swedish debate there was a lack of “intellectual curiosity” among different political actors who instead of pursuing curiosity to understand each other where categorically rejecting “diverging opinions”. One of Oscarsson’s claims, without any serious or proportional evidence, was that it was enough to say that one believes in God to be assumed as a mentally disturbed person.

When presenting his evidence for the opinion-corridor theory, Oscarsson wrote several examples of opinions he claimed were “very common” but that are not represented enough in the public space and would be exposed for “spinal-cord reactions” by opinion-makers:

  • 7 in 10 Swedes thinks that limiting abortion period is a good idea
  • 4 in 10 Swedes support the idea of accepting fewer refugees
  • Every second Swede thinks that it is a very bad proposal that homosexually couple should be allowed to adopt children

Another of Oscarsson’s position was that it was important for the public debate to put clear limits for which absurdities can be accepted but when “the opinion-corridor become narrow so that even many of our more classic social-democratic, liberal and conservative positions can be called as dangerous to the society or regarded as a real error in thinking, then we are risking to completely miss the really screw perceptions of reality and the truly socially subversive ideas”.

At the same time, part of the research that was used to provide evidence for the opinion-corridor theory was based on a survey with around 4400 individuals in 2014 by a survey-agency Demoskop that state that in Sweden it was easier for progressive actors as socialists and greens to express their opinions in public than for conservatives and nationalists. According to Demoskop’s chief Peter Santesson, one problem with the existence of the opinion-corridor was that “majority opinions” were risking to be presented or understood as “minority opinions” in the public debate.

An example of “opinion-corridor” in practice

After being created theoretically, the idea of the opinion-corridor became mainly popular among right-wing oriented actors raging from ordinary conservatives to far-right nationalists. One reason for such development was that during the first part of 2010s Sweden was still influenced more by liberal and progressive ideas and opinions coming from green, left and liberal political actors while right-wing actors were searching for new counter-arguments and ideas. Another reason was the rise of the right-wing populist and nationalist party Sweden Democrats who started using the term in order to legitimize more their anti-immigration, xenophobic and Muslimophobic agenda.

Due to polarizing debates about immigration and integration as during 2015–2020 I am presenting an example of how discussions about opinion-corridor have been made on social media as for example Facebook:

Person A = I want immigration to stop and borders to be closed. We cannot take in the whole world to Sweden.

Person B = How can you think something like that? Sweden needs to help refugees as well as other countries. Also, integration processes can be improved.

Person A = That is an opinion-corridor from your side!

Basically, it is common, as the situation in public debate was during 2015–2020, that people who believe in the opinion-corridor myth think that one can express opinions without facing or being exposed to criticism.

The problems with the opinion-corridor theory and mythology

One of the main counter-arguments against the theory of opinions-corridor was written by liberal politician and opinion-maker Per Altenberg who among other aspects argued that the problem with the opinion-corridor idea was that its message was that “tabu” opinions should not be criticized, thereby preventing others to expose the stupidity of such opinions. Based on Alternberg’s text I am presenting five reasons why the theory and mythology around the opinion-corridor are problematic:

  1. The first problem is that many people have a perception that due to the “political correctness” they are not able to express their opinions in the public debate. In such meaning, perceptions about the existence of political correctness and the opinion-corridor can make a stronger belief that one is not allowed or is going to be stigmatized when expressing “tabu” opinions such as regarding immigration.

In my view, some kind of “PC”, social tabus or “uncomfortable” opinions has been existing as long as politics and public discourses, already in Athenian democracy during the period of antiquity. Therefore, arguments and counter-arguments, opinions and counter-opinions, opposing values are always going to exist as long as there are interhuman conversations processes.

2. A second problem with the opinion-corridor myth is that it mainly has been confirmed and accepted by right-wing political actors who often have more collectivist and authoritarian stances on topics such as immigration. “Opinion-corridor” became a political tool for dealing with public discourse and social atmosphere that was dominated by progressive and liberal values and opinions. Therefore, in general, it cannot be said that “opinion-corridor” was an inter-political or party-overbridging social phenomenon.

Also, it is nothing new in history that people disagree with each other. Historically seen, in Sweden liberals never liked many opinions coming from left- and right-wing collectivists, while socialists never liked many opinions coming from liberals and conservatives. The only limitation in public discourse is the concept of current legislation regarding freedom of expression.

3. The perception that one is not allowed to say or criticize certain opinions creates new social obstacles in public discourse. As Altenberg wrote in his article, instead of exposing “stupidity” of certain opinions one is being expected to show understanding for opinion-makers who argue that refugees should be sent back to war-zones and that the Swedish health-care system is going to collapse in Sweden takes in more asylum-seekers. “We are expected” to be both gentle and quiet when such (racist, xenophobic, nativist) opinions are presented.

4. The main problem with the opinion-corridor theory is that is based on narrow and unreasonable generalizations. As mentioned earlier, the generalization is that there are two groups of people — those who have “own, independent” opinions and those who have “right, confirmative” opinions.

However, much of the research in political science is explaining that humans in principle have their own opinions and vote for political ideas they admire and sympathise with. Meaning that we have our “own” opinions regardless if there are seen by many as confirmation or rejection (confirming or rejecting a certain action).

5. An additional absurdity with the opinion-corridor myth in politics is that it can be used to argue that if one is in support of openness and freedom as to when it comes to immigration that one is “politically correct and confirmative” while if one is in favour of isolation and unfreedom it means that one has “own” and “politically incorrect” opinions.

In practice, those who accept the opinion-corridor myth thereby believe that for example, the far-right actors have “own, independent” opinions while for example liberals are assumed to have “others, dependant” opinions. However, such perception and views are not reflecting the social reality when it comes to democratic conversations and politics.

Note: Both me and Per Altenberg are members of the Liberal Party (ALDE) in Sweden. My text here is not reflecting opinions of a particular party nor organization but my own and on the basis of an analysis of the public debate during 2015–2020.

I am active as a social and policy entrepreneur. SEEDS ambassador. Motto: I have no identity, I have only identities.