Greta Thunberg’s climate campaigning has been met with disparaging reactions not dissimilar to those of the #MeToo movement backlash. Which is unsurprising, seeing as they usually come from the same people – men who are afraid of a world where their opinions are not unquestionably superior.
For feminists, one of the least surprising reactions to the Greta Thunberg phenomenon was that of a certain category of men: mostly white, mostly middle-aged, mostly conservative. That particular blend of patronizing and mocking is something we have often heard ourselves: when a professor reminds us how young and inexperienced we are; when an older colleague belittles our idea in a meeting; when an uncle condescends that yes, [insert feminist issue] is important, but surely there’s no need to go banging on about it so much and so loudly?
In fact, it would be (pleasantly) surprising if Thunberg’s campaigning had not elicited those kind of responses: here is a very young woman who does not present herself in a sexualized way; holds firm opinions, backs them with data, and speaks them forcefully; and has absolutely zero interest in the niceties (“Smile, dear!”) that men usually feel entitled to (incidentally, I suspect there is a good dose of ableism in the way many criticize the perceived lack of “approachability” and “niceness” of Thunberg, who has Asperger’s).
While following the climate protests across the globe, however, I started feeling a second kind of déjà vu. We now know that people’s attitudes to climate change are not as straightforward as “believes the science, or doesn’t”: our cultural upbringing and social circles complicate the picture, as they shape the way we assess and select information, and what kind of actions we are or aren’t ready to take on a certain topic.
What gives me hope is that, in both cases, young people and in particular women don’t seem to be listening anymore.
And so, often times, climate skeptics are not strictly speaking science deniers: they do not necessarily dispute that glaciers are receding, or claim that the pictures of starving polar bears have been Photoshopped. They simply shrug and say “That may be true, but we can’t do much about it. The change required is too radical. What does this 16-year-old expect?”.
It took me a while to realize where I’d heard this before. About two years ago, with the #MeToo movement in full swing, we started receiving more and more of a certain type of response, probably best exemplified by the open letter that a number of French actresses and personalities addressed to their younger, angrier colleagues. The tone was exactly that of a patronizing aunt, who has seen it all and who insists on telling you what’s best for you, because how could you possibly know yourself?
In the case of the #MeToo backlash there was also, of course, a glaring lack of female solidarity (“We had to put up with it in our days, so you have to as well”). But the cheap cynicism was the same as that of the reactions to Greta Thunberg and young climate activists, and it’s not just the cynicism either. I have frequently read both commentators and social media users lecture students involved in the Fridays for Future on the best ways to protest climate change: they usually do not make any concrete suggestions, they just know that whatever it is that young people are doing in that moment is wrong.
So if you can’t lead or don’t want to follow, then at least get out of our way.
What gives me hope is that, in both cases, young people and in particular women don’t seem to be listening anymore. We do not confuse defeatism with clear-sightedness, nor do we think of resignation as a sign of maturity; and we certainly don’t think that grey hair and an important title make someone’s opinion automatically worth heeding. These grey-haired, white, privileged men know it too. The very level of acrimony directed at Greta Thunberg and more in general at any women or girls speaking their minds is a good indicator of how threatened they feel.
I do not know whether we will be able to address climate change before we reach a point of no-return, nor do I know when the patriarchy will be thoroughly dismantled. But I do know that there are many of us seriously trying, and that belittling or patronizing us isn’t helpful. So if you can’t lead or don’t want to follow, then at least get out of our way.