The Girl Who Did Her Cause No Favors

I almost feel guilty saying this, but as yet, I have no strong view on climate change. I more or less defer to expert opinion on the subject, which as I understand it holds that the planet is on fire, that it’s our fault, and in consequence that we should shop less and recycle more. At least half of that message is music to my ears: I find shopping a bore, and often think the planet deserves to be burned down. The other half I find unobjectionable: it wouldn’t surprise me if the planet’s demise were our fault (given my estimation of the people who inhabit it), and at this point, I’ve been married often enough to have internalized recycling. So I’m down with the whole climate change agenda.

I’m less down with Greta Thunberg, whom I find problematic. Or rather, not with Greta the person, but Greta the media phenomenon. Unlike many of Greta’s critics (and yes, I’m going to call her that), I don’t dislike Greta the person. I like her. Not only do I like her, but I like the very things about her that her critics so intensely dislike. She’s a hectoring, fanatical, self-righteous prig. A kindred spirit, in short.

The problem, though, is the dilemma she presents for the ethics of discourse. Bear with me, because as with all dilemmas, you’re about to encounter a bunch of either-or’s.

Either you basically agree with her or you don’t.

If you agree with her, the essential features of her message are mostly wasted on you: what’s distinctive to Greta is not the content of her message, but the fact that it’s being delivered via the earnest hectoring of a child-fanatic. The question that arises is: why would someone who agreed with the message decide on this particular medium for it? The closest approximations I can think of are Malala Yousafzai and the Parkland kids on gun control. But Malala presents a very different case: a mild-mannered victim delivering an uncontroversial message. And the Parkland kids present essentially the same sort of case as Greta: child-fanatics leading a political cause, partly at the behest of the adult fanatics behind the cause. So reflection on these cases doesn’t take us very far.

Which leads me to the reactionary souls who disagree with Greta, assuming such souls can be imagined at all. Suppose you disagree with her. What are you supposed to do about it? What is the “right” way to react to her?

Well, you could treat her as a child or treat her as an adult. If you treat her as a child, you’ll be accused of condescension. You’ll also be unable to give her arguments the adult scrutiny they deserve. But if you treat her as an adult, and you really disagree with her message (as some evidently do), you’ll have to treat her the way you might treat, say, Al Gore, Paul Krugman, or Bill Nye the Science Guy. This means taking apart her arguments, brushing back her hectoring, attacking the bona fides of the litigation she’s initiated, and defeating the litigation itself. In that case, you’ll be accused of some sort of abuse–of failing to treat her as the “child” she is. An educator would be making a cardinal mistake in treating her high school or college classroom as the functional equivalent of a seminar with adult equals, and so it is here. (It’s disputable whether Greta Thunberg is really a child–she’s 17but I’ve repeatedly seen her defenders describe her this way.)

Maybe there is some way of finding a route between the horns of this dilemma, but even if there is, discovering it is at least as much of a pain in the ass as learning the elements of climate science, etc. So one wonders why we’re in this position. It seems hard enough to master climate science, economics, and all the rest. Why add “how to argue with Greta” as yet another one of the required credentials? Assuming credentials are required.

Which brings me back to the adults who agree with Greta, and have decided to turn her into a media star. They’re the ones who have put all of us in this situation, and in so doing, have done their cause (which is to say, our cause, the cause of this, our planet) no favors. And let’s not kid ourselves, so to speak. Without adults calling the shots, Greta’d just be another 17-year-old Swedish kid skipping school for a cause. If I did that, I can be sure that few of you, even the most loyal readers of this blog, would give the slightest damn. I say this more in grief than in anger, but facts are facts.

It really was not a smart idea to have made Greta Thunberg the face of climate justice. In doing that, her supporters have in effect turned climate justice against the ethics of discourse, and put both Greta and her critics in a grotesque, insupportable position. She hectors. They attack. They get dressed down for attacking a child. She does some more hectoring. She gets another top-tier invitation somewhere. The critics get angrier and meaner. And so on.

Great result. Now, instead of focusing on the planet, the focus is on Greta and the mean people attacking her. How the hell did we end up here? The sad answer is that Greta’s PR people wanted to put us here because they knew exactly what effect it would have. They’re impatient enough with climate denial to want to sacrifice Greta and the ethics of discourse to the cause. But imagine dealing with Holocaust deniers this way. Imagine that the most conspicuous opposition to David Irving was a 17-year-old giving us the Greta Thunberg treatment over the historiography of the Third Reich. Now imagine that debates about what happened at Auschwitz became debates about how to respond to this 17-year-old. Would that really make sense?

Moral blackmail is not a great idea, even for a worthy cause. But at this point, there’s nothing that can be done about the Greta phenomenon but ignore it. Of course, to induce people to ignore it, you have to mention it–which is the opposite of ignoring it. Which is another way of saying that once you enter a labyrinth, it’s hard to get out. “This is all wrong,” Greta told us at the UN. “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.” You said it, Greta. I totally sympathize. The problem is getting these asshole adults to listen.

8 thoughts on “The Girl Who Did Her Cause No Favors

  1. I think this is symptomatic of the fact that, across a wide spectrum of issues, the mainstream of political progressivism has come to the conclusion (1a) that the central problem with the world is political frustration (by structures, forces and blocs of people that are presumptively 1. malign and 2. illegitimate). And also that (1b) the necessary and proper way to deal with political frustration at this point is not to reconsider, adapt or re-present what they are saying, but simply to amp up the volume louder and louder, in the hope that at some point it will rally the numbers of support and/or break the will of opposition such that they can win by brute force of rhetoric, votes, or overwhelming institutional leverage.

    I don’t say this by way of unmixed criticism — some things in this world amount to flat-out social conflicts and genuine moral crises; moral crises sometimes call for stridency and force-rallying over the attempt to persuade the people on the wrong side of the conflict; lots of the political enemies that progressives target are malign and of course I’m happy to say that all sorts of political structures are both presumptively illegitimate and measurably harmful to a number of goals that progressives are correct to have as goals, etc. (For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake….)

    But what if nearly everything politically contested comes to be treated as a non-negotiable moral crisis — no matter what the issue, no matter what the time horizons involved, no matter what the complexity of the empirical questions about the nature of the problem and the adequacy of solutions, no matter whether the options to be debated are starkly binary or discrete or continuous in their variation? And what if the only approach offered to it is simply to batter down any and all opposition — indeed, anything that might even retard the pace of progress — with increasingly strident demands of “HOW DARE YOU?” etc.? If every single track is boosted up to 11 then eventually you find yourself both deafened and deafening from the volume; sometimes some factors other than (1a) may be important to explaining the predicament for a given progressive policy — like, maybe the thing that’s frustrating you exists for a reason; maybe the problem is more complex than just the fact that you don’t get to enact exactly what you propose to enact; maybe there is some serious debate to be had about details and implementation and unintended consequences–not just a battle to be had over a question of political will; etc. And I fear that something important gets lost when such huge swaths of social life are turned over to nothing but scorched-earth, brute-force political contests of this kind.


    • I agree with that. I can’t say I’ve done a thorough study of attitudes on the left, but just impressionistically, I encounter a lot of that among progressives–this premature sense that they’ve covered all of the bases, and don’t need to re-think their message at all, so that anyone who disagrees or even doubts the message is an obstacle to run over.

      Of course, you get the same thing on the right. The rationalizations for war with Iran are mediated by similar sorts of appeals to fear: a vague, apocalyptic fear of “Iran,” and the veiled threat that if you don’t fall in line behind the Suleimani assassination, you’re a traitor.

      The common feature is the manipulativeness and refusal to re-examine the message. One differentiating feature might be termed cosmopolitanism (or maybe geopolitanism) versus nationalism. If you’re skeptical of Greta Thunberg, you hate humanity (or the planet); if you’re skeptical of Tom Cotton, you hate America.

      And I fear that something important gets lost when such huge swaths of social life are turned over to nothing but scorched-earth, brute-force political contests of this kind.

      LOL. Love the understatement. “Something important”–like sanity.


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