Bennet Francis, Reading University
Emma Thompson stood on the deck of Berta Cáceres, the now iconic pink boat, speaking in front of a large crowd of protesters and giving a series of media interviews. It was April 2019, Extinction Rebellion had occupied Oxford Circus in London, and the actress was eager to give the group’s cause its prominent celebrity status.
As it turned out, however, the tabloids told a different story. “Lady Emma jets 5,400 miles to show how green she is!” Crowed the Daily Mail. In the months that followed, Emma Thompson was delighted to see “Emma Thompson admitting she’s a hypocrite for flying around the world protesting climate change,” as if confirming that her initial cod outrage had been confirmed was.
The charge of hypocrisy is slippery. It tends to be tossed around in a moral tone, but does it have anything to do with morality at all? Has Emma Thompson really done anything worse than the millions of others who take long haul flights every year and don’t receive the same criticism?
As the philosopher Judith Shklar argued, hypocrisy is more of an exposed flank on the battlefield of ideas than a truly culpable trait. The charge of hypocrisy is used against political opponents to create what it calls “psychological annihilation”: it can force them to lose confidence in their deeply ingrained political beliefs and beliefs without having to offer alternatives.
Usually, when you criticize someone on the basis of moral principles, you must support those principles. However, by making fun of Thompson’s hypocrisy, the Mail managed to make their cause seem less worthy without having to pretend to be particularly virtuous themselves.
When climate activists are accused of hypocrisy, it is less of a problem for the hypocrites themselves than a problem for climate advocacy groups. Antihypocritical discourse can be more damaging than the hypocrisy it attacks – the sight of our well-meaning but imperfect neighbors in the pillory is often enough to convince us that the pursuit of improvement is not worth the social risk.
Such arguments lead, in the words of Cambridge Professor David Runciman, to “second-order hypocrisy” or hypocrisy about how hypocritical we must be. A Puritan obsession with casting out insincerity can actually undermine public standards. When people are convinced that only holy believers pass the pattern, the rule-based order can collapse.
Hypocrisy to worry about
Is it high time we stopped completely moralizing about hypocrisy? The story does not end there because, in certain contexts, hypocrisy can take on a more worrying aspect. The next major UN climate summit, known as COP26, currently due to take place in Glasgow in November, was used by the UK government to immediately provide chauvinistic rhetoric to serve as a platform for the country to claim “world leader” status . There is even speculation that the “Festival of Brexit” originally planned by former Prime Minister Theresa May will turn into an “eco-jamboree” of climate protection for “Global Britain”.
However, the current British government’s desire to signal its moral authority on the world stage is at odds with its actual policies. While COP26 President Alok Sharma has tried to get other countries to join the phase-out of coal-fired power plants and internal combustion vehicles, the government at home has refused to override plans to open a new coal mine for the first time in 30 years.
The decision is currently under public scrutiny and is therefore likely to be postponed until after COP26. The failure to finish the project contradicted the advice of the state climate protection committee.
Here we see another face of hypocrisy: hypocrisy as an abuse of power. To make a special case of yourself, similar cases have to be treated differently, some kind of injustice. But the problem is more than that. It is clearly objectionable to use your authority to influence the behavior of others while refusing to obey the same principles.
This is reflected in the old Republican idea that we should strive for a “realm of law, not of people,” in which both political leaders and individuals should expect to be subject to the same standards.
We can and should treat the hypocrisy differently from the British Government’s hypocrisy in a case like Emma Thompson’s. Unless politically powerful agents apply the same standards to themselves, attempts to control or influence the behavior of others must be viewed as illegitimate. They are examples of arbitrary power and therefore oppressive and illiberal.
While the average activist need not lose sleep over his or her own hypocrisy, the hypocrisy of those in real power – governments, their agencies and agents – should be of serious concern. In an ideal world, this is where the tabloids would concentrate their attack.
Bennet Francis, Leverhulme PhD student in climate justice, University of Reading
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.