Recently, I was following the story of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old environmental activist famous for holding politicians’ feet to the fire — and by fire, I mean the uninhabitable burning husk that our planet is on track to become. Greta has shown incredible courage, staging newsworthy events to lift the veil of insanity from over the sleepy eyes of lawmakers from around the world.
Yet, she is not without critics. Which seems crazy — how jaded and cynical do you have to be to go after a child who is doing her best to draw attention to an urgent global crisis?
Somewhere in the world, there will always be at least one person who will defend beyond any semblance of reason the most extreme uninformed opinions. I’m not interested in wasting time on climate deniers and conspiracy theorists. Instead, I want to look into a particular remark I came across on social media.
As Greta was sailing across the Atlantic to address U.S. Congress on the topic of climate change, some people in her entourage allegedly took the plane. Critics then took to the tweetosphere to rage against how Greta was a hypocrite — that in reality her media-savvy protests were doing more harm than good to the environment she was swearing to protect.
A quick disclaimer: I didn’t go and fact-check the travel arrangements of Greta’s friends and family, because that’s beside the point.
What I am genuinely curious about is why I don’t care.
Is it just my own bias?
I’m somewhat of a political nerd. I avidly follow international and U.S. news and politics, and nothing makes me giddier than seeing a slimy politician get their comeuppance.
I relished in hearing Ted Cruz call Donald Trump a bully and a coward, just to lose the primary and kowtow to his tormentor. When Christian conservative governor and supposed family man Mark Sanford was caught eloping with his Argentinian mistress, I grinned so hard my earlobes hurt.
However, I really don’t mind it when politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez take planes or eat meat while advocating for the Green New Deal.
Does that mean that I’m applying a moral double standard? I don’t think so. I’m still sensitive to hypocrisy on the left. For example, I was taken aback when I learned Kamala Harris made light of smoking pot in college, but as a prosecutor a few years later put hundreds of marijuana users behind bars.
The fact of the matter is, I just don’t think all hypocrisy is created equal. Unfortunately, to understand why, we have to journey into the nebulous realm of nuance.
Rhetorical necromancy is on the rise
I’ve come to accept that nobody is morally perfect. We all have our vices, our contradictions, things we know are wrong but do anyway. In the fairy-tale world of puritan politics, any of the little contradictions that are inherent to the human condition would be cause for excommunication. Therefore, what we often see online is amateur pundits holding public figures to the impossible standard of absolute moral purity. Name any public figure of any political affiliation and I can point to something in their past that contradicts at least one of the positions they advocate. Everyone has been a hypocrite at some point in their life.
This phenomenon becomes even worse in the modern mediascape. We are bombarded with so much information that our brain naturally takes shortcuts, associating individuals with simple traits rather than looking into the complex intricacies of their personalities. Political media has become a war of adjectives, spinning complex moral questions into zingers designed to rile up crowds at debates and rallies. Most of us argue about politics using the reconstructed skeletal remains of arguments that we don’t fully understand. And by far the greatest rhetorical necromancer is the U.S. President himself, who has engraved into our collective psyche such pithy labels as Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted and Sleepy Joe.
Obviously, no individual can be summarized by a single adjective. To understand what’s really going on in politics, we need to dip a toe into the deep dark pond of moral ambiguity.
There are levels to the problem
Like almost anything in life, there are degrees to hypocrisy. We need to consider the bigger picture when deciding how much outrage a given situation deserves.
Let’s take two hypothetical examples.
Archie is a vegan activist who participates in disruptive demonstrations against meat producers, but secretly loves eating hamburgers.
Betty tells people she’s vegan, but when nobody’s watching she’ll sometimes sneak a piece of cheese.
It doesn’t take deep philosophical deconstruction to realize that Archie is the bigger hypocrite. First, for a vegan, eating a hamburger is worse than eating a piece of cheese. Second, Archie acts on his beliefs in a way that has obvious negative consequences on the lives of others. His active participation in disruptive protests makes Archie’s hypocrisy more egregious than Betty’s, who keeps her values to herself.
This ties back to the example of Kamala Harris. Her own hypocrisy stands out as particularly grievous because she contributed in ruining the lives of many others in the name of moral values that she herself did not uphold.
On the other hand, despite a strong stance on climate issues, Bernie Sanders never advocated for the abolition of air travel, nor has he gone after other people for taking commercial flights. Granted, due to his political engagements, he is probably responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the average person. The question then becomes: is his contribution to the problem offset by his contribution to the solution?
In other words, is he a hypocrite for the greater good?
Pacifists don’t win fistfights
A well-established fact about democracy is that it’s impossible to win an election without funding. This puts candidates that refuse corporate funding at a natural disadvantage against less scrupulous opponents. There’s a reason corruption has taken hold of the political establishment in most countries — candidates with money win, and candidates that win make more money. There is a tremendous financial incentive to run for office on a recklessly pro-corporate platform.
We see a similar imbalance when it comes to a lot of social issues. Reducing carbon emissions would cost some very powerful companies a lot of money. Wealthy private insurers risk losing everything if the government moves toward a socialized healthcare system. By definition, measures to reduce the wealth gap result in those at the top having less. Money buys politicians, biased researchers, advertising, and ultimately, support.
This unequal playing field is the reason it’s unfair to hold activists to an extreme iteration of their ideology. It makes sense that if you support fighting climate change, you would want to reduce your own emissions as much as possible, and therefore cut down on air travel. However, it would be absurd to expect all climate activists to travel only by bicycle, drink raw water and survive on a steady diet of home-grown radishes.
At the global level, if isolated from broader context, it seems risible to fly in global leaders from around the world to attend an international conference on climate change. But context is key. Coordinating a global effort to save the world from the excesses of humanity takes some excess of its own. Leaders are not oblivious to that irony. High-level events on combating global hunger have catering. When the U.N. hosts a conference on providing shelter to the world’s most vulnerable, it does so in a building literally called the Palace of Nations.
Instigating durable, impactful social and political change comes with a price tag. We obviously want the best doctors to heal us — why wouldn’t we want our most brilliant minds to fix the other many woes of humankind? Expecting every activist to be Mother Theresa is an insane standard that can’t hold water on the complex global scale at which modern society operates.
Activists are doing their part by raising awareness and taking action to address the massive challenges our society faces. If anything, they have a much better reason to get on a plane than businessmen visiting their subsidiaries, or wealthy families flying around the world to stick their feet in some fine white sand.
Hypocrisy is nonsensical without moral context
Obsessing over the hypocrisy of politicians and activists is like focusing on the shade in photograph: it doesn’t tell you much about the bigger picture. The cynicism we see polluting our social media feeds is just the expression of a fetish for darkness.
Unless you are yourself a morally pure human — and let’s face it, you’re not — calling someone a hypocrite without moral context is a meaningless accusation.
Mark Sanford had an extramarital affair while projecting a false narrative of being a devout Christian family man. His objective was personal gain and power. He hurt those around him in the process. More than hypocrisy, his issue is that his moral compass has gone haywire.
Greta Thunberg has contributed to global carbon emissions, but as part of an overall mission of guaranteeing a livable planet for the future of humankind. Her mission isn’t selfless — the future belongs to her generation — but it goes far beyond her own personal gain. She is helping far more than she is hurting. Her moral compass stands truer than most.
There is a philosophical problem with the moral compass, which is that each person’s points in a slightly different direction. I believe climate change is real and a threat to our species, therefore I admire what Greta is doing. If you believe climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese to harm American industry, first of all you need a stern intervention, but also any hypocrisy from a climate activist will be an instant red line for you.
We generally need to be more aware of our own ideals and how they influence the way we perceive the actions of others. That’s why I suggest we go through a process of deconstruction when we see accusations of hypocrisy in the media.
Is there any chance we are being unreasonable in our expectations? What is the accused trying to accomplish? Are they hurting someone in the process? Would they forgive us if we acted like them, or would they punish or belittle us? What does their hypocrisy really tell us about their moral compass?
The list is long but necessary. Unless we move away from skeletal simplicity and return to true moral arguments, we can’t expect to have a rational dialogue across political trench lines about the most pressing issues of our times.
Even on social media we’d best be wary, lest our own laziness be the death of us all.