Greta Thunberg, Notre Dame de Paris and whataboutism
Posted on 26 April 2019
On April 15 th, a major fire devastated the beloved world heritage of Notre Dame de Paris. For a few hours millions of people kept staring at the TV and social media to get the latest news about one of the most emotional disasters of our time.
The day after, the billionaire Pinault pledged 100 million euros for the restoration of Notre Dame, and he was soon followed by Bernard Arnault and the Bettencourt-Meyer family.
Despite the benefic intentions of the billionaires, their contribution has been unpredictably criticized by the masses, claiming that the money would have been better off spent on the poor rather than on cultural properties.
In the meantime, the 16 years old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was carrying out her tour of environmental sensibilization across Europe and she came to Italy for her first time.
Would be easy to imagine how such a message of peace and effort towards a better world should have led to a broad sentiment of respect and affection for the young girl. However, the reality sometimes appears to be quite illogical.
Despite the huge amount of people she was able to gather in the streets of Rome, she has been overwhelmed by a flood of acrimony and hostility. Accused to be manipulated by adults who joined the evil forces that fight for a greener planet, most of the critics of Greta came from the baby boomers' generation. She was especially attacked by populists and right wingers, even with some outrageous titles in far right newspapers.
Both the experiences arose some questions. Why that? When did the world become such a bitter place?
Actually, it is not a brand new thing. Do you know when some friend complains about something you did and you defend yourself bringing back some mistakes he did when he was like 10 years old? Or think about any political party, when their work is attacked and they reply with the evergreen “What about *insert name of the opposite party*?”.
This counter-accusation has a name: whataboutism. And several versions of it exist.
There are 3 key points I want to focus on, to explain these days’ phenomenon.
Environment? World Heritage? What about…
- Whataboutism is usually an appeal to hypocrisy.
When someone shows great commitment to philantropic initiatives, puts others in a uncomfortable position: instead of feeling admiration, they might develop some sense of inferiority towards the benefactor, which soon evolves into aversion.
Tearing apart its generous image with the accuse of hypocrisy, brings the benefactor back to the standard level of any other selfish human. This is indeed the easiest way to transform the sense of inferiority into the feeling of pride coming from the belief of understanding some truth that the others haven’t got yet.
Moreover, same thing happens with the rethorical instrument of benaltrismo, italian word that stands for “whatever you are doing, the real issues are different”.
This is exactly what happened for Notre Dame.
Are you pledging money for cultural heritage? “You’re a billionaire, money is nothing for you. It’s not enough. Probably you do it just to successfully sell yourself. And anyway there are more important causes: why don’t you give money to poor children instead?”
- Attack who highlights a problem as a way to avoid responsibilities.
One of the biggest issues when someone fights to change the world into something better is, for the people, the consciousness that, if they accept that change, they are indirectly admitting they were wrong all the time before that.
That’s why, when the arguments are too strong to counter, the easiest way to run away from our responsibilities is to accuse or delegitimize who is trying to change our behaviour.
It is not surprising then that the main opponents of Greta Thunberg are either the old generations and the conservative political parties: accepting the claim of climate change and the urge to act now for the environment would prove their past responsibility for the issue.
- Whataboutism as a way to preserve the status quo.
Similarly to the previous point, instead of arguing against better opinions, why just not to simply discredit the person behind them?
Because doesn’t matter how right and scientifically reliable certain arguments are, when they prove we are wrong. Whatever it takes, whatever it costs, we want to be proven right.
This is even more convenient when those opinions are trying to change people’s lifestyles and behaviours for the better. We basically don’t want to commit to change.
And the main problem here is that if we accept claims like Greta’s call for the environment, but we don’t act accordingly, we might experience unpleasant feelings such as regret and guilt. Our brain deeply dislikes such emotions, because they produce substances like cortisol, and consequently, stress.
Shall we start to recycle properly and reduce our consumptions?
Come on, no, let’s just say that Greta is a manipulated young girl who doesn’t know what she’s talking about! It’s easier and we don’t need to do literally anything. Let's just leave the world on fire.
What about… listening, at least once?
In conclusion, whataboutism and all its seasonal versions are a serious threat to our contemporary society. First of all, it prevents people from being emotionally hit by the most inspiring words and acts coming from the best of us.
Secondly, it discourages individuals to join any worthy initiative.
Fortunately, values are strong. And there are people who do not fear any criticism if they are fighting for the good.
Greta Thunberg is a living example of virtue and with her words she is blowing winds of change for an entire generation.
- Disclaimer: there is no guilt in being the daughter of a famous singer, and no, she is not maneuvered by the marketing expert Ingmar Rentzhog (they barely know each other). -
But even if it were, even if everything were just a marketing campaign for some sort of product connected to the Global Warming, it would be totally meaningless.
Because the battle for the Planet is a battle worth to be fought, anyway. And doesn’t matter where the message comes from: the only thing that really matters is to join the mission to defend the environment.
Whatever it takes.
In the picture, Greta Thunberg and Daniela Ducato, enlightened entrepreneur behind Edizero – Architecture for Peace. The sustainable packaging of Kibelis Eora Clock uses Edizero’s Geowool, thanks to a partnership that makes us extremely proud.