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Brendan O'Connor: 'Condescending 'concern' for Greta. How dare we!'

Right now, a 16-year-old girl has more moral authority than Boris, Trump and the whole political establishment


INFLUENTIAL: Activist Greta Thunberg addresses the UN General Assembly. Photo: AP

INFLUENTIAL: Activist Greta Thunberg addresses the UN General Assembly. Photo: AP


INFLUENTIAL: Activist Greta Thunberg addresses the UN General Assembly. Photo: AP

I was determined not to get involved in the Greta Thunberg melee this week, but it's the most interesting show in town right now, isn't it? Primarily, you looked at the week just gone, and you had to think about why a 16-year-old girl seems to have infinitely more moral authority than the prime minister of the great United Kingdom and the president of the great USofA combined. Indeed, for many people, Greta possibly wields more moral authority now than the whole political establishment worldwide.

The criticism from many quarters about Thunberg is a tricky one. On one hand, as a scientifically, but also ideologically driven person, who is now hugely influential on the world stage, Thunberg should not be above criticism. And those who criticise her should not be demonised. In his new book The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray talks about what he calls the set of tripwires that have been laid across the culture in recent years: "Sometimes," he says, "a person's foot has unwittingly nicked the tripwire and they have been immediately blown up. On other occasions people have watched some brave madman walking straight into the no-man's land."

"After each resulting detonation," he says, "there is some disputation… and then the world moves on."

There was an element of this last week as critics of Thunberg's were met with outrage. It was tantamount to being a cancellable event. In a society where we should value different opinions and people's right to hold them, Thunberg should not be a tripwire, and her critics should not be blown up. However, some of the criticism clearly came from a place of ignorance and condescension and it felt like there was more than a touch of ableism to it. Criticism couched as concern for this "vulnerable" girl was the most insincere. The tone was a bit, 'Would the little handicapped girl not go home now and have a nice cup of tea', and, 'Isn't it awful to see her upsetting herself like that, her face "contorted"'. There was a suggestion implicit in it that this girl could not regulate her emotions and that it was distressing her to feel passionate and emotional about something. It was a mixture of the hysterical woman trope and the disabled person as victim trope. And some of Thunberg's critics wanted her agency taken from her.

On the other hand, more grown-up critics of Thunberg took her to task about her assertion that economic growth was a bad thing and that somehow the choice we face is between saving the earth and growing the economy. Those critics dignified Thunberg's stance by taking on her arguments, instead of personalising it into faux concern for her (my daughter calls that condescending "Ah bless" attitude to people with disabilities 'the head tilt'). And there is a strong argument to be made that economic growth and technological development are entirely consistent with saving the planet. As Sky economics editor Ed Conway put it, "Climate change may be killing people, but ending economic growth will kill a lot more people."

Either way, Thunberg enjoys a huge moral authority at the moment. Most people, even those who might disagree with aspects of what she says, wouldn't question her integrity or her sincerity, and most people agree her message is an important one and is generally right.

Another person you might have expressed concern for last week was Boris Johnson, whose face was also contorted, but with a less righteous rage than Greta's. That image of Boris repeatedly snarling 'go on then' across the floor of the Commons was a pretty ugly look, and it felt like another one of those moments when the mask slipped and Johnson revealed himself as the nasty b*****d he is beneath all the bluster and bumble.

And, of course, there was the appalling conversation around Jo Cox. Even those used to the less than lofty standards of 'robust' debate in the Commons these days were shocked when Johnson dismissed talk of threats made against a female MP, threats made using his own words, as "humbug". He sickened even many of his own colleagues, and indeed the husband of Jo Cox, when he suggested the best way to honour her memory would be to get Brexit done.

Johnson and Dominic Cummings were like two taunting schoolyard bullies last week. "We're enjoying this," Cummings boasted. Then, when Johnson was begged to start using less inflammatory language, he tried to assume the power of victimhood for himself, by saying he would not be "bullied" into moderating his language. It was appalling, Trumpian, dishonest stuff. There is, at this stage, an element of gaslighting about Johnson, an air of a domestic bully about him. This is the Johnson of "Get off my f**king laptop".

But it is not these issues that have completely eroded his moral authority. Johnson lost all moral authority when he turned around and said he doesn't really accept the judgment of the highest court in the land. What kind of moral example is that for the prime minister to set? What's the message there to the guy fiddling his taxes, to the petty thief or burglar? The prime minister doesn't accept the authority of the highest court in the land. So then why should any of us accept any court? They are all wrong.

Of course that's not to say that Labour have any moral authority in this either. They mess around with outrage on aspects of Johnson's behaviour. Which is easy enough. But what about the big issues? Corbyn and Labour point-blank refuse to take a position on Brexit in case it might not be politically expedient for them.

Having no balls can, itself, be a lack of morality. Refusing to tackle the big issues, because all you care about is your own seat and your own job, keeping in place a leader who is holding back your party at their time of greatest opportunity because you are afraid. These things speak of a lack of a moral compass too.

It's sad for Britain that their only choice right now seems to be between a thug and coward. It's sad that there is no one there with the guts and the moral authority to take on Johnson properly.

You sometimes wonder if the Democrats in the US are in a similar position. They obsess about getting Trump on a technicality instead of beating him in an election by convincing voters of their view of the world.

On last week's evidence, the only one with the guts and the moral authority to take on Donald Trump right now, is Greta Thunberg. She certainly outfoxed him on Twitter. But Thunberg is not messing around with peripheral point scoring like Labour. She is not more concerned with protecting her position than confronting what matters. She is not afraid to address the big issue.

And we have the gall to take Trump and Johnson and Corbyn even semi seriously as politicians? And to suggest that Greta's parents should take her home and mind her? How dare we!

Sunday Independent