On New Year’s Eve, many an Estonian was patiently waiting in front of their screens for one of their most beloved shows, Tujurikkuja (‘Mood Spoiler’). Sketch after sketch the tension rose, until the last song aired on national television. Immediately after, both delighted and infuriated parts of the audience took to social media. National media followed. The Estonian Prime Minister also tweeted in appreciation of the parody.
Some see the song as volume two of the three-year-old parody To be Estonian – it sucks! that famously made fun of the constant moaning and self-pity of Estonians. The new parody tackled intolerant, xenophobic attitudes within Estonian society towards refugees and minority groups. As Mare Ainsaar, Senior Researcher at the UT Institute of Social Studies, put it:
2015 was the year when both Europe and Estonia discussed immigration and refugees. Although a mere 221 refugee applications reached Estonia, the country witnessed a passionate discussion over the possible arrival of thousands. Another litmus test on tolerance was the debate over the Cohabitation Act that would legalise, among other things, same-sex partnerships. The song is about Estonia in 2015.
The reaction to the song was painful: a wave of ‘unfriending’ swept through Estonian Facebook, separating those in awe of the parody and those feeling insulted. Did the parody increase or decrease the coherence in society? Is it beneficial in the longer term?
Vello Pettai, UT Professor of Comparative Politics, has no doubts about it:
Needless to say, this parody was bound to hit a raw nerve, since it implicitly gives the message that Estonia is not being welcoming enough in the face of the crisis – a point that many people would dispute. Yet from a critical artistic point of view, the video was spot-on: it generated debate about an issue that has long-term consequences and responsibilities for Estonia. This kind of caricature of national identity and of public attitudes is exactly what is needed alongside the more formalistic debates in the media. It’s great to see young filmmakers contribute with precisely this kind of approach!
Mare Ainsaar compares the song to a painful injection with the capacity to heal. She says: Now and again, discussion of many sensitive issues have separated people in the beginning, but also given an opportunity and impulse to think about the issues more deeply and helped to quicken healing.
Quite on the contrary, UT Professor of of Religious Psychology Tõnu Lehtsaar diagnoses Estonian society as being in a state of cold conflict: When it is cold, there are no coherent or uniting ideas. It’s unclear who we are and where we are going. There are many opinions, but no vision. According to Lehtsaar, reconciliation requires either an external threat or a uniting force that would restore communication.
The original song that the parody builds upon, Ei ole üksi ükski maa (‘No country stands alone’), was written in 1987 and performed by people en masse during the Singing Revolution, when Estonia was striving to break free from the Soviet Union. Hence, many see the song as sacred and inappropriate for humour. Professor Lehtsaar comments:
Freedom songs are sacred to me, similar to the national anthem and flag. The fact that some people use something that is sacred to others for fun on national television, in my view, shows a split in society.
Märt Avandi, who acted in the show and wrote the lyrics of the parody (he is also the leading actor of the The Fencer, shortlisted for the Golden Globe), commented that the song was chosen out of respect for its timeless power and energy.
UT Professor of Ethics Margit Sutrop would rather agree with Avandi. She said that while it was a painful joke, in her opinion the parody did not cross ethical boundaries: No one was making fun of the song or those who wrote this song that is precious to us – instead, the fun was made of those who prefer a selective approach to the universal one. Professor Sutrop elaborates:
The Mood Spoiler song pointed out a big problem: sometimes we are selective with showing compassion and maybe don’t even notice that while holding together and being compassionate to our group members, we ignore suffering that happens outside of our narrow circle. On a broader scale, the song makes us think who is a part of our community to whom we owe moral obligations. This community can be tiny, e.g. family, friends, and nation, or it can be the whole world.
The Mood Spoiler show has been produced by a creative team of four University of Tartu graduates in political science – Tõnis Leht, Kaaren Kaer, Andres Korberg, and Erik Moora from Catapult Films. The 2015 show was the seventh in a row and, according to the creators, the last one.
UT Professor of Scandinavian Studies Daniel Sävborg, who originally comes from Sweden, compares the situation with regard to xenophobia and parodies in Estonia and Sweden:
This song has been much discussed among Estonians, and many people seem to have been provoked, so obviously the satire worked. I recognize well from Sweden the phenomena satirized in the song. There is intolerance, xenophobia, and pure racism in Sweden too, and they are attacked and satirized too. Nevertheless, I think there are differences between Estonia and Sweden at this point, and these differences might probably explain the very strong reaction in Estonia to the song.
In Sweden such satires against xenophobia and racism are common and rarely upset people. I have the feeling that while strongly xenophobic ideas are common – maybe equally common – in both countries, they are entirely unacceptable in all public debate in Sweden, socially stigmatizing people, while there is more of an acceptance of them in Estonia: even if you don’t share these ideas, you find it quite normal that your friends and politicians express them.
Regarding the existence of and attitude towards multiculturalism, Estonia and Sweden have had almost the opposite development during the last century. Sweden has developed from a relatively homogenous nation state to a multicultural state during the last 50 years, and this change is the fruit of free and deliberate decisions. Estonia has never been a nation state, but has after the independence in 1991 tried to define itself as one – something which is satirized in the song’s enumeration of Estonian regions as linguistically and nationally pure Estonian. The strong connection in Estonia between independence and the idea of a nation state does, of course, mean that the idea of multiculturalism has very different connotations in Estonia compared to Sweden, where the development towards multiculturalism has been an independent choice.
Inga Külmoja is an author and the editor of the UT Blog.