To follow the cycle of public discussion in Iceland when any of our elected officials get up to something horrible, you could be forgiven for thinking that rich white men are Iceland’s most protected class. The angrier the general public gets about revelations of corruption and abuse within the halls of power, the louder certain voices will get that scold the nation for being too angry, too strongly-worded, and generally making too big a deal out of this whole thing.
The ongoing Klaustur scandal is a textbook example of this. The recording revealed six members of Parliament speaking in an abusive and demeaning manner about their female colleagues, about the disabled and the queer, and openly bragging about quid pro quo corruption. The defensiveness and half-assed apologies of these politicians surprised no one, but the behaviour was unacceptable to thousands of Icelanders, and the latest polls show that the vast majority of them want these six to resign.
As this momentum began to build, it wasn’t long before Icelandic popular figures began to grumble about the level of public outrage. ‘Haven’t we all said terrible things after a few beers?’, they said. A popular radio show host fretted and blustered about whether or not the public is being too sensitive. One middle-grade television host went so far as to say that people should be “ashamed”.
Ironically, these are often the same voices who ardently defend free speech, but in a very one-sided way. To them, free speech is only important for the powerful; when those without power criticise the speech of the powerful, it magically transforms from being speech to being “bullying”—how the powerless can bully the powerful is never explained.
We would do well to remember that the powerful are only in their positions by our own graces. Criticising the powerful is never bullying and should never be something to be ashamed of. Our democracy depends on holding those we lift into power accountable. Being scolded for exercising this democratic duty is ludicrous, but unfortunately a recurring element of any current event discussion in Iceland.