Let’s first acknowledge the incredible recognition given to climate crisis activist, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg who was named Time’s Person of the Year for 2019. In just over one year, she has gone from standing alone outside the Swedish Parliament to protest the government’s lack of action on global warming to championing a worldwide movement supported by millions of people, many of them school-aged children and adolescents. Greta has addressed the United Nations, met with world leaders and been called the ‘Joan of Arc’ of environmentalism by Margaret Atwood. Collins Dictionary named the term ‘climate strike’ its Word of the Year and a recent fourfold increase in investment in carbon-reducing projects is being referred to as the “Greta Thunberg Effect.” Whether she wanted it or not, this reluctant girl is now hailed as a hero and role model by young people around the globe who are increasingly coming to believe that their voices matter.
Now let’s acknowledge the darker side of Greta’s story. Not only is she a role model but she’s a target, too – a target of right-wing interest groups, of climate change deniers, hate-spewing online trolls and even the President of the United States. Her unflinching willingness to call out governments and industry with a matter-of-fact display of passionate rationality (Greta has Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition she likens to a ‘super power’) has triggered a backlash that would be difficult for anyone, let alone a 16-year-old girl, to handle. The untruths swirling around Greta are unfathomable – that her mother is a Satanist lesbian who teaches abortion classes to young teens, that her father abandoned the family and lives in Germany with his boyfriend, that she’s really an Australian actress by the name of Estella Renee who is paid by radical environmentalists to play this fictional persona. And then there are the more mild attacks, also untrue but more likely to be accepted by those looking for any reason to discredit her and her inconvenient but fact-based arguments. A guest on Fox News called her “mentally ill,” doctored photos implied she was being funded by American financier, George Souros, and assertions are regularly made that her speeches are professionally written by PR experts.
The sad reality is that Greta was always more likely to be targeted because she is female. Brittan Heller, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Federal Government notes that, “If you are female or from a varied background, you are much more likely to be targeted online.” Women are more likely to be spammed with porn and threatened online with sexual violence or even death. And sometimes the abuse isn’t limited to the online world, as with the vile slur spray painted in red letters across the constituency office windows of Liberal MP Catherine McKenna following the recent federal election. Add racial diversity into the mix and the abuse women are subject to ramps up to a whole new level of evil. Men have to deal with online trolls and abuse, as well, but rarely are the threats sexual in nature (unless homophobia rears its ugly head).
Who exactly does such things? Is there a typical profile of an online troll? In Constructing the Cyber-Troll: Psychology, Sadism and Empathy, researchers Natalie Sest and Evita March report that online trolls are more often men. They tend to have higher traits of psychopathy, sadism and levels of cognitive empathy (the ability to anticipate how people will feel) combined with lower levels of affective empathy (the ability to experience what other people feel). In other words, online trolls are typically men who are very good at predicting the hurtful or even dangerous impact their words will have but simply don’t care. Unfortunately, research also shows that they are motivated “to achieve negative social rewards, like causing social mayhem and disruption.” So appealing to their sense of common decency is generally futile because they know what they’re doing and they feed off the indignation their actions provoke in normal folks.
It may be that Asperger’s truly is Greta’s super power as it likely allows her to process the vitriol thrown her way on a more cognitive level. This is not to say that she is without feeling but rather that she may be able to manage her reactions in a unique way that serves her well. Take, for example, her response to President Trump’s Twitter reply to the announcement that Greta had been named Person of the Year: “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” Without missing a beat, Greta changed her Twitter profile to read: “A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.”
It was telling who did and didn’t come to Greta’s defence following the President’s tweet. Reaction from Washington was divided along party lines and the First Lady, who recently called out a Stanford Law professor for simply referencing her son during impeachment testimony, suggested that Greta had it coming because she chooses to be a public figure. I don’t know when being a reluctant public figure at age 16 made public mockery by a grown man acceptable but it seems that the rules of political and public decorum are being rewritten at lightning speed, so who knows. But I still think bullying is wrong in any circumstance.
There was someone, however, who did come to Greta’s public defence. Not surprisingly, Michelle Obama spoke up and offered these words of support: “Don’t let anyone dim your light. Like the girls I’ve met in Vietnam and all over the world, you have so much to offer us all. Ignore the doubters and know that millions of people are cheering you on.”
So here’s to Time’s Person of the Year for 2019, the remarkable Greta Thunberg. Reluctant hero or undeserving target, thank you, Greta, for showing young people everywhere that their voices matter and that change is possible. Now let’s all go and chill! It might just help the planet.