|James O’Connor is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Jyväskylä and is working on his PhD thesis at the Centre Of Excellence for Global Governance Research at the University of Helsinki. He is a long-time resident of Finland.|
“I’M an ordinary man, nothin’ special, nothin’ grand…” Ordinary Man is a mournful piece of cheesiness best performed by Christy Moore, Ireland’s favourite troubadour. In recent years there’s been a remarkable revival in the well-worn notion of the “average,” “ordinary,” or “common man,” the mythical figure who supposedly represents the majority and whose taxes, so the updated version of the legend goes, put food on the tables of all the uppity, ungrateful parasites – minorities, immigrants, in short anyone’s who’s not “normal” – who never stop biting the hand that feeds them.
Ordinary Man is back in business for various reasons, mainly because politicians of different stripes find him so incredibly versatile and useful. The ongoing success of populist movements in many countries, including Finland, is proof of this. A remark the philosopher Judith Shklar made nearly a half-century ago on the political uses of the idea of the “average man” is as relevant as ever: “The unquestioning mind is taken as the best index of public opinion, morality is then identified with this opinion, and the survival of society is made to depend upon its being the sole guide for public policy, with no further need to check the facts of the case.”
This idealisation of mediocrity makes the Ordinary Man vital to populist movements. He’s a simple sort who don’t need no education to know what’s what, and so the politicians who claim him as their ideal constituent can also feel free to abandon argument in favour of emotion, and something mysterious they call “values” – in less politically correct language, just glorified prejudices. Ordinary Man has plenty of these, so he’ll do fine without fancy facts, thank you very much. There’s no patience here for the wishy-washy view that things might be slightly more complicated than Ordinary Man extraordinaire Teuvo Hakkarainen’s infamous diagnosis of the state of the nation: Neekeriukko tulee ja sanoo turvapaikka ja heti ollaan sisällä.
Ordinary Man is also driven by a strong sense of what you might call competitive victimhood. Life seems little more than a struggle to ensure that nobody robs him and the group he identifies himself with their cherished claim to be the Most Oppressed People Ever. Acknowledging that someone somewhere might be worse off sends him into a demented fit of blogging and other hi-tech equivalents to foaming at the mouth. The list of the Finnish Ordinary Man’s oppressors is long and elastic: it includes Swedish-speaking Finns, most women, environmentalists, refugees, Muslims, homosexuals – especially dancing ones – vegetarians, “kukkahattutädit” and other “maailmanparantajat.” The American expression bleeding heart liberal captures the combined meaning of these two Finnish terms, which are used loosely by Ordinary Man to refer to anyone whose moral concerns foolishly extend beyond their own navel.
But surely this is all just a parody, not something any self-respecting person would aspire to, and therefore not something that politicians could get much mileage out of? Well, not really. The Ordinary Man image seems to work perfectly as a source of consolation for many people who feel downtrodden. This might have something to do with the fact that it makes a virtue out of inverted snobbery – Ordinary Man takes a resentful form of pride in being simpler, plainer, cruder and, in his own mind, more honest than anyone else. It is these same attributes, so he is flatteringly told by the Timo Soinis of this world, that make our man the undeserving doormat of all those who are not like him, not ordinary with a capital O.
2012 will surely bring more exciting developments in the saga of Soini’s Perussuomalaiset, the most successful attempt so far in Finnish politics to capitalise on the idea of appealing to the lowest common denominator – to all the ignorant prejudices, dogmatism, self-righteousness, and sheer mental laziness that are stuffed into the shabby figure of the Ordinary Man.
James O’Connor is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Jyväskylä and is working on his PhD thesis at the Centre Of Excellence for Global Governance Research at the University of Helsinki. He is a long-time resident of Finland.