Of course it should read ‘welcome to 2014’ and a very happy New Year to all. And what better way is there to ring in the New Year than with some political commentary. In certain ways, 2014 in Iceland is starting to feel much like 2004. The crisis of 2008 and the lessons learned (or not learned) seem to be fading into the past. We were hopeful that some long-term changes in the area of social justice would materialise as the result of the crisis. What we got some five years later was the return to the same old and tired rhetoric that heaps scorn and derision upon the most marginalised sectors of society.
In 2004 in Iceland it was not unusual to encounter discourses that were critical of disability pensioners (öryrkjar). Quite similar to what occurs in the UK, these discourses aren’t all that concerned with such trivial things as facts or evidence, and only seem to exist to stir public sentiment against people whose only ‘crime’ is having been medically diagnosed with a physical, intellectual or psychological impairment that impinges upon their work capacities. This doesn’t seem to matter to those who argue that pensions need to be cut because somehow people will ‘choose’ a pension over waged labour. There is little room for ‘choice’ here and pensions are awarded depending on the outcome of a medicalised evaluation system carried about by insurance physicians who by nature seem to be a rather suspicious lot. Over the past few years, these kinds of discourses seemed to have quieted somewhat, but in recent months they have become noticeable again.
The favourite target in Iceland of these kinds of discourses is the ‘disabled mother with three children.’ In a recent interview in the journal Kjarninn, a member of parliament called upon this trope to outrage readers by arguing that in some cases such pensioners could earn more than an MP. This is absurd given that the pension levels are all available on the web via the Icelandic Social Insurance Administration (www.tr.is) for anyone who cares to look. Of course one could also ask why adequate pension levels are a problem in the first place and why these comparisons need to be made. It is ludicrous to believe that an intelligent, educated man like this MP, who is a trained lawyer to boot, is unable to read a website and do basic calculations. The only conclusion one can draw from this ‘disabled mother of three can make more than MPs’ discourse is that it is part of a wilful attempt to enrage the public by using misinformation to accomplish political goals.
Such views are not only put forth by the political right in Iceland. All too often the respective right and centre-right Independence Party and Progressive Party receive an unfair level of criticism—as if they were solely responsible for the prejudice and bigotry heaped upon disabled people in Iceland. This runs at a much deeper societal level. Recently, Freyja Haraldsdóttir, a prominent disability activist, criticised former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir for using an Icelandic term for disability (fötlun) as a negative adjective. Vigdís was talking about how RÚV, the national broadcasting service, had become ‘impaired’ or ‘broken.’ Freyja pointed out in a Facebook post that doing this has implications for how disabled people are in turn viewed as ‘broken,’ ‘helpless’ or ‘useless.’
To argue for a link between language and perception is not particularly controversial. There are entire branches of psychology, linguistics and philosophy dedicated to investigating words, discourse and their effects.
Freyja’s Facebook post in reaction to Vigdís’s words was then somehow turned into a ‘news story’ by Visír and later DV, which spawned a multitude of comments and reactions on other blogs. What was surprising was the level of outrage and anger about Freyja’s criticisms, as she was repeatedly told to ‘shut up’ and ‘stop whining.’ This reaction is perhaps partly due to Vigdís being a revered figure in Icelandic society. Merely articulating one’s opinion in the current political climate also seems to be tantamount to being a ‘frekja,’ or a “whiny brat.” However, the comments on this story indicated a rejection of the notion that people find certain terms offensive and hurtful.
Internet trolls will of course abound in these cases, as those who seem to relish in trying to outdo one another in being ‘un-PC,’ but it was particularly disturbing to see comments by educated and generally progressive people who could not seem to grasp the basic concept that language matters. Perhaps the most absurd reaction to this was a blog article that was carried by a number of sites, such as Eyjan, entitled ‘Words are innocent’ (Orð eru saklaus). Of course words are not innocent. Words—in isolation and arranged in the form of discourse—are one of the key methods through which humans communicate and create meaning. The author of this article insisted that terms such as ‘fáviti’ (imbecile, retard), because they are old words that can be found within the dictionary, are ‘beautiful’ words that the Icelandic language simply cannot do without. Perhaps the best judge of whether or not these words are offensive would be the actual people to whom these labels are applied.
In many ways, words and discourse certainly matter. The discursive tactics involved in trying to build public outrage to justify cuts to low-income pension earners are easily understandable and somewhat transparent for their political implications. The anger and vehemence provoked by Freyja Haraldsdóttir’s point that language matters is of another order altogether and has nothing to do with party politics. It recalls another argument from about a decade ago surrounding language and terms denoting gay people, with those who insist on clinging to words that some find offensive simply because they exist in the dictionary. This requires another kind of analysis, among other things asking why people feel so strongly about words that are not applied to them in the first place, or why we cannot at least have a civilised discussion about it.
Here’s to a better 2014, as 2013 was certainly a disappointing one from this perspective.