Those that challenges state authority

BLOG: Those that challenges state authority – The critics of the welfare state and the child protection system are diverse with a range of motives for their engagement.

Blogpost by Yngve Nedrebø (Historian, Chair of Human Rights – Norway).

I have always been genuinely concerned with how research ought to be representative, ethical, and critical. My intention with this blogpost is to offer some constructive remarks in this regard, in context of one of the ongoing research project at the University of Bergen: Legitimacy challenges for children’s rights and the child protection system.

Legitimacy Challenges aims to reveal conditions and mechanisms for sustaining legitimacy in societies in which there is a backlash on social and political rights development, where the empirical focus is cross-country comparisons of child protection interventions, child rights and public debates about the Norwegian child protection system. An ambition is to understand the mechanisms underlying the strong citizen driven mobilization against established institutions in democratic welfare states.

“Their request for anonymity is understandable, especially when we take into consideration how system critics are treated in Norway.”

Yngve Nedrebø

Having observed from the inside ‘the movement’ that remains the focal point of this research project, I would argue that the movement in question is not simply a unified force. On the contrary, it consists of four rather distinct groups of actors that I call, ‘the intellectuals’, ‘the victims’, ‘the self-proclaimed victims’, and ‘the allies’.

‘The intellectuals’

The intellectuals are often politically radical and feminists. Within this group, we tend to find doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers, journalists, and individuals holding leadership positions (see for example the Competence Network for Quality in Child Welfare). Many of them are highly regarded and respected individuals who refrain from offering public criticism of the child protection system, but who eagerly offer these criticisms in private settings.

Their request for anonymity is understandable, especially when we take into consideration how system critics are treated in Norway.

Many years ago, I spoke to a Norwegian child protection manager. She examined information I had submitted, provided comments and advice. She then added: “You must never disclose my name. The system does not accept this kind of behaviour.”

Of course, I respected her request for anonymity. I know of psychologists who have been blacklisted and banned from taking on public assignments on the basis of outspoken criticism of the system. I know of employees in the child protection agencies who have lost their jobs for offering support to parents in child protection cases. These examples of exercised authority are comparable to the exercise of state authority in countries we generally do not want to compare ourselves to.

BBC reporters found some of these individuals both ‘interesting’ and ‘different’ in conjunction with the article they published on Norway’s hidden scandal. Most of them have personal, lived experiences of this madness. I am without doubt that the group of intellectuals can inflict most harm and are largely responsible for Norway’s recent defeats in the European Court of Human Rights.

‘The victims’

This group consists of individuals who have been overruled and who have experienced first-hand the use of false statements, false witness accounts and false diagnoses by state authorities. They have seen a judicial system absent legitimacy and a police force who ignore their claims and instead opt to persecute them. This group consists of children and parents who feel that their fundamental rights have been violated.

“I have at several occasions expressed how surprised I am of their civilized and careful mobilization, given the circumstances.”

Yngve Nedrebø

I would argue this is where we find the most intense hatred towards public authorities. In the past, however, I have at several occasions expressed how surprised I am of their civilized and careful mobilization, given the circumstances.

Many of them are simultaneously children and parents, because the child protection agency has misinterpreted international research on what constitutes risk for children.

For long, child protection agencies in Norway focused on ‘resource-poor’ families and the resistance in these cases was manageable. In 2010, however, the Norwegian child protection system expanded its field of investigation. Incited by NOU 2012:5 (Official Norwegian Report on improving child protection and children’s development), they started examining resource-strong families.

In retrospect, this has been a costly affair and arguably contributed to an awakening of ‘the intellectuals’. Moreover, a poignant correlation with this policy change is disturbingly high suicidal rates amongst ‘the victims’. While the group is numerically large, they are relatively quiet in public discourse.

‘The self-proclaimed victims’

This group seeks contact with and support of the other movement actors and consists of individuals who are loud and visibly present in public debates.

It generally takes a while to get an overview of ‘self-proclaimed victims’ and they frequently find themselves in opposition to other elements of the movement. We thus often observe a gradual exclusion of these individuals. Despite being few in numbers, they tend to be quite noticeable. Many of them may also be previous convicts.

‘The allies’

Lastly, ‘the allies’ are individuals who seek to align themselves with the movement to promote their own objectives, amongst them, recruitment. I have personally experienced Facebook friend requests that upon further investigation turns out to be from extremist nationalists. They are often fascists – fully or partially – Trumpists, or extreme vaccine critics.

“The movement is indeed like a bright lamp in the dark; it attracts all kinds of things!”

Yngve Nedrebø

These people see the battle itself as most important but remain largely peripheral to the movement itself. The movement is indeed like a bright lamp in the dark; it attracts all kinds of things!

I would expect Facebook to be an apt way to explore this group further, and I estimate ‘the allies’ to consist of approximately a few hundred actors in Norway.

Having accounted for the various actors that I consider constitutive parts of the citizen driven movement against established institutions in democratic welfare states, I would like to end by posing a question to the researchers of Legitimacy Challenges:

Does the research project focus on extremist nationalists in its study on backlash on social and political rights development, or should it rather be – as I would recommend – in the intellectuals and the victims?


Translated to English by Espen Stokke

Photo: Bente Nedrebø