Opinion | Youth activists deserve more respect, less criticism

By Remy Samuels, Staff Columnist

Right-wing conservatives have recently found a new outlet on which to unleash their anger: Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden. Following her recent speech at the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23 in New York City, she has faced an overwhelming amount of criticism.

“How dare you!” she said at the summit. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

The number of hateful tweets and comments this young girl has received over the last few weeks is shameful, especially because some of the attacks have been centered on her Asperger’s diagnosis. But these vicious attacks against a youth activist like Thunberg are not out of the ordinary. Throughout history, people have been quick to criticize activists who enter the public sphere at a young age because they are threatened by their message and power to influence. Youth activists should not be underestimated, since they have historically proven that they have the power to affect change.

Thunberg has made many headlines not just as a result of her powerful U.N. speech, but also for inspiring the Global Climate Strike, in which more than 150 countries are participating. Last year, Thunberg started her own solitary strikes against climate change in front of the Swedish Parliament, but has since inspired millions of young people and other supporters to join the movement.

In response to the climate protests that have been happening around the world and to Thunberg’s speech at the U.N., Daily Wire commentator Michael Knowles went on Fox News and attacked Thunberg, denouncing her position because of her disorder and her age.

“If it were about science it would be led by scientists rather than politicians and a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left,” Knowles said.

Accusing a girl with Asperger’s syndrome of being “mentally ill” when she is clearly basing her climate change argument on scientific fact is really a weakness on Knowles’ part. He is not only insulting the entire Asperger’s and autism community, but he is also a grown man who is unnecessarily attacking a young child for something she cannot control.

Youth activists of the likes of Thiinberg have historically taken huge personal risks by entering the public eye. Often times, older people who are set in their ways do not feel anything needs to be changed, so they are quick to attack young people who think they can make a difference. But this is unfair to children and young people who have worked hard and made sacrifices in order to gain their platform, so adults should treat these kids’ words with respect. Just because someone is young does not mean their ideas are inferior or weak. At the end of the day, these children are doing much more for the world than the adults sitting behind their computer screens, attacking young activists.

Other conservative commentators besides Knowles have also criticized Thunberg’s parents for exploiting her to promote their ideas of climate change. Candace Owens, a conservative commentator and political activist, tweeted on Sept. 23 that one day Thunberg will “realize she is a victim of child abuse, not climate change.”

This accusation about her parents manipulating her is eerily reminiscent of 16-year-old English girl Dora Thewlis, who was part of the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century. Her critics also accused her parents of being inept, and Thewlis herself was even accused of joining the movement in order to gain male attention. More recently, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., dismissed a group of children who visited her office in February urging her to support the Green New Deal. Critics were quick to jump on the incident, claiming the adults at the event were using the children to push a political agenda, ignoring the children’s own thoughts and motivations. But the reality of these accusations is that the people who are hating on Thunberg and other child activists are simply threatened by their messages and want to belittle their arguments by denying them autonomy.

Another senseless criticism that has been thrown at Thunberg is that she is being used a piece of Nazi propaganda. Because Thunberg almost always wears her hair in two long braids, some conservatives, such as Dinesh D’Souza, have likened her to the white Nordic girls with braids who were displayed in Nazi propaganda.

There is a parallel here between Thunberg and the Parkland, Florida, student activists who gained a lot of public attention for their stance against gun violence following the mass shooting at their school. Not only were these teenagers accused of being elitist and privileged, but they were also likened to promoting Nazism and white supremacy. A photo of David Hogg, a Parkland student activist, with his fist in the air at a March for Our Lives rally, was compared to the Nazi salute, and Emma Gonzalez was called a “skinhead lesbian” by Republican House candidate Leslie Gibson of Maine.

These irrational comments are reflective of the current discourse that is used in American political culture. President Donald Trump bases his platform off of “telling it like it is,” and as a result, other public figures have followed suit. But this kind of discourse has translated itself into a form of hate speech that targets young activists. Because of the accessibility to social media today, many people are latching onto this culture of cancelling people because if the president of the United States is saying whatever he wants, why shouldn’t they?

It’s ironic how people are quick to condemn youth activism, when in reality, they are doing so much more than many adults who have positions of power. Thunberg recently responded to the extreme hate that she has been bombarded by a stream of tweets.

“As you may have noticed, the haters are as active as ever — going after me, my looks, my clothes, my behavior and my differences,” she wrote. “I honestly don’t understand why adults would choose to spend their time mocking and threatening teenagers and children for promoting science, when they could simply do good instead.”

Thunberg in no way deserves the backlash she has received for pursuing a cause she views as an imminent danger to our ecosystem. Like so many youth activists throughout history, she deserves more respect for her autonomy as a person and for her bravery to actually stand up to the powerful and demand change. But the joke is really on her haters, because all the criticism only gives her more fuel to her the fire.

“Don’t waste your time giving them anymore attention,” she tweeted. “The world is waking up. Change is coming whether they like it or not.”