Adam Cullen: Estonians, speak up and take away their stick

Intolerance isn’t growing, but it’s getting bolder in Estonia. It’s time for the rest of us to speak up, writes Tallinn-based translator Adam Cullen.

You never really know what you’re going to encounter any time you depart the familiar, yet claustrophobic, confines of Edgar’s Dominion and venture into what lies beyond. Warm hospitality that takes you by complete surprise, the hard-earned scowls of cantankerous fishermen, Eiffel Tower replicas hand-built by heartbroken bachelors – in short, a range of astonishing beauty in both nature and humanity.

And yet, the darker side to the Estonian society can also surface; perhaps more freely than in the increasingly hipster-minded capital (although, as a friend wrote recently, it’s far from an unknown phenomenon). Some, although maybe not all of these elements, have now also found ragged political unity in the form of EKRE – the Estonian Conservative National Party. Even just now, opening their web page to check the official English-language version of the party name (not available), I had to grit my teeth through the overtly Aryan pictorial welcome and a running counter of “Refugees to be sent home”. The real-life encounters, however, can be even more harrowing.

Set scene for a few weeks ago. It was a weekend like any other, apart from perhaps the fact that the Arvamusfestival (Opinion Festival) was in full swing and, as another friend later wittily suggested, all of Estonia’s progressive citizens were away in Paide. I was out on the western coast doing routine, unofficial summer tallies of the tick population, when I unfortunately (or fortunately?) witnessed this in all its ugliness. While singeing the remaining parasites off my body in the neighbors’ sauna, the conversation turned towards politics, and one of their visiting relatives, a middle-aged male member of EKRE, took advantage of the opportunity to speak freely on certain issues. Among other comments of varying degrees of offensiveness, he complained about a high-level official in a certain governmental body, who, in his opinion, should be dismissed, because “he keeps hiring all those homos”.

“The implications of the man’s statement reveal a chilling train of thought: X should be fired because he hires gays; ergo, gays should be ostracised and denied employment; ergo, gays shouldn’t be allowed to legally support themselves; ergo, gays should be eradicated. Horrific.”

In the time it took for me to simply begin to mentally unpack what I had heard, he had already moved on. Incensed, I was on the brink of interrupting him, asking him point-blank what the hell was his problem and then unleashing the justice of the righteous liberal-minded gods upon him. However, I held myself back, sensing that I would be entirely unable to maintain a calm composure. The implications of the man’s statement reveal a chilling train of thought: X should be fired because he hires gays; ergo, gays should be ostracised and denied employment; ergo, gays shouldn’t be allowed to legally support themselves; ergo, gays should be eradicated. Horrific. Countering the basic misunderstanding that homosexuality and gender identities are choices, and shunnable ones at that, wouldn’t even be step one in overturning such a person’s prejudices. Forget even mentioning how people with orientations other than the heterosexual “norm” have consequently been present and essential functioning (albeit “closeted”) members of every society, including Estonia’s, since mankind discovered that it had both emotions and fun little genitalia down there. Another more primary, permeable, and personal approach is needed.

“The free expression of diverse views in public debate is essential for a healthy community. But should intolerance be tolerated?”

Over the last year, the passing of Estonia’s law on civil partnership and questions of refugee placement have given the darker element of society an opportunity to come out of the woodwork and bang their drums. Loudly. The free expression of diverse views in public debate is essential for a healthy community. But should intolerance be tolerated? It can’t be a punishable offense, of course; nor should it be. Incarceration, fines, or other forms of rebuke won’t open such persons’ minds or eyes to the truths of sexual orientation and basic human dignity any more than limiting someone’s Netflix time will make them less allergic to long-haired cats. But the mere presence of such confident bigotry and, more importantly, its apparent flourishing is what is most troubling. Blame can be tossed this way and that – it’s the older generation; it’s a condemnable remnant of Soviet occupation; it’s just the verbal diarrhea of minority hickish bemmimehed and rullnokad. However, blame (a favourite pastime of Soviet and Russian culture itself – Kto vinovat?!) is merely a form of justification, and the truth is that such discrimination cannot be justified, only challenged.

“Expecting racism, discrimination and prejudices to simply correct themselves over time, all the while staying silent and patient, will only allow those practicing such beliefs to grow more confident and bold. Racists and bigots will receive silence and avoidance as tacit approval, and that cannot be allowed to happen.”

In a way, I’ve witnessed a similar phenomenon on the ferry to and from Hiiumaa. The name of the beast is “vabakasvatus”, or “free parenting” – essentially a parent refusing to parent their child. No matter if the demon-spawn is streaking around a small enclosed space filled with other passengers and emitting ear-splitting screeches that threaten to burst eardrums, the given parent sees his or her job as to shuffle in its tumultuous wake, lost in what must be a deep meditation and disconnect that effectively insulates him or her from the surrounding world. Such has unfortunately been the attitude of accepting and respectful-minded Estonians towards the more radical elements of the population, and I admit I’ve been no exception. Expecting racism, discrimination and prejudices to simply correct themselves over time, all the while staying silent and patient, will only allow those practicing such beliefs to grow more confident and bold. Estonians themselves laugh – when you do a good job at something, you receive zero feedback; when someone dislikes it, then you won’t hear the end of their complaining. Racists and bigots will receive silence and avoidance as tacit approval, and that cannot be allowed to happen.

“It is unavoidably the responsibility of each and every open-minded and tolerant member of this society – individuals of any and every background, ethnicity and orientation – to confront mistaken and offensive understandings, to argue educated and fair points, to inform and illuminate, and to dispel prejudices and falsehoods.”

SO, it is unavoidably the responsibility of each and every open-minded and tolerant member of this society – individuals of any and every background, ethnicity and orientation – to raise these issues, to confront mistaken and offensive understandings, to argue educated and fair points, to inform and illuminate, and to dispel prejudices and falsehoods. No matter whether the latter are self-developed or inherited. Not being, for instance, gay or of a different skin tone doesn’t mean you lack the credentials or the right to support their entitlement to equal treatment and respect. The only way to prevent any further dissemination and entrenchment of hatred is by you and I voluntarily speaking up on these issues in informal situations with any scattering of friends, family, and strangers; by us initiating the discussion ourselves, and giving fairness that little foothold for the future.

Sometimes, the least you can do will yield greater results than you’d expect.

I

Cover photo by Tim Hendy Studio. Adam Cullen portrait by Asko Künnap. The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Enjoyed this article?
Please consider becoming a supporter.


About the author: Adam Cullen

Adam Cullen is originally from Minnesota, US. Based in Tallinn since 2007, he has become one of the most prolific translators of Estonian literature, poetry, theater, and other arts-based texts into English. Cullen has translated books by Rein Raud, Tõnu Õnnepalu, Mihkel Mutt and Indrek Hargla among others.