One person can make a big difference. But visionaries and dreamers are intensely scrutinized. Heroes attract critics who look for flaws and hope for failure. And social change is much bigger than any individual person.
Consider climate activist Greta Thunberg. As she sailed to America to campaign against climate change, critics deconstructed her. One commentator mocked her as “St. Greta of Thunberg,” a “16-year old autistic school drop-out” who is “spooky” and “boring.” Others cheer her on. One fan said her arrival in New York “felt like the second coming of the Beatles in some way, but with higher stakes.”
Some people have a kind of authenticity that imbues them with moral authority. Maybe this sort of aura is a natural gift. But usually it depends on the situation. For whatever reason, Thunberg has become the face of a youth movement.
Thunberg has tried to deflect the attention focused on her and turn us toward the issue of climate change. But we are generally more interested in other human beings than in coral reefs and glaciers. We are fascinated by celebrities. We crave stories about odd or charming people. We like to categorize each other as sinners or saints.
And while some seek out saviors, others resent moralistic do-gooders. We don’t mind hearing a lecture that reinforces what we already believe. A crowd of the converted will cheer along. But no one really likes to be condemned.
Most of us desire a mellow messiah. We prefer prophets who make us feel good about ourselves. We resent those stern moralists who make us feel guilty.
Evil and injustice must be condemned, of course. But it is hard to do that without being a pain. Moralistic sermons will often be greeted by skeptical groans and rolling eyes. Some common sense is required for those who would save the world. The need to stand up to evil must be balanced with the wisdom of leaving other people alone. Sometimes you have to shout. Other times you need to whisper.
Finding that balance is not easy, especially when the critics are sharpening their knives. And the critics are not content only to pounce on the person at the podium. They also mock the cheering crowd.
The cynics will point out that every supposed savior has feet of clay. But that’s not surprising. Human beings are fallible and short-sighted. We are not omniscient. Nor are we all good. Even the best of us makes mistakes.
There are very few saints. And those saints among us would be hard to live with. Perfect people are best admired at a distance. In a widely discussed essay about “moral saints,” philosopher Susan Wolf points out that saints are oddly inhuman. They seem to take the fun out of things. Wolf suggests that the saint would lack the ability to “enjoy the enjoyable in life.”
Saints would give all their money to charity rather than eat or drink to excess. They would find it difficult to tell white lies or engage in small talk. They would be so nice all of the time that they would end up, as Wolf suggests, “dull-witted, humorless, or bland.”
Much of this is in the eye of the beholder. Humor, wit, and joy are relative. The same is not true, however, with regard to natural facts.
And this brings us back to climate change. For those of us who are paying attention to what the scientists are saying, the truth seems obvious. Fossil fuel use is causing the climate to heat up. The glaciers are melting. The fires are burning. And the future will be hot and chaotic unless we radically change the way we live. But not everyone agrees. And some want to reject the facts by turning against the messenger.
A charismatic voice may get our attention. But no single person has the power to change the world by herself. The world changes when we all change. So rather than venerating St. Greta or debating her merits, we ought to get to work on cutting carbon emissions. And instead of looking for a savior sailing to rescue us from across the sea, we ought to think about saving ourselves.