A Nation of Peers: On Equality and Corruption in the Icelandic House of Cards

Iceland is the home of the largest glacier in Europe, countless elves, and social inequality. Not unlike other parts of the world, a persistent gap exists between the rich and the rest of us, and power and money get concentrated on the hands of those who know how to play – and rig – the game.

In Iceland, like elsewhere, wealthy folks have access to opportunities that others can only dream of. While some kids grow up in financial bliss, other kids can’t participate in sports because fees and the cost of team trips are too heavy for their low-income parents. Inequality takes the form of immigrants with postgraduate degrees working in manual labour because they cannot get access to jobs that match their skills and education and it presents in people with disabilities still having to put up a fight to get essential services properly funded.

And yet, Iceland has a curious characteristic that works in the favour of social equality: Proximity.

Our population is tiny. While Iceland is a decent-sized island (in fact, Iceland is 80% the size of England) the population is minuscule on a global scale (0.6% of the population of England). In addition to that, Iceland’s population is predominantly located in the capital area and in small towns and villages along the coast, while most of the country is taken up by mountainous terrain and fast-melting glaciers. Thus, we literally live right next to each other.

This physical proximity, along with centuries of relative isolation and lack of diversity have created a need for us to look up promising dating prospects in Íslendingabók to check not whether, but how related we are. Not surprisingly, in a society this small, political scandals and financial crises take on a personal tone. We cannot talk about “those people” who engage in corruption without talking about ourselves.

In Iceland, physical proximity translates to social proximity. The son of Jón the factory worker goes to class with the daughter of Jónas the CEO and they just might start dating by the end of 9th grade. On a dark winter morning, the Mayor of Reykjavík (Iceland’s capital) sits shoulder to shoulder with a retired teacher and a construction worker from Lithuania at one of the many outdoor geothermal hot tubs. Everyone must wash thoroughly without swimsuit before entering the pool, regardless of taxable income and offshore assets. And if you keep your eyes open, you just might spot the President on an evening walk on one of the many public trails along the shore. Perhaps you’ll have a casual chat, especially if your aunt was his classmate in college.

Without exception, Icelanders speak to each other on a first name basis. Last names are made up of the first name of one’s parent (typically the father, although some Icelanders have now started challenging that patriarchal tradition) with “-son” (son) or “-dóttir” (daughter) at the end. Although last names help indicate whose kid you are, referring to an Icelander by their last name does not make any sense. Similarly, having a doctorate degree does not mean you will be referred to as Dr. LastName and formal honorifics are simply not used, save for the president, who may get a “Herra” or “Frú” before his or her first name.

Creating and maintaining a rigid class hierarchy should really be difficult in a small and interconnected community like Iceland. Certainly there will be people who gather wealth, but lack of public reverence for the so-called elite and low or nonexistent fear of authority could work beautifully to our advantage.

The Icelandic House of Cards game is rigged. There’s no doubt about that.

Forget about learning to play it right. How about creating a whole new game?

It really is about time.

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Ad Feminam: On Picking Sides in a Complex World

I watched a short debate on TV today where two people disagreed passionately with each other and reached no conclusion. Of course they didn’t agree. One was deeply invested in something the other saw as completely wrong, which meant neither was about to change their position. The classic TV debate recipe. I already had my mind made on this issue and before they said a word I knew whose side I was on. I started watching with anticipation that “my man” would wrap the debate around his finger and use a set of solid arguments to make his point.

Should have been an easy win if you’d asked me.

And it was… Until he had to make a comment on her appearance, gender, and age. Took him less than six minutes to go there. She happened to be a woman, young and attractive, and him pointing that out was accurate. But was it relevant? Nei.

How am I supposed to pick sides when both sides are messed up? Why did “my man” have to use his male privilege to make his female opponent aware of her appearance and attempt to tell her what she should be doing with her life as a young, attractive woman. Can we stop acting like Trump? Can we just stop right now and start debating each other with relevant logic and facts and opinions only?

20150822_190159Wikipedia already figured this out:

Ad feminam is defined as appealing to irrelevant considerations about women, in particular, prejudices against them or stereotypes about them, rather than giving an answer to the contentions they made.

And while we’re at it, how about we stop using our (white/male/able-bodied/heterosexual/upper class/imperialist) privilege to “win” debates and start talking to each other as equals.

Prisons, Profit, and Dehumanization

There are a lot of people in prison in the United States. Sons, daughters, brothers, cousins, mothers, nieces, friends, loved ones… In fact, there are more jails and prisons in the U.S., than there are colleges and universities. When friends or family members are locked up, the idea of prison becomes intensely personal. For others, prison is something you see on TV.

How do we, as a society, justify capital punishment, solitary confinement, physical and emotional abuse by prison guards, and sexual violence experienced by inmates in the United States?

20150104_131719Well, some deny it. It’s hard to face that something horrific is going on every day in our society, with permission from the authorities we’ve chosen to trust.

Others know, but look away.

We are able to do this by dehumanizing prisoners. After all, they wouldn’t be in prison if they weren’t deviant and evil… Right? By creating a separation between us and them we can comfortably ignore the harsh realities faced by millions of people on the other side of tall, concrete prison walls.

Recently, a women’s rights group called for an investigation into accounts of systemic sexual harassment and rape of multiple women held at a Texas immigration detention center for families (see here and here). To clarify, the women detained there are not Norwegian exchange students who have overstayed on their visa. They are poor women of color who have been imprisoned along with their families for having arrived without documentation to the Land of the Free, looking for opportunities to create a decent life. They are also women who for the most part go without the legal support, financial resources, and connections necessary to make their voices heard.

This parallels numerous other accounts of inhumane treatment, abuse, and harassment experienced by prisoners throughout the United States. Jessica S. Henry, Professor at the Department of Justice Studies at Montclair State University, cited disturbing examples from 2010 and 2012 of cruel abuse of two male prisoners in Florida who died at the hands of their prison guards. Both men had been imprisoned for non-violent crimes.

I want to clarify that I am not stating that prison guards are worse people than others. However, the authoritarian and militaristic culture of the prison system is extremely effective at dehumanizing prisoners and shaping the attitudes and behaviors of guards and other people in authority. When someone has been dehumanized, they are no longer seen as a person with rights and dignity. Not surprisingly, this can result in horrific abuses of power.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a famous example of how the prison mentality works. In short, a group of healthy, middle class, male Stanford University students took part in a study in 1971 on the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. The students were randomly divided into a group of “prisoners” and “prison guards” and instructed to simulate prison life, where guards had the role of overseeing prisoners and carry out coercive practices commonly found in U.S. prisons (see this website for an excellent description of the study). Long story short, on the fifth day of the experiment about a third of the guards had become “hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation”, “appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded”, and were “behaving sadistically”. By that time, the prisoners were already “withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways” and the study was prematurely ended on the sixth day for “moral reasons”.

The prison industry in the U.S. exists in a political, economic, and cultural context. It is not a coincidence that new prisons are being built all over the country and that owners of private “correction facilities” make more money than ever. Angela Davis has written extensively about the context of mass incarceration in the U.S. and she has pointed out the clear link between poverty, racism, and the ever-growing power of the prison system:

“Our criminal justice system sends increasing numbers of people to prison by first robbing them of housing, health care, education, and welfare, and then punishing them when they participate in underground economies. What should we think about a system that will, on the one hand, sacrifice social services, human compassion, housing and decent schools, mental health care and jobs, while on the other hand developing an ever larger and ever more profitable prison system that subjects ever larger numbers of people to daily regimes of coercion and abuse?”

When crimes are committed, race and class play a big role in determining who gets punished and how (click here if you are not familiar with this).

20150131_145135Race and class also play a big role in determining who gets “groomed” for prison in childhood. Children going to schools in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods are less likely to experience school as a punitive, prison-like place, than children who attend seriously underfunded schools in predominantly black or Latino areas. Schools for kids living in poverty tend to lack proper funding. Schools for kids of color living in poverty tend to have even greater lack of funding. When this is the case, school stops being a place where you come to learn and develop your potential. Instead, it becomes a place where you are not attended to or stimulated mentally; where your strengths are not highlighted; where you don’t get access to healthy extracurricular activities and expressive art programs; where there are guards who place you in handcuffs when you misbehave; where you are sent to “detention” – instead of counseling – when you act out emotional problems; where there are too few staff on the ground to intervene when someone is bullied. It becomes a place you dread going to and a place you can’t wait to get away from at the end of the day. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t thrive in a place like that.

So what do we do with all this? Can we work together to see the humanity in each other?

Can we create a society where people are held accountable for their actions, without being unfairly targeted, abused, or killed by authority?

Can we dismantle a prison industry that bases its profits on human breakdown and militarism?

I want to believe we can.

Bonding vs. Bridging

I sat this weekend in Teachers College at Columbia University and listened to Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky talk about prerequisites for peace. And by peace he did not mean simply the absence of violence, but the presence of justice, wellbeing, and opportunities for all. Dr. Prilleltensky is a leading scholar, researcher, and writer in the area of individual and community wellbeing and his talk covered a lot of material, but the concepts of bonding and bridging got particularly stuck in my head.

IMG_2825In short, bonding refers to our tendency to relate to people who are like us in some way, whereas bridging refers to the times when we reach out to people whom we perceive as being different. This is of course nothing new and many writers and thinkers have examined the human (and the evolutionary) habit of favoring those who are in our in-group, while looking with suspicion at those who belong to the out-group – basically all those who are not in our own circle.

It is easy for people of privileged groups to get comfortable with bonding and put little, if any, effort into building bridges. After all, if you have privileged status in society, bonding with those who are also privileged or have a similar social status feels good! In circles where everyone is on the same social page, there can be this cozy sense of community and shared meaning, and little risk of anyone bringing up uncomfortable topics like oppression and inequality. As soon as the party gets more inclusive, perhaps to the point of people of less-privileged groups joining the space, things can get more complex. Suddenly the party people have to decide whether to keep the conversation at a superficial level so that everyone can appear to relate, or really make a conscious effort to listen to each other and broaden the conversation to cover both shared and unique experiences. This may not sound too difficult, but the thing is that unique experiences of less-privileged people often have to do with social location and that can bring up aspects of reality that may be hard to acknowledge for those who are not directly affected by oppression.

An Icelandic family friend once had a conversation with my mother where she shared her frustration with immigrant employees at her workplace, whom she perceived as always hanging out with each other instead of socializing with the Icelandic staff. When she was asked if she ever approached them first, she got flustered and stumbled on her words. Perhaps she had never thought of that. And perhaps that would have required her to make an effort to understand experiences that are very different from hers and work to create a common ground on which to build a possible friendship.

Listening to Dr. Prilleltensky, I thought of my own experiences as a foreigner in the U.S. and how that opened the door for me to redefine my in-group. Without the friends and family that had surrounded me back home, I found myself connecting very strongly with other international students and now I wonder if that was perhaps an example of bonding and bridging happening at the same time. Our shared experiences of being foreigners in a sea of (mostly white) Americans and our exhaustion from juggling the demands of a U.S. higher education program created a sense of cohesion and safety. At the same time, we reached across racial, cultural, linguistic, religious, and class differences and built stronger friendships than I could ever have imagined.

Dr. Prilleltensky and I agree that both bonding and bridging are important. They represent some of the fundamental processes of human interaction and in order to create decent societies we have to do both. However, what I find very interesting is how people of privileged groups sometimes feel entitled to bonding, while expecting people of minority or underprivileged groups to do all the bridging. Immigrants are given the side eye for hanging out with each other in Icelandic lunch rooms; international students are criticized for not engaging more with domestic students; Latinos are supposed to assimilate and stop speaking Spanish to their kids; African Americans are expected to integrate. Meanwhile, dominant groups at times reserve the right to keep to themselves, stay in their suburbs on the weekends, send their kids to after-school activities with other kids who look like them, and invite some but not others to dinner on Sundays.

This isn’t helpful. Because for minority groups and underprivileged populations, bonding creates an essential opportunity for sharing resources, getting support, expressing feelings and ideas safely, and gathering strength before heading back out into a society that does not view them as equals.

At the end of the day, we all need to bond. And then, we need to reach out to each other to make sure that everyone gets a place at the table. Bridges are best built from a position of equality and shared power. And safe bridges make this world a lot more interesting to navigate!