COMMENT & ANALYSIS / LONG READ: I’m in favour of climate action or cycling, but the people campaigning are doing it wrong. Now I’m going to give hyped up examples of why these activists are the problem. For anybody who has campaigned on, covered or even followed anything half controversial, this is a familiar argument.
It’s just disappointing coming from two respected Irish journalists, Kathy Sheridan and Ellen Coyne. Sheridan on climate and Coyne on cycling.
They are in good company with Fintan O’Toole and Olivia O’Leary previously ranting about cyclists. Although, times have changed a bit and it’s a little harder to make that kind of rants without being dismissed as a crank.
“Will it open up a single recalcitrant mind to the money-grubbing, short-sighted, instant gratification culture speeding us to our destruction?” asks Sheridan in The Irish Times about the Netflix film ‘Don’t look up’. The article even featured in the banner on the cover of newspaper.
Climate scientists are clear on this: Climate denialism is now at best a secondary issue. The main problem is people who say that they accept human-made climate change, but then fail to act with any urgency or cause distractions. The people who need to be shocked into focusing on action are not those who have obvious recalcitrant minds.
The parallels with the lack of action providing for cycling (which is also a part of climate action) could not be stronger.
Nearly everybody is “for cycling” and everybody wants climate action or accepts climate change. This language of support has been adopted by people not really at all supportive to the point that it’s nearly meaningless. Of course, there are different degrees to this, from nearly pure deniers or people who don’t care to people who care but are misguided.
People should be judged anyway on their record anyway. For journalists, if a high volume of what they have written on any subject. Not every journalist can or should focus on climate or cycling regularly, but if they write about climate or cycling in a limited way. It’s a bit strange if they are squandering that when they are saying they care.
Journalists focusing too much on the action of a few campaigners, armchair ones or not, are giving fuel to politicians and others who avoid action and make outlandish claims that progress is stalled by campaigners “unwilling to compromise” and not them who are protecting the status quo.
Both headlines from this week: “Don’t Look Up opens odd new flank in the culture wars” and “The cycling activist men of the internet are a fantastic example of the flaws of modern protest” seem to accurately capture the articles.
Both are punching down rather than up. I’m sure I might get flack for using that phrase or this article in general, but if the two journalists are that concerned with being pro-cycling or pro-climate action, then why are they not focusing on the main issue of inaction?
“The problem is that the more outlandish elements of a movement may often be the only ones you notice,” wrote Coyne in the Irish Independent. As if that’s not the problem with any movement or campaign. Yes, she says the above and then adds that it happens with all other campaigns. Yet, bases an article around it and little else except saying she is pro-cycling and some campaigners are doing brilliant work.
Sheridan in a similar vein writes: “Art is subjective by definition and thrives on opinion and commentary. What distinguishes this one however is the binary attitude of some fans: that the artist’s intention is all that matters, not the art. That if you agree with the worthy points made in the movie – and you will because you’ve chewed on them for years – you must also believe in the greatness of the movie itself. To do otherwise is to be a useful idiot or enabler in the climate denial industrial complex.”
But Sheridan does not get a central “worthy point” to the film — the misfocus and limit of journalists, not just the TV broadcasters, but also the broadsheet newspaper staff and online journalists depicted in the film. On people recognising themselves in the film, Sheridan wrote: “what are the chances they will recognise their stupidity in a movie and undergo an epiphany?”
We’re at the point of journalists as a whole understanding the urgency of climate action that it would be ok if today was 1972 and we had decades to act.
She also asked: “Are climate scientists giving [the film] standing ovations, just grateful that someone cares enough to satirise their frustration?
Maybe there was a delay between when she wrote it and when it was published, but by the time Sheridan’s article was published, it was crystal clear that so many climate scientists love the film because of how accurate the film gets their frustrations (yes, that’s different from what Sheridan said).
Columnists defending film critics are also misguided. It’s not a perfect film, and it has already been detailed by a few why the critics are missing the point and columnists defending them are doing the same. So, I won’t go there.
Are we sure that the lads on Twitter are not the real problem?
Coyne writes about “these men, shrink-wrapped in Lycra and ultra-protective of their wafer-thin bicycles” and how the “pro-bike lobby” mobilise if people “dare breathe the most diluted criticism of their movement.” Again, people can overreact, and people can be their worst own enemies (like what Coyne says about her feeling the need to write her article… or me feeling the need to read this one).
This idea of focusing on the cycling men of Twitter when cycling campaigning is a broader group than that is a common trope as is talking about Lycra never mind going a step further to “shrink-wrapped in Lycra”.
Lauding the “brilliant work to make cycling as safe and accessible for as many people as possible campaigners” way down an article does not make up for that. This is a poor attempt at false balance when it follows with: “It is a small but vocal minority who are making it weird. The problem is that the more outlandish elements of a movement may often be the only ones you notice.”
Coyne said that the lads on Twitter are making “increasingly hysterical claims” including “comparing the difficulty a man has trying to navigate cycle lanes of Dublin to the marginalisation of a minority group.”
And she wrote: “There is no delicate way to say it. They seem like men who have never been oppressed in their lives but, having seen the platform and attention the world has belatedly given to legitimate victims, decided they’d like a little taste of that sweet persecution after all. But you can’t play identity politics with something that isn’t your identity — it’s your commute.”
The comparison such as cyclists as a minority group is clearly best avoided, to say the least. Ian Walker, an environmental psychology professor, has previously described cyclists as an “outgroup” — that seems not just a little safer but also more accurate (even if some also cannot accept that).
But on Coyne’s point that the lads on Twitter having “raided the language of decades-long grassroots feminist movements” — when I searched I found a quote from an article which was written by a woman and shared by women I know: “Being a cyclist often reminds me of being a woman. If someone hurts me it’s my fault because I didn’t wear the right thing, I didn’t defer to them and ‘know my place’, and I didn’t just smile and put up with their abuse. Power imbalances foster bullying.”
It’s possible to outline that comparisons are wrong without downgrading cycling as merely just somebody’s commute. Even some of the lads online can have good reason to feel hard done by having friends or family killed or injured while cycling or having being knocked over or having their children knocked over or regularly endangered by motorists when walking or cycling.
Both Sheridan on climate and Coyne have valid points (especially Coyne on cancel culture not being real), that cannot be taken away from them. But these are wrapped up with hyperbolic lines and, more to the point, are a distraction from the issues of inaction on the issues they mention. It could be countered that the lads on Twitter are the distraction, but that’s hardly the case when its the two columnists who are elevating them the pages of national newspapers.