A vocal cohort of fully grown human adults seems unable to deal with Greta Thunberg. The 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, as you might have heard, gave a scorching speech at the United Nations on Monday. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” she admonished a crowd of world leaders. “How dare you.”
Oh, but they hadn’t even begun to dare.
That evening, pundit Michael Knowles went on Fox News and referred to Thunberg, who has Asperger’s syndrome, as “a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left.” On the Fox show “The Ingraham Angle,” host Laura Ingraham compared Thunberg’s physical appearance to a character from a horror movie, then quipped, “I can’t wait for Stephen King’s sequel, ‘Children of the Climate.’”
“I can’t tell if Greta needs a spanking or a psychological intervention,” tweeted right-wing Breitbart columnist John Nolte. And actually, if you’re in the mood to be unsettled, then I’ll wait here while you search Twitter for “Thunberg and spanking” and see how many middle-aged men are eager to corporally punish a teenage girl.
Finally, as Monday drew to a close, the president of the United States sarcastically rang in: “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” By Tuesday morning, as a cheeky rejoinder, Thunberg had changed her Twitter bio to President Trump’s description.
Greta Thunberg simply does not keep to the model of how we expect fresh-faced child activists to behave. She is not interested in delivering a message of hope or in standing behind a bill-signing politician in a chorus of beaming youths. She is not interested in offering incremental solutions for individual households, in urging consumers to switch to reusable grocery bags or buy stainless-steel drinking straws.
She also does not seem particularly interested in using her activism to make you like her. At one point in her U.N. speech the audience interrupted to applaud. Thunberg looked mildly irritated by the interruption; she wanted to get on with it.
What was she getting on with? With ruthlessly explaining just how badly older generations have ruined things for her own. With castigating politicians for focusing more on keeping power than heeding science. With calling out liberals, too, like Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who benevolently told her at an event last week that young people would soon have the chance to run for office themselves.
“We don’t want to become politicians, we don’t want to run for office,” she responded. “We want you to unite behind the science.”
At every turn, in every appearance, what she’s interested in is making her listeners feel shame.
We live in an era that has become impervious to shame. An era defined by a president who views it as a weakness. Shame has become an antiquated emotion and a useless one. It’s advantageous, we’ve learned, to respond to charges of indecency with more indecency: attacks, misdirection, faux-victimhood.
But I don’t think this explains all of the reactions. Thunberg hasn’t been treated any more appallingly than Parkland student David Hogg, who, in the course of lobbying for gun control, was labeled a shill and a “crisis actor.” He received death threats. Yet with every public appearance they are saying, This is what it would look like, to be free to do the right thing. This is what you would say, too, if you weren’t beholden to donors or viewers, if you didn’t have to muster the right soundbites for your next re-election campaign, if you weren’t afraid of sacrificing some of your personal comfort for the greater good.
Greta Thunberg is saying: Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? And deep down, way deep down, in the place that stores unfamiliar emotions, many of her audience members are. This is the uplifting way to interpret the grotesque response to Greta Thunberg.
She is a small, slight child wearing braids and using the best science to beg adults in the room to not let her die. To not let animals die. To not let the earth die. To not let everyone die. Anyone who listens to all of that and immediately wants to punish or attack Thunberg — they’re not having that reaction because they think she’s wrong but rather because, deep down, they fear she is right.