Greta Thunberg: moral exemplar
If you have been paying attention to the news recently, you’ve likely seen numerous headlines from nearly every major news outlet regarding 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and her international protest movement, which is centered around combating climate change and its effects on a global scale. Thunberg, who hails from Stockholm, Sweden, rose to international prominence in 2018. Then, she spent her days outside of the Swedish Parliament demanding stronger action on global warming, holding a sign which declared, “School strike for climate.” Depictions of Thunberg’s valiant protests went viral, and her address to the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference sparked worldwide protests against inaction on the part of world leaders in the face of an unprecedented existential threat. Those protests were primarily led by students seeking to emulate Thunberg’s actions — many walked out of school in a similar fashion.
The zenith of Thunberg’s influence occurred when she sailed to New York City on a carbon-free electric yacht to address the U.N. Climate Action Summit, which happened around the same time as the Global Climate Strike, a massive series of protests from millions of students in nearly every major city across the globe. In a concise, heartfelt and emotionally charged display of public elocution, Thunberg lambasted world leaders for their inaction in combating climate change — saying that her mere presence, i.e. that of a 16-year old girl, at the assembly is an aberration, and a testament to the gravity of the situation.
Thunberg’s speech, her rapidly expanding influence and her platform of advocacy have naturally been the subject of both widespread praise and criticism. It’s unsurprising that such a highly influential figure at such a young age advocating for one specific side of what is (and in my opinion, should really not be) a controversial political issue is naturally drawing criticism. But it is the nature of both sides’ feelings towards Thunberg and her ideas that particularly intrigue me, namely, her neurological differences and her ability to overcome them and address what is essentially a global audience.
At the age of 11, Thunberg was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and selective mutism. These numerous neurological differences can impede an individual’s ability to interact with others and control their own thoughts, emotions, desires and physical activities. In the face of this internal adversity, one would likely be expected to live a difficult, stressful and solitary life. Thunberg, however, has overcome all these struggles to do what most people cannot, and then some. Rather than letting the stress that learning about climate change and its effects depress her into oblivion, Greta chose to overcome all that would have held her back.
This, namely her exemplary courage, is her defining trait, has put her on the shortlist for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize and is a major reason for the praise directed towards her.
Whether or not one even accepts or agrees with the scientific consensus on climate change is irrelevant here; to observe and understand Thunberg’s bravery is to see a person who has ascended beyond what would otherwise be seen as crippling neurological and social disorders. Understanding this, an argument can be made saying that Thunberg’s differences are the source of her strength. Without them, the argument goes, she likely wouldn’t be able to find the motivation to do something about the source of her inner turmoil.
I find this argument to be particularly appealing and resonant; someone very close to my heart who happens to be one of the finest people I know, has some things in common with Thunberg and is all the more amazing a person because of it.
Unfortunately, Thunberg’s critics do not see eye to eye with her promoters and have instead taken a more nefarious approach to addressing Thunberg’s platform, influence and (frankly, unsurprisingly coming from the right) her character.
In one cringe-worthy segment of the Fox News talk show “The Story with Martha McCallum,” conservative political commentator Michael Knowles rebutted claims Thunberg and other climate change activists have made, saying that “None of that matters because the climate hysteria movement is not about science. … If it were about science, it would be led by scientists rather than by politicians and a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left.”
Following the airing of this segment and displaying Knowles’ disgraceful language on national television, Fox News rightfully issued a public apology to Thunberg and her family. Fox News said that it had no plans to interview or book Knowles in the future.
It is upsetting to me that Knowles equates social and neurological differences with mental illnesses, and is exploiting them to label Thunberg as a pawn in the game of liberals and — dog wistle warning— the “international left.” Neurological differences, such as those Thunberg has been diagnosed with, may be difficult to manage on a day-to-day basis but do not require interventionist treatments, extensive medication or lifelong inhibitions.
To equate the two for nothing other than a political agenda is not only wrong, but disgraceful. There is a difference between criticizing Thunberg’s platform on the basis of her ideas and her rhetoric, as Emmanuel Macron and Vladmir Putin have done, as opposed to her personality and internal struggles. Sadly, most of the “criticism” of Thunberg that I’ve seen isn’t on the basis of the science of climate change or the cause of her inner turmoil; rather, they are usually bad-faith, ableist personal attacks.
It is upsetting to see what can otherwise be a deeply cerebral discussion over the nature of the human condition and overcoming hardship be turned into a series of petty personal attacks and partisan finger-pointing.
However, I have not lost hope. I see the personal attacks against Thunberg as an attempt to delegitimize both her movement and her ideas. In fact, they are nothing more than attempts to divide us on the basis of our respective neurological makeup — the very essence of being that makes every person truly unique.
To me, anyone who can go from literally not speaking for days on end to speaking in front of the United Nations and millions of people worldwide is the very type of person we need on the front lines in humanity’s last stand against a very angry and damaged environment.