Economic development can be planned, at least its foundation, direction, and priority areas. Sector development, too, can be planned, in the various industrial and agricultural sectors. Education, also, can be planned, with allocation of funds and targets for implementation, content and exam forms, and so on. In other words, we can plan how to build the country, and then be diligent in implementing our plans.

Yes, all this can be planned, if the politicians agree and develop agendas. That is what politicians are supposed to do once they have been elected, and if they get the opposition to join in, and manage to secure local and foreign funding, then all is set for implementation. If goals, plans and preparations are in place, implementation is certainly possible, with the legal frameworks and all the bureaucrats, administrators, and experts that are needed. And ordinary people? Well, people are always part of all planning and implementation processes, and in electing and throwing out politicians, who make the decisions about goals, allocations and implementation – also about values.

But can we plan and prescribe social development the same way that we plan how to build a road? Can the ‘soft sectors’ be treated the same way as the ‘hard sectors’? Can we plan in advance what values people should have, the moral and ethical standards that should be the basis for our society? I am talking about modern, positive, open and inclusive values, not authoritarian and restrictive thoughts, and I believe we can and must have goals and values upfront in development.

Our values and opinions should always be open to include what others think and stand for. We can never be sure that we are right and that others are wrong. We must allow others’ opinions, and tolerate them even if we disagree, yet, still argue for what we think is right, and let others argue for what they believe. However, there are limits, indeed, when values hurt or discriminate others. Every person has the same value and must be treated equally; that is God’s law and who are we human beings to do otherwise?

Many people have recently come out and reflected on issues as to how we relate to each other, especially at work and in political parties. Many issues have had to do with how men exercise power over women, with emphasis on sexual harassment and other inappropriate and unwanted attention given to women. The #MeToo campaign, which began in USA in the second half of 2017, started it all and there has been a watershed of cases in many countries, including in my home country Norway, where the two largest political parties, Labour and Conservative, have seen top officials resign posts after women reported their misconduct. In the cases in question, the unwanted behaviour is not criminal, but it is nevertheless inappropriate, and morally and socially wrong as seen from the assaulted women’s side, and usually also as seen from the culprit’s side, often men much older than the women, and also in more senior posts in the party or at the workplace.

How relations are between men and women, what is acceptable and what is not, is judged within the context and culture, and sub-cultures, in question, and we must take time and place into consideration. In the 1960s, in America or in Europe, certain behaviour was seen as alright, while it today isn’t. At certain social events, where alcohol is consumed and only adults are present, the allowed behaviour would be different than in other situations. Or, if only young people have a party, older men who attend, must not use their power and status to take advantage of that to misbehave.

It is probably true that in the past, and also today, the context and culture have allowed and forgiven certain behaviour, which we now have begun to question. The more liberal sexual behaviour that was allowed from the 1960s, especially in the West, may have gone too far, or it had negative sides, too, which women (and men) now speak up about. We should have spoken up earlier, and both women and men have explaining to do for why that didn’t happen. It is also a fact that the greater gender equality that has been achieved, gives women power and right to speak up in a different way than in the past.

Some may argue that the formal gender equality change went faster than people’s real attitudes in the West, including in Norway and Sweden, the world’s most equal societies. Still, the magnitude of what we have recently heard about harassment of women, and unwanted sexual attention, indicates that there is still a good distance to go in the field of gender equality. It is sad that very few women came forward and reported cases earlier; it is only a few months ago since the reports began coming out in public. The magnitude is shocking, even if some of the cases were not harassment but consensual. In hindsight, with better values today, the past behaviour is questioned.

Above, I mentioned that context and culture must be taken into consideration when we draw our conclusions about the reports triggered by the #MeToo campaign. That means that there was a silent tolerance or acceptance for certain inappropriate behaviour in certain situations before, and many still keep quiet. As we hear stories now, we would often ask: how could it happen, and why didn’t anybody sound the alarm, the victims and their superiors, because many knew? We must reflect deeply on that as we try to come to terms with and move ahead to change daily and nightly life in workplaces, political parties, and social situations where men and women meet and relate to each other.

I would like to stress that men and women should meet and relate to each other more often than today, including with sexual minorities, and the behaviour from each and all should be such that everyone feels safe and comfortable. We should protect each other. Isn’t that the least we can expect? This time the issue is not just about how men and women relate to each other, but it should also be expanded to other fields, such as class, ethnicity, colour, creed and cradle. We have much to learn and much to do better – still.

Finally, let me address directly the question I asked in the title of today’s article: Can change of values be prescribed? I believe that goals, including moral and ethical values, can and must be prescribed. They are political issues and they must be defined and ways for implementation outlined. True, it will often take time to achieve results. Yet, if we are good at saying how we want things to be, ideally, and we talk about it, then we will be able to reach the goals.

We must talk about difficult issues. We must always have openness and transparency. It is when things are swept under the carpet and hidden, that most wrong things happen. It is when we pretend we are better than we are, when we hide values, feelings and opinions, when our facade is too perfect and shiny, that we may actually be on the wrong path.

For greater gender equality to be realized, men and women must talk more together. For less child abuse and domestic violence to happen, there must be more openness in the local communities, and everyone must have the right to talk when the borderline has been crossed, indeed the weak, children, women, and powerless. Help and sanctions must be put in place. The most important is that the goals and ideals are clear, and we must talk about how good relations should be, all the time. There is no other way. Yet, we also know we will not be perfect from the outset, and we will sometimes stumble. But we will become better along the road, much better.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.