Consider the contrasts between the recent tragedy in Iceland and how similar events usually play out in the UK or US.
Over the past few years the Icelandic tourist industry has done a good job of marketing Iceland as a liberal paradise.
This steady campaign (aided by a lot of very ignorant and unpleasantly enthusiastic foreign liberals) obfuscates a lot of deep problems in Icelandic society—the biggest being the endemic corruption only partially revealed by the Panama Papers; a corruption that dominates every single level of Icelandic society, from financial corruption at the top and explicit nepotism everywhere else.
We have other problems. We’re generally behind the other Nordic countries on equality. There’s a strong undercurrent of “island mentality” xenophobia throughout Icelandic society. And transphobia is still a big thing.
Which is why my usual response to any talk about how “great” Iceland is: “don’t spout such goddamn nonsense.” It’s a flawed country, like any other. Don’t make it out to be perfect.
(Also, stop littering the goddamn countryside when you visit!)
As I’ve been watching Trump’s rise and the UK’s descent into bigoted neoliberal hell during its Brexit preamble it has become pretty obvious that those countries are so much worse.
It comes down to empathy towards strangers. Empathy is not a general feature of society in the US or the UK. Plenty individuals have it; the society they inhabit doesn’t. This isn’t new. I lived in the UK for a total of 18 years. It didn’t use to be this bad but Britain hasn’t been a kind place for a very long time.
When a young woman goes out to have fun and gets killed, UK and US media without exception absolutely slaughter that person’s reputation and memory. “Mannorðsmorð” or character assassination is the norm for any female victim who isn’t utterly virginal in every way.
If the perpetrators then happen to be immigrants or foreigners (or it just looks like they might have been), the xenophobia and sheer anger that gets whipped up in the media easily reaches drunken-bigoted-uncle-who-hates-everything-except-young-women-in-that-super-creepy-way levels of nasty commentary (everybody has at least one of those uncles). This even happens in the so-called liberal news organs like the BBC, New York Times, or The Guardian—especially in their columnist sections.
Media in general gets pretty nasty pretty quickly. Between the anger and moral condemnation, there’s precious little space in the public discourse for expressions of sorrow and sympathy.
The Icelandic response—in both mainstream media and on social media—is dominated by a deep, pervasive sadness and grief. Not just for the victim and her family but also for the family of the perpetrators who have also experienced a loss: their relative is not the person they thought they were.
Instead of victim-blaming, most of the punditry (and commentary) is that it is untenable that women aren’t (or don’t feel) safe when they are out having a social life.
The xenophobia is still there but there seems to be a common consensus that expressing those opinions are not something you do in polite company, even if they are pretty commonly held. (Some people revel in being impolite, though.)
This is what civilised behaviour looks like.
I’m reminded of when the police in Iceland were forced to shoot a man in self-defence. The overwhelming response was sadness, expressed both by the public and the apologetic and remorseful police.
I don’t know whether allowing space for public societal grief results in more empathy among members of society or whether the public’s sorrow is an expression of common empathy.
What I do know is that societal grief and empathy in the UK is reserved only for those who are perceived as virginal or saintly: “better than the rest of us”. From what I see and hear, the US is even worse.
I don’t know what any of this means. Societal empathy clearly doesn’t prevent corruption or xenophobia since Iceland has both in spades.
But even if it doesn’t improve society in any substantial way, grief feels like the only healthy emotion here. The anger, fear, and self-righteous moral condemnation that course through large parts of Anglophone society today feel like poison.