To her great credit, Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl whose widely watched video castigating world leaders at the UN’s Climate Action Summit for their tepid response to climate change, has for the moment captured our attention. Citing overwhelming scientific evidence that points to an environmental cataclysm, she calls them to account for failing to craft a meaningful response. But what really sets her message apart is the context in which she places it:
“You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school, on the other side of the world.”
You say you hear us and you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I don’t want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you’d be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”
Wow! What a powerful message! And while I very much agree with it, it’s important to note that there are other points of view. Maybe current policy initiatives are more promising than she (or I) think. Perhaps, as they gather momentum, they’ll offer an adequate response. Maybe, as promising new technologies come online, her dire prediction will prove unwarranted.
But here’s the thing. She may be right – or wrong. But what is undoubtedly true is that the deeply important issues she raises, about the environment as well as our generational responsibilities, need to be seriously considered even by those who disagree. In the aftermath of her speech, however, you’ll look in vain for counter arguments such as the ones just outlined in the mainstream conservative media. Instead, the dominant response has been all about her.
Noting that she is on the Asperger’s spectrum, a number of commentators questioned her mental health. Meanwhile, on Fox news, Laura Ingraham, with a background banner reading “The Climatology Cult,” ran a clip of a creepy teenager from the 1980s Stephen King horror film “Children of the Corn” and said: “I can’t wait for King’s sequel, ‘Children of the Climate.’ ” To the same effect, not surprisingly, was the response of President Trump who twittered this classic bit of dismissive ageism and sexism: “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”
These responses are, needless to say, very disturbing. But as a progressive, I am struck by the fact that this habit of non-engagement with the substance of an adversary’s message is not limited to those on the “other” side. We – like they – are all too ready to judge the messenger, skipping over the part where we stretch to understand and, then, respond to the substance of their message.
We all remember Hillary Clinton referring to those who disagreed with her as “deplorables” and, at the time, we tended to minimize it as a politically unwise slip of the tongue. But I think it pointed to something deeper. In the same vein, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with our dismissive tut-tutting about how working-class people who “inexplicably” vote against their self-interest.
Thunberg is sharply dismissive of the tepid “win-win,” market-oriented solutions that are the current response to the environmental crisis, even by the world’s more progressive governments. With the future of the planet – and of her generation – at stake, she calls out their unwillingness to mess with their cozy relationship with powerful, business-as-usual benefactors.
But isn’t a similar dynamic also at work with most mainstream Democratic politicians? They do, of course, propose programs that benefit the poor and disenfranchised – job re-training, increased funding for public education, affirmative action, and so on. But when we look at these programs with a cold eye, aren’t they, like the policy’s Thunberg takes on, far too tepid? Aren’t they, too, simply nibbling at the edges, carefully avoiding initiatives that might meaningfully interfere with a status quo that so richly benefits their wealthy funders?
Decade after decade, Democrats have postured as the saviors of the economically and socially disenfranchised. And yet, decade after decade – even during the 20 years of Carter, Clinton and Obama – the gutting of working-class jobs and communities has continued unabated. So maybe, just maybe, a sizable number of working-class voters – like Thunberg – called bullshit on this shell game when they turned against Clinton in 2016. Maybe these voters, like Thunberg, were sending a vitally important message about Democrats’ hopelessly compromised policy initiatives. So instead of looking for better ways to convince these voters that they know what’s best for them, perhaps these mainstream Democrats (and we as their supporters) need to deeply engage with their specific outlooks and grievances, however uncomfortable that process might be.
I regularly work with Trump voters in my psychotherapy practice and they are, overwhelmingly, decent and caring people trying to make their way in life. They’re decidedly not ignorant racists – though they did vote for one in 2016. So when we dismiss them as “deplorables” and express incredulity at their ignorance in failing to understand where their self-interest lies, aren’t we doing to them what the shrill commentators of the right are doing to Thunberg? Instead of engaging with the merits of their position, aren’t we – with our “we know what’s best for you” mindset – marginalizing and dismissing their views?
There was a time when mainstream Republicans articulated a theory of the public good based on the unfettered operation for the free market, augmented by prudent and caring private choices. But in our current Trumpian world, this perspective has virtually disappeared. As things currently stand, Republicans have made raw dominance – winning by whatever means – their singular goal. As a result, a strategy that ignores the message by discrediting the messenger works just fine for them, so long as it’s effective.
Most mainstream Democrats are, however, dealing with a more complicated equation. They too want to avoid any challenge to status quo power arrangements. But at the same time, they’re invested in seeing themselves (and presenting themselves to their supporters) as truly committed to a more equitable and humane world.
And this is where a second “marginalize the message” strategy comes to the fore. In this variation, mainstream progressives obscure their self-interested opposition to a status quo challenging vision of change, not by ridiculing the messenger but by effusively embracing her. Then, with their lavish praise creating the appearance of support, they’re able to quietly ignore, without political consequence, her substantive points.
Think in that regard of the cult of personality that surrounds the memory of Martin Luther King, even as his message of radical change is conveniently ignored. And, of course, the same can be said about Jesus. Sadly, but not predictably, this same process is already at work with Thunberg as articles emerge that, quietly pushing her message to the margins, cast her as a role model for the young or for people on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum.
What we are faced with, then, is not with a partisan, Republican problem. It is, instead, a deeply embedded, system-wide habit of interacting with one another in ways that effectively derail any attempt to raise policy options that, like Thunberg’s, meaningfully challenge the status quo.
This Reflection begins with a (richly deserved) indictment of mainstream Republican behaviors. But, then, it shifts to a critical take on the behavior of mainstream Democrats. For some, this shift might seem like a wrong-headed, energy-sapping distraction from the only really important issue before us – defeating Trump.
As important as this is, however, we also need to focus on a more basic set of issues: How, notwithstanding our differences, we can interact with one another in ways that more fully reflect respect, understanding, empathy, and the other values that lie at the heart of Radical Decency’s approach. And while this work has many aspects, one key component – the one I focus on in this Reflection – is the simple act of hearing and engaging with the other sides’ positions.
In this area, mainstream Republicans obviously have a lot of work to do. But the same is true on our side. Endlessly dwelling on Trump’s latest outrage, we spend far too little time thinking about how, pushing through our sputtering anger, we can contribute to a more respectful and inclusive political conversation.
Doing so is wisdom stretching, often unacknowledged and unappreciated, and regularly disappointing in its immediate effect. But if we put this work aside, any chance of creating a more decent and humane society will, I fear, be dismally small.