Such hypocrites!


When activists were biking across Schiphol the other day, exclamations of ‘Such hypocrites!’ were on their tails faster than the intervening military police. Right away the internet was flooded with private pictures of the activists, some of them posing at far-away holiday destinations. You want people to fly less, but you yourself got on a plane for a holiday a few years ago? Such hypocrites!

It’s not easy to be right all the time, much less to do the right thing. But it is easy to say something. People in their twenties or thirties calling out for improvements or actions have undoubtedly left some footprints of their own.

Oftentimes, protests don’t focus on things that everyone finds morally reprehensible, but on cases where the desired behavior ought to be the opposite of the most commonly occurring behavior. There is no need for action groups against clubbing baby seals to death, but there is such a need when it comes to morally questionable affairs we have a hard time avoiding. Especially because there are no realistic alternatives for travelling to a large part of the world. It’s simply not feasible to demand a clean record from those who have to travel.

You want to improve society while being part of it at the same time? Such hypocrites! About two weeks ago, national newspaper De Telegraaf devoted a whole spread to ‘hypocritical climate activists’ who just want to tell others what to do. Whereas most readers of the paper, for example, couldn’t care less about whether those attending the climate summit in Sharm-El-Sheikh got there by plane, sailboat or e-bike. Nobody likes to be patronized, but the fact that the anti-activists along the sidelines think a group of private jet users are on the moral high ground says more about themselves.

Experienced critics like to apply this slippery-slope reasoning to themselves as well. Marcel Levi from the Dutch Research Council wrote in Het Parool newspaper that social safety can now be used as an excuse to get a faster computer. Jan Slagter, director of nation-wide broadcasting network Omroep Max, tried to whitewash Matthijs van Nieuwkerk’s unacceptable behavior by saying that his owning a diesel-driven car can now also be classified as unacceptable. Such hypocrites, with those petty concerns!

It’s hard to do ‘the right thing’. For my PhD research (2015-2019) I studied the gaping hole between opinions and behavior, in order to motivate individuals to save more energy in their households using personalized tips. A kind of Netflix for energy-saving, if you will, including a website and everything. It turned out that my tips were more effective if they addressed what people were actually doing, rather than what they said they should be doing. Switching off the light, for example, all of a sudden became a lot more feasible for people than installing solar panels, even if they had more sustainable opinions. Many shades of grey turned out to exist between ‘extremely polluting boomers’ and ‘heather-hugging students’.

The FIFA World Cup is a great example of the complex relationship between attitude and behavior. I suspect the majority of people in the Netherlands thinks it’s an abomination the soccer world cup is being organized by Qatar. At the same time, more than two million Dutch people tuned in for the opening match, between the numbers 44 and 50 on the FIFA ranking.

We have to embrace our hypocrisy. When activists turn words into actions, we shouldn’t just sit there and judge their related actions using other words. This won’t get us anywhere.

In May I was having lunch on a bench in front of Atlas when University Rebellion walked by with a handcrafted dragon. They were protesting TU/e’s ties with Shell, demanding transparency. A guy sitting next to me chuckled: “Protesting against Shell? Try making a dragon like that without oil.” The only thing missing was for him to add, ‘Such hypocrites!’.

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