From Iceland — How To Justify Passivity

How To Justify Passivity

Published March 27, 2012

How To Justify Passivity

After the BBC reported human rights violations in Baku, Azerbaijan—the unfair eviction of poor inhabitants to make room for the crystal palace being built for the Eurovision song contest—pop-icon Páll Óskar suggested that Iceland withdraw from the competition. “Human rights first, glamour second,” he said.
Taking a moral stand usually requires making sacrifices. It is undeniably easier to retreat than to throw oneself into the line of fire. Unconscious defence mechanisms are turned on and we start justifying, to ourselves and others, our lack of action. Unsurprisingly, the opposition argued their case by using all of the classic justifications for moral passivity. With slight simplification, three classic arguments can be distinguished: the argument of hypocrisy, participation, and disconnection.
The hypocrisy argument, which might be the most overused and damaging argument of moral passivity, argues against fighting for a specific cause if one doesn’t, or can’t, fight for other, similar, or even more important causes. Following this line of thought, some have argued that it is hypocritical to denounce Azerbaijan because Iceland has not stood up against the United States, China or other blatant violators of human rights.
This argument is grounded in a cynical worldview that acknowledges the disadvantages of society, but does not believe in the possibility of its improvement. Thus, this argument’s aim is hardly ever to encourage people to act on other causes, but rather not to act at all. Moral superiority of the activist is thereby disproved and better yet, seen as hypocritical for criticising injustice in one area of life while neglecting it in another. Attempts to improve the world are seen as naïve, and rather than being admired for doing something, the activist is detested for not doing everything.
However, the fact is that our society has so many defects that one would have to live in total isolation to avoid all injustice. Inevitably we must choose our battles. A single person can only fight so many in his or her lifetime, but each battle should inspire other people to take further action. Although we have not protested human rights violations of neighbouring countries sufficiently before, it should not be accepted as an excuse for not acting now. We must begin somewhere. A boycott of the bloody crystal palace should, and can, become an inspiration for a stronger stand on human rights issues.
The second argument is based on the idea that the defects of a system must be tackled by working from within it, and according to its accepted procedures of change. Many have suggested that we could have greater influence by not mentioning the violations before the contest, but by doing it after we arrive in Baku, on the stage of the crystal palace where we would have everyone’s eyes and ears.
This could be effective if it was done properly (for instance, by smuggling a local evictee up on the stage Jimmy Jump style). But would the Icelandic competitors dare to potentially offend or upset their hosts? Simply mentioning the issue in passing at a press conference would be useless.
Furthermore, when you try to clean up a stinky system from the inside, you always risk catching the stink yourself. In Baku, we will most likely be so blinded by the clear crystal and euphoric confetti that we’ll forget about the foul odour of the cruelty upon which it is based.
The argument of disconnection claims that there is no causal relation between different parts of society and that they can therefore be dealt with independently from one another. Rather than seeing society as the endlessly complicated spider web that it is, proponents of the disconnected society see it like a Lego building, wherein each component is easily identifiable and can be broken away from the rest without too much effect on other parts. From this worldview, many have argued that Eurovision is not a political contest and that pop and politics should not be mixed: we should let the pop stars do the singing and the politicians the nagging.
However, when the staging of a pop event is in such a concrete fashion based on human rights violations, it is difficult to see how we can disconnect the two. So we can either choose to use the political power of pop for the good, or to do the opposite by remaining silent (or in this case, by singing a song) while injustice is taking place.
Greta Salóme Stefánsdóttir, composer and performer of Iceland’s Eurovision contribution, “Mundu eftir mér,” has simply been too busy to think about this issue, according to a Kastljós interview. However, I sincerely hope she will at least give it some thought before she takes off.
The world will not be changed with a single act, but we can all contribute to greater change by taking a stand on issues that are dear to us. Therefore, we should be inspired by Páll Óskar whose gradual development from a shock-Euro-pop-diva to a politically-conscious-pop-president is poetised in his newest human rights disco banger, “Megi það byrja með mér” (“May It Begin With Me”), the only song appropriate for the stage of the blood-stained crystal palace of Baku.
“I pray that this world of ours,
may become a bit better than it is,
and may it begin with me”

(Lyrics translated).

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!


Enough. Stop. Now.

Enough. Stop. Now.


Show Me More!