The Lost Art of Grace and Calm

The prominence of DiAngelo and Thunberg is troubling. Their diatribes in video and print have been received gratefully by many. They both enjoy an extreme popularity – a reverence even – from the politically left in the same way Trump enjoys from the die-hard right.

Biographies on the two characters typically take a fawning, uncritical tone. This is notable given the extraordinary claims both make. Here are two examples and I urge you to critically engage with their work.

To give them their due, their stated aims of combating devastating climate change and pervasive racism are noble ones. Moreover, we should primarily engage with people’s ideas rather than their character, but these two represent a special case.

Both people have an extraordinary fear of personal wrongdoing. They exhibit a quasi-religious commitment to ridding themselves of all evil thought and deed – far beyond what would constitute goodness. Suffice to say, we won’t be dealing with the subject of their work so much as the tone.

When Thunberg travelled to speak at the UN, she sailed rather than flew. The other delegates flew and her flying would be entirely justified, significant as the event was. It is odd that she would go to such extreme lengths to avoid increased carbon emissions, even when justifiable for the greater good.

Her diminished size is due to a possible Aspergers and OCD linked orthorexia. This is a recognised eating disorder resulting in extreme concern with whether one is eating ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ foods and typically entails significant weight-loss.

She’s turned this single-minded disgust and angst towards recommending policies with little regard for the life ending short term costs. At best, countries have only recently lifted their populations out of extreme poverty and provided them with sufficient warmth, food and opportunity. So intense is her desire to reduce carbon emissions, so detached from everyday experience and so shrill her rhetoric that we could surmise a belief in a kind of carbon purity.

In a similar vein, DiAngelo had a hyper-religious Catholic mother who, it could be inferred, imbued her daughter with the same attitude. She asserts that “The moment you think you’re not racist anymore, you don’t understand racism.” There is this Macbethian overtone of “out damn spot”.

Both thinkers are playing a moral ‘the floor is lava’ game …but there’s no furniture to stand on.

We cannot function like that. This witch hunt for whiteness and wealth serves no one. We need sanctuary and rest. We need grace for ourselves and others to act as a buffer between aspiration and human nature.

It should worry us that such obsessive individuals have obtained such high status in society. In what world is it wise to heed, much less venerate, such masochistic people. But that is perhaps the key to their success. They represent a messianic purity in an age of atheistic nihilism and hedonism. People on whom we can externalise our own compromised, expedient consciences.

With no saviour promising to graciously wash away our sin and push us to do our best, we must instead be spotless. The next best thing would be to find someone perfect to divert attention from ourselves.

The morally upright will always be drawn to the morally obsessive. Drawn by the promise of becoming perfect.

Beyond their obsessiveness and perhaps just as damaging is their (deliberate or otherwise) creation of panic around their respective causes.

In her famous Davos speech, Thunberg exclaims “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

DiAngelo’s tone is similar. Life is a constantly stressful maze of potentially racist interactions even when we try not to be racist.

If an explosion occurs three groups of people emerge. About eighty percent will run away and about ten percent will freeze on the spot. Another ten percent will run towards the explosion to help. The classic categories of flight, fright or fight.

It’s often said fear is a poor motivator. I’d have to disagree. If we separate fear from panic, a more nuanced picture emerges. Panic is simply a response to fear. Automatic. Typical. But a response non the less. Others could be fierce action or passionate speech. Using fear to motivate these responses magnifies their power, intensifies focus. We very likely have to train this in ourselves. But the more our will intervenes when fear emerges, the less panic will be our default response.

The moral panic these two push us toward is more reminiscent of the rationality busting hazing which cults utilise. Designed to sufficiently stun our grasp of reality so that we become receptive to a warped way of seeing the world.

Even during war, we implored each other to Keep Calm and Carry On and we would do well to face climate change and racism with the same mix of composure and action.

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