A series that explores the confrontations of climate action – this week – hypocrisy – first installment.
Through the bog roll telescope of social and unsocial media, climate activists have been copping it more than most. Their shoes are made of fossil fuels. Their trucks burn enough diesel to bury seventeen kittens. Their vegan sausages are made from the dead frog babies they dissected in their privately educated biology lessons.
The activist argument, in the other direction, is that the government is hypocritical in megaton quantities of magnitude. The unfulfilled promises of a thousand treaties fall down from the sky like volcanic ash.
This is the Faultline of hypocrisy. Each side sees the other as a moral contradiction.
How do we find a way out from the double mirror of hypocrisy? And should we even try to?
Going back to the etymology, the source code of language, is too often a lazy win. But understanding the origin of the word hypocrisy, really does begin to shed some light on this eternal confrontation.
In Greek theatre the individual speaker, or hupokrites, had a separate voice from the overarching chorus, speaking under (hupo) and separate (krinein) to it. But there was no moral counterweight. To be a hypocrite was to be an actor, to pretend something you are not, in counterpoint to another story. But it wasn’t necessarily wrong.
In climate activism (where a strong message needs to be conveyed immediately) there is certainly pumped-up drama – locking yourself to a building, dousing yourself with fake oil, dumping a boat in the highstreet. But the nicety of the proscenium ‘fourth wall’ that separates theatre from the audience is ignored, in fact it is visibly torn assunder. Activism is rude, it is crude, it intrudes through the fourth wall into the daily news cycle of everybody’s lives, whether they’ve bought a ticket to the show or not. Not only is the activist going against the grain of the chorus, the prevailing status quo, they are throwing the whole notion of a regulated fiction, or non-fiction, out of the window. Activists are hypocrites before they have even opened their mouths. As the philosophers Bela Szabados and Eldon Soifer elucidate hypokrites in their book Hypocrisy – Ethical Investigations:
“There is a distance between theatre and real life traditionally marked by the sharp separation of the stage from the audience. We expect and respect this distance and are embarrassed by, and resentful of, those who are unaware of it and, say, mount the stage…” We might praise a conventional actor for their performance but the “more convincing the hypocrisy the more we blame the unmasked hypocrite.”
But if it were just about an act, activists couldn’t be accused of hypocrisy in our modern sense. They would simply be histrionic, am-drams with no table manners. So what is that extra ingredient that makes a hypokrite a hypocrite, and by extension the climate activist, ethically questionable? What is the moral flaw at the heart of twenty first century hypocrisy?
And so we move away from Greek theatre and onto the parable of New Testament scripture – Jesus and the Pharisees. This is where the moral flaw is injected.
Please enjoy the intermission. You can get a drink at the bar. Soda water is free. But you have to pay for the glass.