In an article highlighted last week by SwissInfo, a Swiss government-funded information service, a new survey on what is a Swiss has been issued by a group of artists, historians and sociologists fifty years after a controversially censored ‘Gulliver’ questionnaire was carried out during the Swiss National Exhibition in Lausanne in 1964. Basically, the landmark poll holds up a mirror to the Swiss population with 25 questions seeking to determine Swiss attitudes and whether modern-day Swiss share the same common values.
It’s an interesting revelation given that those who responded were forced to reflect on who they really are. And there is a marked difference between Swiss today and what many believed half a century ago, not long after when my own parents had emigrated to the United States because they felt post-war Switzerland was too constrained if not self-righteous. They eventually returned, primarily for professional reasons, but not without reservations.
So what constitutes a good Swiss? According to the poll, attitudes have changed. Today, you are still considered a good Swiss even if you speak only one language, have been naturalised, have not done military service, or only get up at 9.00 am – a key question from the 1964 survey. But almost two-thirds feel that you are not a good Swiss if you fail to vote.
According to sociologists, René Levy and Olivier Moeschler of Lausanne University, there has been a growing rejection of “bourgeois conformism” with a far more relaxed attitude towards traditional Swiss values. What has not changed is the country’s addiction to work. Nor people’s suspicion regarding Swiss financial or business institutions, such as the World Economic Forum or UBS. But there is faith in the good old Swiss franc.
The majority still believe that a working day should not be less than eight hours, but they don’t believe it matters what time you get up as long as you do your share. Perhaps shattering foreign expectations of the stereotypical Swiss as a money grubber more associated with banks and other financial institutions, over half (56 per cent), said they would not work in the stock exchange but only 45 per cent claimed they would not do a job emptying dustbins, a possible reflection of the Swiss need to keep things clean.
Unlike India, where recent news stories and demonstrations have highlighted the turfing out by their sons and daughters of widows whose husbands have died, the Swiss come across as having a strong sense of responsibility toward their own society, but not the rest of the world. Some 64 per cent agreed to pay more taxes if it goes to help elderly or disabled people, but most (81 per cent) rejected the idea of giving more tax money to development aid, culture or the integration of foreigners.
While the Röstigraben (the linguistic divide between German and French-speaking areas) is often cited as a source of discord among Swiss, the poll revealed an even deeper trench, notably the “Polentagraben” between the Italian-speaking Ticino and the rest of the country. According to Levy and Moeschler, the Canton of Ticino reveres traditional Swiss values far more than anyone else, including a far tougher stance toward foreigners.
For Michael Kinzer, co-initiator of the survey and director of Lausanne’s Festival de la Cité, the Swiss are an ambivalent population, “but tolerant and happy with modern concerns and dreams and extremist fringes.” Levy sees it differently. The euphoria and optimism of the past with the so-called Thirty Glorious years (the 1945-75 growth period) has turned to “crisis, zero growth or decline.” At the time of Expo 64, it boasted the motto: “Believe and Create”. Today, he said, “everything appears to have been said and done.” Moeschler interprets the results as showing that the country is doing well but that less people seem to want share with others.
In 1964, the Swiss government censored the Gulliver survey and banned the publication of its results. Today, the outcome is public, which is what it should be. Whether Swiss politicians will pay attention to the poll is another matter, even if it demonstrates an array of revealing indicators, such as a heavy scepticism regarding social equalities or the need for a flexible retirement age. And despite the gloom, the fact that 76 per cent of Swiss declare themselves to be happy.
How would my parents feel? My father, who passed away in the 1990s, would probably feel that Switzerland is finally becoming a more open and imaginative country, but that many Swiss fear this. My mother, a former Swiss figure skating champion, who later worked as a volunteer through music with drug addicts and handicapped children, would be concerned that young Swiss do not forget their obligations to society, regardless whether at home or abroad.
Edward Girardet, Managing Editor of Le News