Our aggressive moralising is impacting (in)action on climate change  

We’re a nation divided over climate change. However, it is our morality that binds and blinds us, so we believe ourselves to be right. 

 

 

 

In his compelling account of how and why good people are divided by religion and politics, moral psychologist Jonathon Haidt writes that “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”

With respect to the causes and impacts of climate change, it’s tempting to believe that pernicious outrage from the opposing side of the ideological divide is confirmation of the fact that they are rattled and that we are winning, but it’s neither. It’s time to explore the fallacy of such comforting yet intellectually hollow claims. 

For many members of society, especially the secular, it was difficult to disguise disgust after hearing Israel Folau’s latest controversial addition to the public discourse, whereby he delivered a sermon linking the current Australian bushfire catastrophe with recent legislation changes regarding abortion and same-sex marriage.

Folau suggested that it was God’s wrath causing the bushfires; that we were being punished for our sins and he urged repentance. 

My first, outraged instinct was to pathologise his behaviours; reaching for the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) I made a beeline for Delusional Disorder, which is characterised by the presence of delusions with the presence of delusions for at least one month. “Efforts to convince the client suffering from the disorder generally fall on deaf ears because the delusional thinking is a critical part of the client’s belief system that cannot be shaken. Based on their strong beliefs, these clients are often involved in litigation within the legal system for what they believe are crimes committed against them”.

After reading this I smugly punched out an indignant Facebook post about it, condemning Folau as a lunatic or a moron or both, then settled comfily back onto my lofty moral perch, with the angel of climate science on one shoulder and the angel of the medical model on the other. 

Plot twist: not long after venting my spleen, I felt deeply uncomfortable after realising that by reacting the way I did, I was claiming moral superiority which when looked at from Folau’s camp or similar, would be defined as equally bizarre and delusional.

Furthermore, I realised that by squawking loudly and hurling around accusations of mental illness, I would appear hysterical and perhaps even arrogant. With a significant amount of determination, I was able to manifest some empathy for Folau and others like him.

It is more than likely that fundamentalist Christians are equally as convinced that the bushfires mark the second coming of Christ as I am of the fact that climate change and its dire impacts are being heartily propelled by human actions.

 

If I shouted at you and told you how stupid you were for holding your beliefs would change your mind? What if I told you that I was smarter than you; that you only held those beliefs because you were ill-educated? Would that do it for you?

 

The grown-up way to look at such a chasm between perspectives is to realise that the opposing side aren’t behaving like this in order to antagonise – they’re behaving like this because that is what they truly believe.

By aggressively moralising in opposition, irrespective of the irrefutable climate science, it’s likely they’ll only be further convinced in their convictions. 

For further evidence of how people tend to think that aggressive opposition is confirmation of success or being on the right side of history, one can look at it from the other side of the ideological divide. Recently speaking in Montreal at a climate strike, Greta Thunberg, whom no longer needs an introduction due to her global fame, said that she doesn’t understand: “…why grown-ups would mock children and teenagers for just communicating and acting on the science when they can do something good instead… But I guess they must feel like their world view or their interests… Is threatened by us, and that we should take as a compliment… That we are having so much impact that people want to silence us.”

Because it gives us hope, it’s attractive to believe that the foul aggression young people encountered from climate deniers following school climate strikes is a mark of success. It keeps us engaged in important social activism as we fight for the health of the planet and for future generations.

However, the science of moral psychology rejects the claim that the anger is a sign of changing minds or beliefs – righteous anger in such an important space only serves to reinforce that we are right, and they are wrong – irrespective of which side of the debate you support.

The grown-ups are outraged not because they are feeling threatened or rattled, they are outraged because they are annoyed, inconvenienced and equally convinced that radical action from the Greenies is an affirmation of their perspective. Imagine what it would take for you to change an entire belief system about something you held dear – think big, macro things, like environmental justice; human rights; universal healthcare.

If I shouted at you and told you how stupid you were for holding your beliefs would change your mind? What if I told you that I was smarter than you; that you only held those beliefs because you were ill-educated? Would that do it for you? 

Many of us realise that approving new coal mines in 2019 is a maniacal move if one is attempting to reduce carbon emissions. But some of us don’t care about that and no amount of vigorous protesting changes those perspectives; when Bob Brown took the Adani blockade to northern parts of Queensland, it immediately became clear that his way of seeing things wasn’t shared by many of the communities he was visiting.

The correct approach to change minds is certainly not to demonise people in communities like Clermont for their “Start Adani” counter-protest movement and label them as uneducated wretches. No matter how pure the motivation, we must stop comforting ourselves with the idea that speaking about these issues from a place of assumed moral superiority is having the desired effect. The Labor party are coming to realise this in the aftermath of losing the 2019 Federal election. 

 

By aggressively moralising in opposition, irrespective of the irrefutable climate science, it’s likely they’ll only be further convinced in their convictions. 

 

I don’t think we should stop protesting, but we need to be clear about what protest is actually achieving. There’s great utility in social action demonstrated through protest because it feels empowering; it reminds us that we’re not alone in our concerns. It’s also profoundly meaningful because it’s a way for us to join together and stand up for oppressed people – people whose lives and communities are being ruined by the greed of people who want to exploit natural resources.

I support Thunberg in her outstanding leadership in this space, but I’m doubtful that the ongoing protests are achieving the political change that we want.

Successive Australian Governments must take political responsibility for their hand in bringing forth the climate emergency, and the question is how we encourage that. Regarding action on climate change, it is difficult to maintain hope in Australian politics just now.

On State and Federal levels, impetus to take any meaningful political action on climate change is stymied at least in part by the desire to stay in power. 

As citizens, our power resides in being able to spur the hearts and minds of our fellows into meaningful action on climate change because it is through this mechanism that we’ll amass a big enough base to vote in a Government that will take meaningful action on this issue. I completely understand the passion and frustration that people feel about climate change and the desire to propel that energy into loud and disruptive protests.

On the other hand, I have serious concerns about whether such mechanisms are further polarising the moral divide and wonder whether an unprecedented climate emergency calls for new methods for changing minds. 

 

 

 

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