Speech at the presentation of the Freedom of Expression Foundation Prize for 2009 to
Nina Karin Monsen
Francis Sejersted, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Freedom of Expression Foundation, Oslo
5 May 2009
It is a pleasure for me to welcome all of you here for the awarding of the Freedom of Expression Foundation Prize for 2009 to Nina Karin Monsen. I would especially like to wish the prize laureate herself a very warm welcome.
According to the statutes, the Freedom of Expression Foundation's "paramount object is to protect and strengthen freedom of expression and its terms in Norway, especially by encouraging a dynamic debate and the fearless use of free speech.” The Freedom of Expression Foundation prize is an important policy instrument in this context. ”The fearless use of free speech” – ”encouraging debate” – these words are well-suited for describing this year's prize laureate, as evidenced by the extensive debate in the media when the winner of the prize was announced.
Nina Karin Monsen was born in Bergen in 1943. She took a post-graduate degree in philosophy in 1969 and she has been a government-funded research fellow since 2004. For 40 years, she has been an indefatigable participant in the social debate, often with controversial points of view and with harsh descriptions of other points of view. Knut Olav Åmås in (the major Norwegian daily) Aftenposten stated that ”as a gay man, I dislike Monsen's opinions just as much as she dislikes mine”. But he also wrote that Monsen is ”the kind of free spirit that Norway should have had more of, regardless of whether or not one likes her views.”
Monsen has been heard. She is a person of letters, having published a total of 13 non-fiction books and five works of fiction. She has written several hundred feature articles and articles, many on topics related to moral philosophy. She has delivered more than 600 lectures. She was a staff writer for Aftenposten for about 10 years. She has also been a regular columnist in Vårt Land and a member of the Liberal Party Platform Committee, to mention just a few of the arenas in which she has been active.
Monsen was one of the leading figures in the neofeminist movement that began in 1970. ”It was liberating to be able to talk about gender parity and equality and to be heard by the general public,” she commented later. Already back then, she was known as being implacable. She was part of the first neofeminist group ”Cheerful but Adamant” and was co-author of the Women's Activist Manifesto whose rhetoric against "Man" was clear. She has subsequently admitted that ”Yes, I was also angry at men”, but then she adds that ”I did not consider them to be biologically inferior” – a clarification she has subsequently also had to make with a view to other groups. Towards the end of the 1970s, she criticised what she considered to be lesbian dominance and misandrism, which led to a breach with the movement. In other words, there were limits to how uncompromising she could be.
Monsen has developed her points of view based on a 'personalistic' philosophy. ”Women's lib must be a personal activity”, she writes in The Female Person. The woman must "first liberate herself from herself. She must liberate her sense of responsibility, her self-confidence, her courage and her strength.” Or, as she concludes her book: ”Obviously, one of the goals of revolution is to shatter the grasp of capital on individuals. But the revolutionary struggle is feminine, and requires personal activity and liberation. This calls for civil courage”.
Monsen has probably mellowed somewhat over time, but the personalism she has developed through a variety of publications has always been her philosophical vantage point, and it underlies her points of view. In this sense, she is thoroughly reflective. She has contemplated extensively, well and thoroughly in the sense that Per Egil Hegge defines ”thoroughly reflective” in (the daily newspaper) Dagbladet today. Her primary source of inspiration is philosopher Emmanuel Mounier. Personalism is, in her words, ”the hopeful aspect of existentialism”. All social and family values stem from the person. This is related to morality, mercy, generosity and personal responsibility. Monsen considers Martin Luther King to have been a practising personalist. In an interview in Dagbladet in 2004, the newspaper said the following about Monsen: ”The Old Woman Against the Stream? Yes. Fearless? Yes. Provocative? Absolutely. But mostly thoughtful.”
Monsen stood in the front lines of the fight to legalise abortion in the 1970s. ”Abortion on demand is an option because the mother, the woman, is also a person. An unwanted pregnancy would mean that the woman's body was used exclusively as a means for someone else.” She also severed her affiliation with the Socialist Left (SV) Party when it allowed its MPs to vote according to their conscience when the issue of abortion was put before the parliament. This was because the main Christian MP, Otto Hauglin, was against legal abortion. Since then, she has opted not to be a member of any party (even though she had served on the Liberal Party's platform committee). Despite the issue of abortion, Monsen relates her personalism to fundamental Christian values: ”Humans have inherent dignity because we have been created by God”.
The myriad important public debates in which Monsen has taken part with her personal (and personalistic) points of view also include the debate on the welfare state. She has recommended taking a more critical approach. Nothing in life is free, as she says. The welfare state is mechanical and permeated by unrealistic and irrational concepts. She would like to see a more family-oriented society. The emphasis that personalism places on a woman's personal responsibility and liberation has also led Monsen to assert that prostitutes must be viewed more as self-mutilators than as victims. Her points of view in this context may not all be politically correct, but it is reasonable to assert that there should be an open public debate on these complex issues. We need voices like this across the board to pose unpleasant questions.
Recently, Nina Karin Monsen has spoken out broadly and vigorously against Norway's new Marriage Act, among other places in her book The Battle for Marriage and Children. This is what engendered the huge debate in the media after it was announced that she was going to be awarded the Freedom of Expression Foundation Prize. The debate has far surpassed all earlier debates about the Freedom of Expression Foundation's prizes in terms of the temperature of the debate, the sharply contrasting opinions and the attempts to place constraints on the debate by defining people out of it. It is been contended that, with this award, the Freedom of Expression Foundation has broken with the tradition that has made the prize "a mini-Nobel prize in the eyes of the intellectual celebrities on the A list” by running counter to politically correct opinions among those who set the trends in the public debate, and for the first time, choosing a truly controversial prize laureate.
There can be no doubt that powerful forces have met Monsen with loathing and redefinition rather than with arguments. It is also clear that the amendments to the Biotechnology Act in the wake of Marriage Act were run through the parliament at a very rapid rate, and without the broad public debate the question deserved. Perhaps Monsen has a democratic majority behind her in her criticism of the Acts. Conversely, it is obvious that the awarding of the prize has given her a golden opportunity to be more explicit about her opinions in the major media, thus enabling a freer debate. "Better late than never,” one might say.
The book The Battle for Marriage and Children is a weighty contribution to the debate. It contains a series of sharp observations, reflections and arguments. We can only briefly outline her points of view in this context. First of all, she is of the opinion that by making marriage gender-neutral, the Act profanes traditional marriage between men and women. This indicates her main concern, which is consideration for the children. Her main contention is that children's right to know their biological parents has been pushed aside by the rights of adults. She feels that, on these grounds, the Act is at variance with the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child. She lifts the topic up, making it a question of how far it is ethically responsible to go in the use of modern biotechnology to – with her characteristically brutal use of terminology – 'construct' children by, for example, selecting egg and sperm cells on a rapidly emerging international market. Monsen's intention is to point out the problematic social and ethical aspects of such interventions in the biological process of conception. She observes that the interventions may reflect one way of thinking which, taken to its most extreme, could result in a society with which we would prefer not to be associated. She does not say that we are there, but she cautions against the tendency. These are arguments that must be relevant in the debate for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike, but perhaps they have not received the attention they deserve thus far.
Our political system and our approach to politics are based on the fact that when we are confronted with such ethical dilemmas, the most prudent solutions must be based on a discussion in which all relevant arguments are brought to the table, even though they may be politically incorrect in the situation at hand. We believe that it is wise to take Monsen seriously, regardless of whether we agree or disagree with her – and regardless of whether or not it is prudent to support the new Marriage Act or to use modern technology to assist conception, as is done today. The Freedom of Expression Foundation has no opinion on these issues. However, the Foundation does have strong opinions about the need for tolerance and an open debate to arrive at judicious solutions to political problems. The conventional reasons for a free and open debate, which we hear echoed in all the great liberal thinkers, is vested in an acknowledgement of our fallibility. We depend on being met with counter-arguments to learn, and to become wiser and arrive at better political solutions than we would otherwise have achieved. This principle is the very bedrock of an open society.
In other words, it is not the Freedom of Expression Foundation's responsibility to sit in judgment of what might or might not be tenable opinions in the public space. The Freedom of Expression Foundation's responsibility is to fight for broad tolerances for what we can accept when it comes to opinions as well as forms of expression in the public debate. Naturally, the term 'broad tolerances' does not mean that anything goes. There are limits, but they must be broad. We must be tolerant – quite simply.
Granted, Nina Karin Monsen cannot be accused of being particularly tolerant. The same can be said of Kim Friele. Neither of them have won this prize for their tolerance. This prize is an acknowledgement of 'fighters' in exposed positions who vehemently defend something they believe in, and who have been forced to pay a high price for their tenacious battle. We need such confrontational individuals in the public debate – people who do not take strategic considerations, but who express themselves in a straightforward manner and are willing and able to pay the price, people who push a point to the extreme, and who are engaged and engaging. In this context, it is tempting to quote a statement Monsen herself has cited about one of her sources of intellectual inspiration, philosopher and author Elias Canetti, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981: ”Canetti's strength is his immutable obstinate”. It may not be pure coincidence that Monsen has chosen this particular quote.
Allow me to quote from the book of Revelation: ”So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” It is we who are lukewarm, who invariably weigh our words, who have to champion tolerance, who must ensure that there is space for the observations of 'homo bellator', the cold as well as the hot, for they would like to put muzzles on each other. It is our job to ensure that all voices are heard and thus pave the way for political solutions based on a judicious balancing act that takes all arguments into account.
Not only Monsen's opinions, but also her confrontational style, have provoked others, causing her to be met with loathing and reclassified as irrelevant. Many homosexuals in particular feel challenged and they have gone furthest in the direction of defining her as a homo hater or as homophobic. If she can be cast as a homo hater, there is no moral imperative to counter her arguments. Granted, her confrontational style means sticking her neck out. Her form of expression may, first of all, help make her views clear, which is a good thing, but it can also lead to someone taking umbrage and feeling put upon. Perhaps she has indeed stepped on some toes in the heat of the battle, but who hasn't?
In an emotionally charged debate, there is always a chance that someone will take offence. The Freedom of Expression Foundation does not reward anyone for giving offence, and we can no more condone her opinions than the words she uses to voice them. However, in our estimation, as mentioned, the public debate is served by the fact that some people have an impassioned, confrontational style. Free speech comes at a price. We must accept that it costs something to live in a free society. Why is it so important to discount Monsen after the parliamentary victory in the Storting? Couldn't those who won in the Storting have shown more respect for those with differing opinions, such as Monsen, instead of trying to muzzle her by saying that she gives offence. Why do modern emancipation movements place such narrow constraints on freedom of expression?
Homophobia exists. For years, the Freedom of Expression Foundation has been making substantial contributions to those who fight against homophobia. But Monsen is not homophobic. She is clearly within the boundaries of what we can accept in terms of public remarks. On several occasions, she has underlined that she has nothing against homosexuals. Her concerns are, as we have seen, quite different. It is the social institutions and the way of thinking that underlies the new Marriage Act to which she has taken exception. That way of thinking may arguably be reflected first and foremost among the gay activists, but not merely there. She feels they have gained too much sway in today's society, and that this affects other groups' rights and interests. The fact that many people, including homosexuals, support the Freedom of Expression Foundation's decision, also shows that this is not a question of homophobia.
The debate after the decision was announced has, as mentioned, been wide-ranging, interesting and heated. It has included a debate about freedom of expression and the tolerances of freedom of expression. In addition, the debate has exposed unfavourable as well as favourable aspects of the debate in the public space and with a view to the medias' role in this context. We have seen the situation get very nasty. But more than that, I would say that the field has opened up. I believe we will be able to have a freer debate in future regarding the fundamental issues involved. It is tempting to support what several people have stated, i.e. that the reception is proof positive of the justification for the award.
One must, as Åmås wrote in Aftenposten, "have a very thick skin to thrive in the public eye; one must see it as a function and a role, separate from one's person. That is no mean feat, even for seasoned debaters. Nina Karin Monsen deserves thanks for her perseverance.” So much for Åmås. This is precisely what we aspired to acknowledge by awarding this prize to Nina Karin Monsen, i.e. that she has dawned a thick skin and held out through changing winds in the public eye for 40 years. In so doing, she has broadened the public debate, making it more exciting, more engaging and thus ultimately more productive than would have otherwise been the case.
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