The prelude to the current financial difficulties the world is facing may be traced to the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 which initiated the global financial crisis and the recession that followed. Little did the people of Iceland know that the Bear Sterns’ collapse would catapult three large Icelandic, and internationally operating, banks into default, leaving the bill with the population of only 330,000 people.
Iceland was only the first of 13 countries in Europe to face a serious recession as a result of the global financial crisis. Icelanders were, however, among the first to respond to the crisis and try to come to terms with what had actually happened.
It was under those circumstances that Cohn & Wolfe Reykjavik Iceland (formerly GCI Group Grey Iceland) found it increasingly important to find technical terms to explain what the Icelandic language could not summarize easily with the present vocabulary. Cohn & Wolfe in Reykjavik, and indeed the people of Iceland, needed a term that accurately captured the cause of the new situation Icelanders found themselves in.
The people of Iceland reacted, and they reacted vehemently, openly criticising the government, powerful businessmen, the universities and even itself for having been taken for a ride, an uncomfortable and risky ride. On the 11th of October protests started in front of the Parliament and for every week until January 31st the protesters continued to push for action and pressure the leaders into facing the consequence of their actions. All the time people banged pots and pans in a chaotic chorus of frustration.
After the “pot and pan revolution”, which led to the ouster of a government with a massive majority in the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, Iceland was fortunate enough to set up a special parliament committee to thoroughly investigate why the nation became victim of its own financial system. The report was quite a feat, nine volumes of criticism of the established powers in Iceland – politicians who had had too much at stake and prominent businessmen who had been allowed free rein for too long. Nine volumes of unprecedented openness.
What the population had realized during the months after the economic meltdown was that something was fundamentally wrong with the way business was conducted among many of Iceland’s largest firms, as well as in the political arena. This was comprehensively documented in the nine volume report.
The vocabulary of change
The public was not afraid of using harsh words to describe its disgust. After all, one needs to be able to express the train of thought in order to articulate the injustice and anger. “Psychopaths” and “Immorality” were words frequently used in blogs and commentary during that most confrontational period in Iceland since the country became a member of NATO. The words rang true, many thought, although some did not believe that they accurately depicted what actually happened.
The Icelandic language lacked words to describe an action that is placed squarely between the acts of psychopaths, the condition of not being able to comprehend and follow deeply rooted local morals, and immorality where one knows what is immoral but decides on immoral actions nonetheless. The Icelandic language lacked a new word like “siðglöp”. A word that describes actions that are based on ethical recklessness, a very fitting description of what caused Iceland’s turmoil.
Siðglöp was coined by Cohn & Wolfe to deal with the aforementioned. The word translates as what is probably most accurately described as “ethical inanity” in English. The translation of siðglöp – “ethical inanity” was provided by Prof. Gauti Kristmannsson, the Faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies and Translation Studies at the University of Iceland. Prof. Kristmannsson provided Cohn & Wolfe with the pronunciation of Siðglöp as sith-gloehp (th - pronounced as in "with").
Ethical inanity accurately portrays the root causes of the economic collapse as people can unknowingly take actions that an ethically knowledgeable and responsible person would not take. Such actions can consequently have serious negative effects such as the collapse of the banks in Iceland and the on-going financial crisis in Europe. Moreover it is important to note the role of professionalism as the opposite of ethical inanity and the epitome of a responsible culture.
In other words, Icelanders now had a precise term to describe the core problem the nation was facing, a term that allows the people to deal with a defined problem.
Documenting the word
Cohn & Wolfe takes words very seriously and the consultants at the Reykjavík office occasionally have to think up new words to grasp new meanings. The team of senior consultants – myself, Hallgrímur Arnarson and Ingvar Örn Ingvarsson – spent hours analysing the main characteristics of the major participants in Iceland’s crisis, finally defining what the main problem the population was dealing with was: ethical inanity. Coming up with a very useful word in Icelandic also meant that it was Cohn & Wolfe’s duty to introduce the new term to both public and clients. Cohn & Wolfe therefore sought to register the word in the dictionary of new Icelandic words and succeeded.
The butterfly effect seems to be coming into full effect these days. The tremors that shook Iceland in 2008 reached the rest of Europe. Out of 31 European countries, 13 are in recession according to international guidelines. Iceland is no longer in that group and these countries are increasingly looking towards Iceland to find the way out of the recession. An important part of finding the way is to first establish a firm ground. And looking inwards is that firm ground.
That is where ethical inanity becomes important because what can indubitably be shared across the Western civilization is the grave recklessness that characterizes the global economic system. Recklessness towards ethics, rules, formal procedures, cultural limitations and good relations between people and various constructs of society.
The thoughtlessness and carelessness of those who wield power is the type of ethical inanity that needs to be eradicated before we can reach decisions that benefit the society as a whole. It must be ensured that power is wielded by people of good moral fabric, people that also exercise the intellectual commitment needed for critical thinking.
It should not any longer be accepted that politicians do nothing, when they know quite well that doing nothing will not avert disaster. The people of Iceland demanded that ignorance of ethics and morals was not an excuse any longer and some degree of proof of their success was found in the verdict of guilt over former Prime Minister Geir Haarde. Mr. Haarde was basically convicted of not following formal governance procedure set out by the constitution. That he acted as those before him was not considered a valid excuse. Good moral fabric was of little use without critical thinking. Mr. Haarde would possibly have fared better if he had taken a more professional approach to his position.
The ethics of a profession
People are not born civilised. Ethics and morals are learned along the way and can become lost. We should not accept lost people to lead us and expect them to be responsible for our economic wellbeing among nations. It makes no difference if they are politicians or powerful business people.
We believe that ethical inanity is the opposite of being professional. A true professional will act according to his profession’s morals and ethics, considering his own values as well. The professional promises to use his knowledge to aid others and ensures that he or she has enough space to carry out the ethical duties of the chosen profession.
Providing a term that accurately describes one of the main problems we deal with in the modern economy is in effect our own butterfly effect, countering the forces that fuel the vicious circle we are currently in. This is the contribution of professionals.
It is also Cohn & Wolfe’s professional promise to be brutally honest and to voice our concern, introduce new methods and words to deal with those who let themselves be guided by carelessness and no strategy. Those that are unprofessional.
The fact that little has changed for the better in Iceland as regards ethical inanity is proof that changes will not come about until the problem is framed and dealt with. The problem has been framed. A comprehensive effort is needed to deal with it. The firm ground has been found nonetheless.
All civil societies should rest on an unwritten contract among the people where power is channelled to safeguard common interests. The time must be upon us when the public looks closely at its own responsibilities as citizens, where there is no place for ethical inanity for those who wield power. All ideas start with words, and actions follow. Citizens, men, women, professionals should realise that change starts with them allowing no leniency towards ethical inanity. That requires effort from each and everyone.
Thought Leader Profile
Guðjón Heiðar Pálsson is CEO/Country Manager Cohn & Wolfe Iceland Office.