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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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.

Sexual Assault – Are You Sure?

Imagine a friend you really care about was robbed while walking home from the grocery store. And imagine your friend came to you and told you what happened right afterwards. Whether the attack had consisted of a wallet being snatched or a violent assault, I bet you would have a strong reaction of anger and empathy while listening to the story. You might even insist on going to the police and reporting the incident in the hope that justice might be served.

A different scenario often plays out in cases of sexual assault. Survivors are met with skepticism and their motives for telling their stories are questioned – not always, but all too often.

If you were to respond in that way to your friend who got robbed, you might say something like: “Are you sure about this? People don’t get robbed in broad daylight on Tuesdays. I’m sure the guy just thought you wanted to give him your wallet…”

And then, if you were to accept the robbery did indeed happen, you might try a little victim-blaming: “What made you think it would be a good idea to walk home from the store? And let your purse just hang on your shoulder like that? Seems like you were asking for it…”

I hope we can agree this would be ridiculous. Similar examples have been used before to highlight the outlandish reactions survivors of sexual assault often get when they have gathered enough courage to share their stories.

What were you wearing?

How much alcohol did you have?

Why did you go to his house?

Why didn’t you fight back?

And you didn’t even call the police when you got home?

On top of that, too few of us realize that a common reaction to overwhelming threat is to freeze. Not fight back or run away, but to freeze up. Going through an assault while feeling paralyzed with terror and then being disbelieved because of one’s automatic reactions is a deeply wounding experience. Survivors may even be regarded as untruthful due to being unemotional while telling their stories, which is ironic considering that emotional numbness is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress.

Rates of fabrication in sexual assault cases happen to be similar as for other felonies. Anecdotal stories and the common lack of “real” evidence are used to argue that reports of sexual assault are “often” false, while overwhelming numbers of survivors who seek help at clinics, emergency rooms, and mental health centers are ignored. The reality is that most survivors never even make a report to begin with. And many survivors never seek help.

IMG_2997Then, there is the devastating lack of justice worldwide when it comes to sexual assaults: Poor and/or lacking investigations, lack of evidence, no witnesses, rare arrests, and infrequent convictions. LGBT people often encounter additional prejudice and discrimination when reporting sexual violence, and non-affluent survivors may not even be able to afford getting a lawyer to start their case.

An uncomfortable truth is that a majority of sexual assaults are carried out by a person the survivor already knows – not a stranger in a dark alley. So I get upset more than surprised when hearing about survivors being re-traumatized by disbelief, invalidation, and victim-blaming. After all, facing the disturbing prevalence of sexual violence and demanding justice for survivors would mean looking closely at what is going on in our communities, our own social circles, and in our very own families. And that might lead us to face things we’d rather not see.

The aftermath of sexual assault can have no less impact than the traumatic event itself. Invalidation can lead survivors to feel extremely isolated and alone, doubt their own experiences, and even question their sanity.

So if you ever receive the honor of being trusted with information about sexual assault, please handle with care.

[Check out RAINN for more information]

Getting Active

I used to be scared of speaking in front of people. It was my second greatest fear throughout most of my childhood, awkward adolescence, and beyond. Basically, I was afraid of being seen and heard at the same time – afraid of my insecurities showing and my mind going blank. In my head, that and my house catching on fire were about equally as frightening…

I wondered what would happen if I had something really important to say later in life. Would I have the guts to say it? Or would I sit still and keep quiet…

For the most part, I’ve kept quiet. I’ve made myself busy with school and work, minding my own business, and participating in social justice efforts when it fits with my schedule. I have shied away from initiating difficult conversations about injustice when sensing that it might be perceived negatively and I have been more inclined to raise my concerns individually than to bring them up in groups when the spotlight might shine uncomfortably on me.

When I told a white acquaintance the other day I was going to join a march on Martin Luther King Day to call for respect for human rights in Philadelphia, she asked: “How long have you been an activist?”

My first reaction was disappointment. I keep hoping that fellow people of privilege see how critical and urgent it is to work towards justice and equality for all, instead of seeing that as the personal business of “activists” and marginalized groups.

And then, I wanted to shake my head. Because I cannot claim to be an activist. Not in the way Sybrina Fulton is who has channeled her grief and anger from losing her son, Trayvon Martin, into speaking up about racial oppression perpetrated by the U.S. justice system. Not like Laverne Cox who has called attention to silencing, harassment, and violence against trans people and queer folks. And not like the multitudes of people who work tirelessly to organize and implement programs and movements in their communities, in universities, in health care, and in grassroots political settings; to be dissenting voices in dominating groups and speak up over and over again against injustice; and who risk their jobs, health, and lives while disobeying civilly and taking to the streets when nothing else seems to work.

Going to an organized march is an easy gesture of solidarity. Being a real ally will require some real effort.

By entering their field of work, psychologists and other mental health professionals have signed up to promote health and wellbeing. That cannot be done without challenging the forces that corrode quality of life. Poverty and racism won’t be eradicated through individual counseling, research papers in academic journals, and poster presentations. Perhaps we’d like to think so, but really… it’s not happening.

And at the end of the day, speaking up for what is right is not about me. It is about lending my voice to what needs to be said. Being afraid is no excuse.Freedom3

Selma, Ferguson, Philadelphia – A People’s Movement

I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. at some point during my Icelandic school years. I learned he was a civil rights activist who had a dream and was killed because some white folks in America didn’t like what he had to say. That was about it.

Years later, I came to find out Dr. King did a whole lot more than say he had a dream. And there was a lot more people working alongside him than ever made it into my Icelandic history books. It took me a while to get it though. Formal educators on both sides of the Atlantic have not seemed too eager to speak up about the massive ongoing struggle for racial equality that continues in every corner of this big country.

Selma BridgeAt the movie theatre where I sat and watched Selma this afternoon, at least two extra showtimes had been added in the same hour just to accommodate the hundreds of viewers who were already on their way. For those unaware of it, Selma is a movie based on the struggle for voting rights for Black people in the U.S. and the march between the towns of Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, leading up to a change in law that prohibited (white) officials from restricting Black voters from registering.

But Selma is not just about events that happened in the South in the 1960’s. It is about Ferguson, Missouri, and every other place in the U.S. where Black Americans face oppressive structures of power that would rather maintain status quo than facilitate a just society for all. Pictures of sit-ins in Selma in 1965 are strikingly similar to those of die-ins in cities around the U.S. this past year, in response to the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and many other Black men and women. People in Selma fought for the basic right for Black Americans to vote and people around the U.S. today continue to fight for justice and liberty.

Selma is also not a movie about an individual hero. It is a movie about a powerful movement of regular people who decided that enough was more than enough – people who stood up and risked their lives to change a racist system that had kept their political voice on mute for a long time. Dr. King did not do that alone. And this is, I believe, the most important message of Selma. We, the people, have the collective power to make change happen, with or without a hero.

Emilye Crosby quoted the SNCC veteran and filmmaker Judy Richardson, who said:

“If we don’t learn that it was people just like us—our mothers, our uncles, our classmates, our clergy—who made and sustained the modern Civil Rights Movement, then we won’t know we can do it again. And then the other side wins—even before we ever begin the fight.”

I think that sums it up.

As a psychologist I care about wellbeing. I know that people survive the most horrific circumstances, but we do not thrive under oppression. Wellbeing cannot exist without justice, safety, and liberty. A person cannot truly be well without economic means to provide for their family and a child cannot reach their potential without quality education in a healthy environment. This should be obvious to all of us by now. But somehow, demonstration and protest is needed in 2015, just like it was needed in 1965, to bring about basic rights in the “Land of the Free”.

The thousands of people who marched from Selma to Montgomery arrived a long time ago. But we, as inhabitants of the United States, have not yet arrived to where we need to be. We are moving forward, but there is a long way to go. On Monday, January 19, the MLK Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment will turn Philadelphia’s attention to three critical calls for change:

  1. An end to the use of “Stop and Frisk” and an Independent Police Review Board that is fully empowered and funded
  2. A $15 per hour minimum wage and the right to form unions
  3. A fully funded, democratically controlled local school system.

Safety and protection from abuse of authority, means to provide for oneself and a family, and quality education for all children is not too much to ask. Those things represent parts of a basic foundation for a decent society and we need to construct it together.

In other words: See the movie & join the movement.

Peace out.

Gender Boxes

I was at an outdoor festival this summer, sitting on a bench with a friend, watching people walk by and enjoying the kind of summer weather I’ve rarely found in Iceland. As we sat there talking about politics, a person walking by caught my friend’s eye and he paused and asked with a slight grin, “Do you think that’s a man or a woman?” He seemed puzzled and amused at the same time.

I didn’t know. Who was I to answer that for anyone, really? And what made that any of our business to begin with?

Yet, we make assumptions about other people’s identity all the time. And sometimes, when we can’t seem to figure each other out, we get really uncomfortable. A person with an ambiguous gender expression gets confused looks on the street and some folks get very upset at the thought of someone daring to cross the “sacred” boundary between masculinity and femininity. As if world order is threatened by someone identifying their gender a bit differently than others do.

This doesn’t just happen with gender. Multiracial people and persons whose appearance does not fit neatly into a particular racial category get asked, “So, what are you?”, and non-white American-born Americans are asked about their country of origin and questioned again when they say they’re from Ohio. Asked to explain and justify their identity to soothe the inquirer’s anxieties.

But the male/female gender categories are curiously rigid. People who dare to challenge the male-female binary seem to challenge the beast within society that has not learned to contain it self and cannot tolerate ambiguity. It raises its head at a teenager who dresses in gender neutral ways and lashes out at a person who seems to be using the “wrong” bathroom at a bar.

“Which box do you check when you don’t belong in any box? How do you navigate the world when the world is built on identifying with one group or another group, male or female, and the place that feels most right to you is neither?”

How other people identify is really none of our business. But creating an environment where we can all be who we are without feeling excluded, judged, or rejected definitely is our business.