Opinion | Perceived disrespectful behaviour on the behalf of activist groups like Sea Shepherd only entrenches resistance to their efforts
Elin Brimheim Heinesen
In the old days the Faroese killed pilot whales, because they needed the food. Nowadays the Faroese still kill pilot whales – not only because they need the food – but also to prove to them selves that they are Faroese. What people eat becomes intrinsic to their identity as people. And this might probably be an even greater need than the need for this particular food. It seems very difficult for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to understand that their highly visible and provocative presence in the Faroes for the time being only strengthens this need even further. The Grindstop campaign is therefore highly counterproductive.
Especially in this day and age, where globalisation threatens indigenous or local cultures everywhere all over the world, it has become very important for many to hold on to what is left of their distinct cultural identity with even greater determination.
Despite the Faroe Islands’ relative remote location, the Faroese people have not been able to avoid globalisation. In fact, the Faroese people have welcomed globalisation and have become quite westernised and modern in most ways, but the Faroese have, at the same time still managed to preserve a great deal of their old cultural heritage – some of it unbroken for more than a thousand years.
The Faroese are very proud of the fact that they to a great extent have managed to let their modern lifestyle coexist in harmony with their old inherited life style. They are proud of the fact that they – in contrast to many other modern cultures – have managed to preserve basic values from a time, where life was much simpler, which also makes their culture as unique as it is, and they don’t want to loose what they regard as this very valuable and important part of their cultural identity.
They certainly do NOT agree with foreigners who claim that certain parts of their culture – like the controversial pilot whaling – is a primitive and barbaric tradition. Seen from a Faroese perspective, people who claim so have been misinformed or just don’t understand the basics of life in the Faroes, probably because they are prejudiced, alienated city-dwellers with no real understanding of how it is to survive in a place where people live in a very close relationship with nature, and where most people are dependent on what they provide for themselves directly from nature’s larder.
Faroese mentality molded by tough circumstances
When we meet other cultures, unfamiliar to us, and compare our culture to other cultures, we notice the differences between us and “the others” and the feeling and understanding of our own distinct identity grows stronger.
The Faroese are a very self-aware, proud and stoic people. On a daily basis, the Faroese seem to have a very individualistic mentality, but in times of crisis they have in fact a great willingness to help each other. Everyone is determined to do whatever it takes to protect and secure the survival of the community. Otherwise the Faroese would never have survived for so long on these remote islands.
This strong Faroese mentality has been molded by the tough circumstances in this very small and remote place with a very harsh nature and a hostile climate, especially in the dark, stormy winters – a fact of life that makes the Faroese society quite vulnerable. This society has been ridden by countless crises since the beginning of time. It’s almost incomprehensible how people have managed to survive here for such a long time.
The fact is that all these recurrent threats from outside, that still occur from time to time – whether we’re talking about natural, economical or other threats – have unified the Faroese people in the most extraordinary way. The pilot whaling practice is an example of the special Faroese solidarity that lives on – it’s a communal effort and a way of providing free food for everyone leaving no one out, regardless of the person’s status in the society.
This strong solidarity, which is natural for the Faroese people to show each other has enabled the Faroese to tackle the most incredible challenges over and over again, to such an extent that they have even managed to multiply and thrive in this place – to be fair, sometimes with economic aid or loans from Denmark, which the Faroese always have paid back, with interest.
The Faroe Islands are still a part of the Danish kingdom, but this North Atlantic archipelago is it’s own nation with an extensive, independent home rule. Even though the Faroese have not (yet) chosen to leave the Danish Kingdom completely (mostly because of strong historical, cultural and family bonds) there is no doubt that the Faroese hold their national pride and self-determination in high regard. The strong self-reliance and proudness of the Faroese people is one of the reasons that the Faroese chose not to follow Denmark into the EU in the early 70’s. They do not want to sacrifice their autonomy, which they have fought so much for, just to become puppets among other puppets of the Brussels administration.
This self-determination is in fact very significant for the Faroese. People who intend to have an impact on – or that want to change Faroese cultural values, will not succeed in their efforts, if they don’t understand these important factors of Faroese mentality.
The Faroese will never tolerate being shamed by others
It’s not that the Faroese want to isolate themselves totally from the rest of the world. Anyone who visits the islands notices how remarkably knowledgeable, literate and cosmopolitan in general most Faroese are. The Faroese certainly welcome foreigners and are willing to cooperate with anyone who, notably, shows them respect and has well-intended purposes.
The Faroe Islands is one of the oldest democracies and most peaceful countries in the world. The Faroese are perfectly alright with the fact, that other people’s opinions might differ (even a lot) from theirs, and they are also always willing to discuss any issue with others in a respectful manner – yes, even willing to change some of their ways, IF other people have convincing arguments and, of course, ask them nicely.
What they don’t want, is to be overruled by others! They do NOT accept that others interfere with their affairs by coercively imposing their own values on the Faroese, acting as intruders, obviously with no interest in having a respectful dialogue, but mostly just throwing dirt and spreading sensationalist propaganda to attract international media attention, purposefully to create international outrage and thus hoping to put enough pressure on the Faroese to make them stop doing what they do.
But the Faroese will certainly NOT tolerate being demonised and shamed by others! The Faroese are not ashamed of who they are. On the contrary! They have never ever made a secret of what they do and how they live, and they have never been afraid of discussing openly about their ways with those, who oppose them.
The Faroese are a strong-minded people, not afraid to stand up for themselves and defend what they consider to be their legal, historical rights – even if their opponent is a 100 times larger or more. Just think of the recent herring and mackerel war between the EU and the Faroes, which the Faroese ended up winning.
The Faroese hold on to their rights, but are willing to improve
The Faroese are convinced that they have a right to make use of the natural resources in their own territory, including pilot whales. These resources have laid the foundation for the survival of the Faroese people for a very long time, and even though some claim that it is “not necessary” to kill pilot whales any more and that pilot whales are too contaminated to be fit for human consumption, the fact is that pilot whale meat and blubber – besides being a very important part of Faroese culture – still plays a big role in sustaining a healthy economy in the Faroe Islands, because this free food saves the Faroese from buying a lot of expensive foods, imported and transported (in vessels that pollute) from countries far away.
The Faroese believe that they have the sovereign right to decide if or when they should stop pilot whaling. They think that whale-saving efforts should rather be concentrated on stopping the pollution that threatens the oceans and the maritime foods the Faroese live on, among others the pilot whales.
The Faroese also have every reason to believe that they are perfectly fit to take care of this natural resource, because they have done so in a sustainable way ever since people inhabited this remote archipelago more than a thousand years ago. They have, in contrast to many other hunter-gatherer societies, kept records of their whale-catch since medieval times, and they continue to ensure the sustainability of this practice, constantly trying to improve their methods.
The pilot whaling practice has, in fact, improved a lot, especially in later years – NOT because of recurrent confrontations with SSCS, but because of an increased knowledge among the Faroese, based on scientific facts, provided by, among others, the Faroese themselves, and because of convincing arguments put forward by sensible and credible people who understand the importance of a mutual respectful dialogue. Nowadays the Faroese do everything in their power to make sure that the whales don’t suffer more than necessary during the herding and killing process.
So in the eyes of the Faroese, there is nothing others really can point their fingers at here. Especially not meat-eating people from countries with a polluting big farm industry, exploiting animals in the billions, which, seen through Faroese eyes, is a much more destructive and cruel practice than their own pilot whaling practice.
Ethnocentric cultural imperialism does NOT save whales
This is what the people in the SSCS don’t seem to understand: That if they invade the islands the way they’ve done this summer and put pressure on the Faroese people by confronting, judging and moralising the Faroese, sensationalising their way of life in international media, claiming that the Faroese people kill pilot whales, not for food, but only “for fun and entertainment” (which is one of the most outrageous claims infuriating the Faroese), imposing their own self-righteous rules onto the Faroese by telling them that their way of life is “wrong”, and that they need to change – not ever listening to Faroese arguments – it will only have a counterproductive effect.
The outcome is that the Faroese shut their ears too and will just be even more convinced that they need to hold on – even more strongly – to their old way of life and that they need to fight against what they see as ‘ethnocentric cultural imperialism’ from foreign alienated city-dwellers, who just don’t understand the basics of Faroese culture, on which they base their life and survival.
The fact is that the SSCS – by doing what they do for the time being – actually only harm their own cause! They are even postponing possible improvements of the pilot whaling practice, because as it is, the Faroese definitely won’t give anyone the impression that they are giving in to SSCS’ pressure.
SSCS may succeed in postponing some whale kills for a little while. But rather sooner than later the Faroese will go back to their old ways, even more determined and eager to keep on doing what they’ve always done. Before you know it, the Faroese have caught up and reached the average number of annual whale kills again – just as it happened the last time SSCS were in the Faroes. The year after, the Faroese killed almost 1,500 cetaceans, and thus almost doubled their yearly average, so people could fill up their freezers again with this beloved tasty food, many consider to be the Faroese national dish.
Claiming that Paul Watson and SSCS save pilot whales in the Faroe Islands, is just not a fact, I’m afraid. It’s quite the opposite!
Others have been much more successful than SSCS
If people want to have an impact on the Faroese pilot whaling practice, there are in fact other more effective ways. Ady Gil and Pete Bethune from the Earthrace Conservation Society, which has a whale-saving agenda, similar to the SSCS’ agenda, just using different methods, were actually much more successful than the SSCS has ever been, when they visited the Faroe Islands a couple of years ago, because they were clearly not as confrontational and conflict-seeking as SSCS – or especially Paul Watson – himself.
Ady Gil and Pete Bethune didn’t invade the country with a hoard of very visible, uniformed people and vehicles, threatening to break Faroese laws and painting grim pictures of the Faroese people in international media. Instead the two came to the Faroes, behaving as respectful guests with a positive attitude, visiting different people in the Faroes, including whalers, talking to them about their lives, making research about Faroese culture, and inviting the Faroese to have a mutual respectful dialogue about the whaling issue. These two people showed genuine interest in the Faroese, their culture and their arguments and respect the Faroese right to decide for themselves how they want to live and behave.
By behaving in a respectful way, using only information and dialogue as means and trying to establish a whale-watching business in the Faroes, they actually succeeded in convincing some Faroese people to join their cause and start a branch of the Earthrace Conservation Society in the Faroes. A movement that grew – until the SSCS arrived!
Even Faroese who strongly support the pilot whale slaughter, actually respect people like Ady Gil, Pete Bethune AND the locals who have joined them, acknowledging their compassion for the whales, even though they don’t agree with their views that the Faroese pilot whaling should be stopped.
Even Faroese against pilot whaling turn their backs to SSCS and their methods
In contrast to this, the average Faroese people see no reason to why they should respect the SSCS as an organisation – or Paul Watson in particular. And why is that? Well, it’s simply because Paul Watson and other SSCS people haven’t shown any respect for the Faroese. They have gravely damaged the relationship by aggressive rhetoric in which they again and again dehumanise and demonise the Faroese people.
They have told so many lies and have spread so much disinformation in worldwide media, calling for a boycott of the Faroe Islands, ditching the Faroese population as a whole, censoring and not allowing the Faroese people to defend them selves, for instance, on their pages in social media – and thus proven over and over again that they in fact have no regard for the Faroese people, even though they claim, that they do have respect and that they only do what they do out of compassion and in defence of the whales.
But in any case, the fact is that this disrespectful behaviour, especially presented by Captain Paul Watson himself, only creates deeper conflicts between the Faroese and the SSCS and makes it almost impossible for the Faroese to believe that the SSCS has come to the Faroes with good intentions.
This is why any discussion between SSCS and the Faroese always seem to end up being unfruitful and pointless, only digging the trenches deeper, making the Faroese even more convinced to keep on practicing the pilot whaling.
The demonising, insulting and hostile rhetoric the SSCS leader has put forward so far, only postpones any possible solutions or agreements, and has resulted in the fact that even Faroese people that earlier maybe leaned towards being against pilot whaling, now turn their backs on SSCS and join the pro-whalers.
The author is a journalist, editor and communication adviser.