Pick any tabloid article about climate protests, and the word ‘hypocrite’ will appear in the first two or three comments. It’s a staple of online ‘discussion’, radio phone-ins and casual conversations. You know the kind of thing I mean, but here are some examples from below the line on The Sun’s reporting of Extinction Rebellion:
- “They’re all hypocrites, they enjoy the comforts and pleasure of modern living yet want to dictate that other people can’t!”
- “What makes me laugh that all these people would have caused extra pollution by travelling to London for this!”
- “You see these activists popping into McDonalds, drinking from plastic cups, watching TV, owning iPhones, and all the rest. If they started at home, that would be a start! But they won’t because they like their home comforts and technology. Hypocrites!”
This is the familiar riposte to anyone who wants to speak up for something good. Only perfect people will be allowed to speak – and since no perfect person exists, nobody will be allowed to speak. Any kind of moral discussion of climate change is stifled by this knee jerk reaction.
Read on through the comment stream, and there will inevitably be someone saying “we’re all hypocrites” in response. Some of the more high profile supporters of XR said it of themselves in an open letter last year: “Dear journalists who have called us hypocrites. You’re right. We live high carbon lives and the industries that we are part of have huge carbon footprints”.
Though it would be futile to point this out to those throwing the word around, I’m not sure this is actually hypocrisy. Hypocrisy isn’t about being imperfect or morally compromised. It’s about pretence. The Greek origins of the word are in play-acting, wearing a mask. Failing to live up to your own moral standard doesn’t make you a hypocrite. A hypocrite is someone who pretends to have virtues that they don’t. There may be some climate protestors who only pretend to care about the climate, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never met one.
I believe we should all eat less meat and dairy, but if I’m at a barbecue and there are good burgers, I’m having one. That doesn’t make me a hypocrite. If I told everyone I was a vegan and then had the burger when nobody was looking, then I’d be a hypocrite. It’s the pretending that makes it, technically, hypocrisy.
I realise this is literally arguing semantics, but it’s worth examining.
So if climate protestors aren’t quite hypocrites, what are we when we fall short? The philosopher Brian Henning addresses this in his book Riders in the Storm: Ethics in an age of climate change. He argues that “those who earnestly pursue but fail to fully acheive their moral ideals are morally finite”. Moral finitude recognises that we live in a real world, with structures that may prevent us from living up to our ideals. We cannot be perfect. It is impossible, and so perfection is the wrong standard to judge by.
Instead, it is the intent that matters. It is the pursuit. That reminds me of an older moral teaching. In his most famous message, the Beatitudes, Jesus said “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” God’s approval isn’t reserved for the blameless and perfect. It’s for those who aspire to do the right thing.
To summarise for our climate change context, we live in a fossil fuel powered economy. We’re embedded in infrastructure, culture, and patterns of behaviour that make us all complicit in environmental destruction. But we’re not content with that. We long for it to be different. We call for change. When we can act meaningfully in our own lives, we do so, knowing that there is always more to do.
We are not perfect. We are compromised, and morally finite. But let’s not be too quick to say we’re hypocrites.
- Feature image by Jessica Rockowitz