Icelandic discourse in a nutshell…
Icelanders tend to agree on one thing, and one thing only: the horrid state of discourse in this country. Any other topic is automatically polarising. Find yourself against the wall in any discussion, rest assure you can always hide a lack of knowledge by turning the conversation to the dismal state of the debate. Try it—see how quickly people line up to agree.
No matter the topic of conversation, the debate will go like this: 320,000 experts will immediately appear, everyone sharing their expertise via Facebook. (Yes, where once we used to meet for a coffee and a chat like normal people, Icelanders have now, for all intents and purposes, replaced human contact and public debates with statuses, links and likes.)
But no matter how much heat an issue generates upon its debut, within minutes—before you can even fake an interest—the discussion will have shifted, with camps dividing on whether the issue even merits our time or if our energy would be better spent elsewhere. This is the cue for someone to introduce another conversation into the mix. Some of the experts will dig in, defending the vital significance of the first issue. Other experts will decide the second topic is far more important and will promptly divert their attention. A select few will try to balance both discussions. And then, finally, a notable group of commentators presents itself: the moderators.
The Burden Of Sanity
Debate anything in Iceland and you are bound to meet a moderator. They’re everywhere—chances are you’re one yourself. Presenting his or herself as the voice of reason, a moderator bears the burden of sanity in the otherwise barbaric world of Iceland’s public debate. Staking a unique and individual claim on reason is a popular pastime in this country.
Moderators are inveterate explainers, earnestly pushing others to see reason and change their erroneous ways. Moderators will start by explaining that the debate should be better framed. More focused. They lament the lack of fact-based arguments and how hysterical the discussion has become. They will tell you that actually, the issue at hand is quite simple. And if you’d just look deeper, you’d see that it all comes down to basic principles and is therefore a lot more clean cut than you realise. In a firm, but fatherly way, moderators explain the big picture and remind you that while we all share certain principles, principles that shouldn’t be that hard to live by, we need to be realistic. Be calm, the moderators intone. Don’t get carried away with issues that aren’t important. Issues that they don’t find important, that is.
Because you see, while moderators are quick to brush off concerns beneath their own notice, they are equally quick to condemn their fellow citizens’ apathy towards those issues they deem to be of great importance. Call for a politician to take some responsibility and you’ll see this in action: a moderator will rarely fail to mention that at sometime in the past you remained silent when some other politician did something completely unrelated and not remotely relevant.
One Uproar After Another
Are Icelanders just addicted to turmoil or is there such a thing as functional debate here? These were among the questions that pushed Hjálmar Gíslason, the founder and CEO of Datamarket, to visually map Icelanders’ conversations for 42 days. Every uproar, one after an-other. The resulting graph clearly reveals the short attention span of Icelandic debate: a news item will dominate every medium in the country for a few hours before disappearing completely, never to be mentioned again. Almost nothing survives the initial quarrel stage and continues on for a full and comprehensive discussion. Instead, attentions are distracted by new outrages, or by outrage at all the outrage.
It is important to note that Hjálmar readily admits that his method is in no way scientific nor terribly accurate. And his graph does reveal two topics that outlast the status quo. The first of these revolved around a new governmental bank levy, which appears to be an intentionally designed tax-free status for a particular Icelandic bank. The second centred on whether Icelandic politicians should have attended the Sochi Olympics. Those two subjects kept people enraged for slightly longer than usual—two whole days.
Everything In Moderation
Are we Icelanders wasting time and energy by constantly expressing our shock and anger over any and every issue which is tossed our way? Yes—nothing is gained by this. Equally, nothing is gained by attempting to police everyone but yourself. Perhaps us moderators could spend a little more time focusing on an actual issue instead of harping on the fallacy that is debate in Iceland. Especially given that this is the one topic which Icelanders have already reached an agreement on: We all think it sucks!