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Iceland Mag


An American in Reykjavik: Politically Incorrect; The State of Diction in the United States

By Matt Eliason

  • Comedian, Stephen Colbert. The Amercian television personality came under fire after his Comedy Central controlled twitter account published a controversial tweet.

Icelander's have made it a habit of speaking openly and honestly. At times this comes at the cost of being perceived as politically correct, yet, in a country recently voted the most peaceful country in the world, they do not shy away from discussing controversial topics. This comes in stark contrast to the highly sensitive culture that has cultivated in the United States. Americans are now more paranoid than ever about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.


He is not fat, he is obese. They are not teachers, they are educators. It´s not Merry Christmas, it is Happy Holidays. They are not Subway employees, they are sandwich artists. The American culture’s obsession with politically correct diction has programmed me into a non-offensive, cautiously insecure robot that steers clear of any statements including race, gender, religion, weight, ethnicity, and politics. The fear of being labeled a racist, sexist, bigot, or simply an “asshole,” after spewing an impromptu line of dialogue has taken on greater scrutiny to our public identity than our tangible actions. In my mind, there is something fundamentally wrong about judging ones words with equal significance to ones actions.

I am obviously not endorsing any racially charged Donald Sterling tirades, or any religious based, “Obama is a Kenyan- Muslim,” faulty stereotypes that have the potential to harm the identity or reputation of a group of individuals. However, how far are Americans going to go before every potential phrase out of our mouths is perceived as offensive, to one group or another? It seems as if there is a group of individuals in the American media on both sides of the isle, just sitting around, waiting to be offended by anything that resembles a controversial statement, or more specifically, an honest one. And does anyone really care when these supposedly “controversial” statements are made? Such an emphasis is put on not offending anybody with our words, but is it time for American’s to get off our high horse, and stop acting like the international word police?

After all, isn’t it our actions that reveal our true intentions?

Case and point, beloved American TV personality, Stephen Colbert, recently got in hot water last month, for a tweet perceived to be racist towards the Asian community. The tweet read, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” First off, he is a comedian! He is making a joke with the intention of being ironic and making people laugh. Also, do American’s really think Stephen Colbert is a racist? He is an upstanding citizen, who has the responsibility of entertaining millions of people, and clearly does not wish harm on any individuals of Asian descent. Plus, proof that no one actually cares about this stuff, and that no one legitimately believes Colbert is a racist, is that fact that everyone has already forgotten about the controversy. Colbert is now on his way to replacing David Letterman as the CBS Late Night host, illustrating that in today's high-speed news cycle, American's have about a 15 second attention span.

The tweet that landed Colbert in hot-water with the American media.

Other examples of this faulty obsession with politically correction diction go as far back as 2010 with Dwayne Wade’s Twin Towers Comments. More recently, Bill Maher’s Islam Comments, and Louis C.K.’s “Fat Girl” episode of his TV show, Louie, all exemplify the American media’s need to critique and condemn an individual’s diction, when in reality, Wade, Maher, and Louie meant no harm to the group of individuals they were supposedly "attacking".

So what’s all the fuss about? Do people just pretend to be offended by these pointless, non-threatening statements in order to feel more superior about themselves? The saying, “Sticks and stone can break your bones, but words can never hurt you” has never been further from the truth. In our current society, an American is just as likely to receive negative press for expressing an opinion or making a joke than for committing physical acts of violence, as was the case with NFL player Ray Rice.

The Stephen Colbert story received significantly more attention in the American media than the Ray Rice story, despite the fact that Ray Rice physically attacked his fiancé. I would argue that physical actions are a much more serious offense, but based on todays news coverage, the American media would lead you to believe otherwise. Therefore my question is, why are we putting more weight on Colbert’s joke, than Rice’s actions? Which offense should be perceived as more harmful?

I have spent most of this article complaining about the hypocrisy found in America media concerning the ramifications of specific word choice. So how does this American mindset relate to my new residence of Iceland? In contradiction to my highly sensitive, American colleagues, I have found Icelanders to possess a certain bluntness about them that is refreshingly honest. There are no gasps, when someone is called, “fat” because the person they have identified is indeed, fat, as illustrated by IcelandMag’s recent report. Additionally, Icelanders live by the saying, "þetta reddast" which can be translated to “it will all work out okay”. The carefree style of living that the Icelandic culture embodies helps explain their laissez-faire policy relating to word choice. 

Within moral boundaries, I believe that honesty should not be met with controversy.

Now in full disclosure, the first time I heard some of what Americans would perceive as more “controversial,” proclamations from my Icelandic counterparts, my first reaction was to gasp in surprise as well. However, after a while I found myself wondering,” What am I really reacting to?” I agree with their statement. Their statement didn´t hurt or offend anybody. There is really no reason for me to get up in arms about something that is blatantly true.

Despite their bluntness from a verbal standpoint, Icelanders have found a way to create a society with minimal violence and crime. So it’s not as if speaking more honestly, or more bluntly, leads to violence. Words do not hurt anybody, and should not be critiqued on such an extreme level as they are in the United States. I find that a society which is more focused on the accountability of one’s actions, than the shallow message behind one´s word choice, provides a much healthier public forum for real issues to be discussed. 

Creating a culture of uber-sensitive, literary wordsmiths does not translate to a more “evolved society” as the American media would lead you to believe. With the abundance of social media forums, high-tech cell phones and short sound bites, America's high-speed news cycles have created an environment where it is very easy to take a quote or story out of context. As a result, the list of issues headlining American's news outlets can only be described as first world problems, rather than legitimate breaking news stories.  

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