By reducing Greta Thunberg to a gullible 16-year-old, being used as a pawn by the “ultra-left” to peddle their ideas to the world, critics are committing two follies at once: infantilising Thunberg by robbing her of her agency to express herself, and resorting to the ‘red scare’ to dismiss ideas they don’t agree with. By implying that Thunberg (an environmental activist) and Pol Pot (a communist dictator responsible for the Cambodian genocide) are similar in terms of the ideas that they represent, Sandipan Deb draws an unjust comparison by cherry-picking evidence to suit his irrational fear of left-leaning values. On the other hand, Manu Joseph makes an equally ridiculous comparison between Thunberg and Bill Gates (tech whiz and billionaire philanthropist). He hints that Thunberg appeals to women because she relies on “drama and exaggeration”, while Gates appeals to men because he is “a strategic, masculine solver of the problems of a weak, miserable world…” Joseph unnecessarily creates a false binary, to pit two people fighting for the same cause, against each other.
Deb mentions Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, in particular, her “feral rage, the doomsday sermon delivered with messianic zeal…” Why should she or other young women be obliged to behave any differently, just so that older men such as him can find their message palatable? Maybe he would prefer that she crack a few jokes to lighten the mood or smile every now and then to ease the tension? We reject these notions of performative pleasantness that is expected of us just so that the privileged lot aren’t inconvenienced.
Joseph, on the other hand, is confused by the choice of a ‘Game of Thrones’ meme (in which a young woman is saying: “uncle, please sit“) which young women are using, to “insult middle-aged men” such as him, who happen to be critics of Thunberg. He is confused because the uncles on the show “get a lot of sex from young women.” Uncle, please sit. This is exactly the kind of pervasive, sexist attitudes that such young women are trying to fight in the first place.
Detractors put the spotlight on the fact that Thunberg has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism to tell the world why she should be receiving ‘special care’, instead of advocating for a cause that she strongly believes in. Deb says that “she has admitted to suffering from” these conditions. She didn’t “admit” to anything, as though it were a crime to have a developmental and/or a mental disorder. Rather, she asserted herself and said that she views them as her “superpowers“. Receiving the right kind of support to deal with one’s mental health is just as important as being able to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges in order to achieve something one is proud of, and both needn’t be mutually exclusive. Individuals with diagnoses of a mental nature shouldn’t be hidden away from the rest of the world like they are oddities. It shouldn’t be up to the rest of us to dictate how we think they ought to make responsible choices about their lives. Joseph believes that activism is “a flea market of human frailties.” Even if this were the case, vulnerability is nothing to be ashamed of. Paradoxically, speaking about one’s vulnerabilities at the cost of ridicule requires immense strength.
These detractors have also tried to invalidate children’s anger at grown-ups for their failure to adequately fix the problem of climate change crisis by calling them “well-off” school children who are using this as an excuse to roam about the streets, click selfies, eat pizza, and publicly abuse their parents. The irony of such a critique coming from the likes of Deb, who is an alumnus of elite institutions such as IIT Kharagpur and IIM Calcutta, hasn’t escaped me. It is also reflective of the discomfort that some adults display when they are held directly accountable for their shortcomings.
Critics have accused “Thunberg and her well-fed handlers” of not caring about “what a momentous difference an electric or gas connection makes to the life and future of a poor family.” This is a misguided belief on their part because she has repeatedly said that developed nations, where the standard of living is high, should take the lead in cutting down on their carbon emissions. In her opinion, developed nations should bear the brunt of this burden so that developing nations such as India or Nigeria can keep investing in the building of essential infrastructure, to better the lives of their citizens.
“…with a child being the bearer of their propaganda, adults can be shamed freely if they criticise anything she says”, remarks Deb. I think adults should also be mindful of the fact that they are talking about a child. Instead of criticising the media, which may have given undue attention to a white person’s activism (in comparison to activism by brown, black, and indigenous bodies), insulting Thunberg’s appearance, demeanour, disabilities, and motives as though she isn’t a 16-year-old, is childish. Critics aren’t used to seeing a young girl (on the cusp of womanhood) fiercely champion a cause that challenges their commonly-held beliefs. The veneer of intellectual disagreement serves to hide the coarse misogyny behind it. Growing up, a lot of my interactions with my extended family were rooted in similar patriarchal values. I have had plenty of experiences dealing with older men who would use disparaging labels such as “bossy”, “masculine“, “unmarriageable“, etc., to put me down instead of countering the merit of my arguments, when I had an opinion contrary to theirs. This toxic culture encourages young girls to speak only when spoken to, and even then to meekly nod their assent to what is said to them. Girls and women who rebel against this norm are seen as anomalies… anomalies who need to be taught better than to speak up for themselves.
Young people have the most to lose should something drastic happen to the living conditions on planet earth. The reason so many youngsters are on the street, protesting about the climate change crisis, is because they want to be the stakeholders of a better tomorrow. Those who benefit from the status quo can never be expected to lead the fight to change it. Let the adults grumble about how young people are good for nothing, while young people continue to consolidate and became an unstoppable force!
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.