Shaming climate deniers isn't going to save us

Shaming climate deniers isn't going to save us

I saw an interesting article today in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. I like the Guardian, they produce many great articles and do so without sponsorship from large corporations. I’m not sure that’s always been the case but they make a virtue out of that now. Good for them.

That said, this article: “Let’s expose everyday climate denial. Here’s how” left me troubled. It’s subheading notes that, “A first step to change is to call it out #DailyClimateDenial”. This had me scratching my head.

Andrew Simms, the author, is setting up a Twitter account @EverydayDenial to collect and share examples of climate denying behaviour that happen in everyday life. He revealed that the idea was in part triggered by the campaign against everyday sexism to halt the phenomenon of all male panels at conferences through social shaming.

My first thought was “I wonder how that’s going?” as images flashed through my mind of the many male only panels I’d seen in the not-too-distant-past. The real rub for me was the idea that we bring change by shaming people. I’m just not convinced we do.

Many NGO colleagues would beg to differ; it’s their primary weapon of choice, but from my personal experience, change best happens when you sit down and discuss things with people, treating them, well, like people – with respect and much listening. True, without a bit of shaming, some folk will not engage in any discussion and on-going public shaming creates a tension to act, but alone, shame achieves very little save making the “shamer” feel clever and the “shamee” feel stupid. That’s an unhappy feeling and can create belligerence which slows the move to action.

Naming and shaming can be effective if there’s a clear alternative path for all to see - go this way and the pain stops, there’ll be reward. But even then people once shamed are often reluctant to move for fear it will appear they’ve given in or they’re just unhappy and refuse to countenance a discussion. Or, of course, they just disagree or have been helped to disagree by having money thrown at them by corporations. There are many reasons why shaming goes nowhere.

That’s when a little drop of human kindness can work miracles. Amidst all the shamee’s swirling emotions, someone listens. They might not agree, but they take the time to listen and that simple act can – it certainly doesn’t always, but it can - open the shamee’s mind to an alternative way of thinking.

The thing about social media accounts is that generally, with the exception of trolls, we get followed and liked by people who think like us. Not always of course, but I suspect few climate deniers will end up following Andrew’s feed. That’s a common problem – we all end up talking to those who share our thinking and we all end up feeling strong and superior. It’s the “all the rednecks voted for Trump” thinking that demeans the people who voted for Trump because they’re different from us. It’s shuts off our own thinking about why they may have voted the way they did. “It’s because they’re rednecks”. OK, discussion and any hope for progress over. Polarised and superior, nothing changes either in us, or in them.

What more might we achieve if we sit down with a climate denier, somewhere out of the public eye and listen? When they’re done speaking, perhaps we could share some of our thinking? Then, or maybe not, seeds of new ideas or new ways forward, might be imagined?

I’m reminded of the sensational Heineken “World’s Apart | #OpenYourWorld” video that recently did the rounds. It’s a pity that it was a beer company that produced it but nonetheless, it highlighted what can happen when opposites sit down and chat. It’s 4:25 minutes long but do take the time to watch it if you haven’t already done so. Well done Heineken.

The trouble with shaming via social media is that you’re not sitting down with someone confronting their and more importantly your own biases. You’re hitting them over the head from afar more or less anonymously. You don’t have to interact with the person in any human way.

In terms of bringing change, it just doesn’t work. I think a better challenge would be to go and speak to the people doing the climate denying. Try having an open chat with them. Try learning something about them. It’s harder. It’s not immediate. It takes time and of course, ultimately, it may not work. But let’s be clear, for all the shaming that goes on and has gone on now for decades, we’re still accelerating toward an unpleasantly changed climate.



You might also be interested in "The limits of shame: Time to shower with your enemy" and "The evolution of cooperation in forest conflicts: Part 2" which explores the theoretical basis for why cooperation is the best strategy to resolve conflicts.

Picture used with kind permission from Michael Leunig

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