Hypocrite is the latest buzzword. When not being levied at Meghan Markle and Prince Harry for hopping on private jets while calling for climate action, it describes environmentalist and actor Leonardo DiCaprio for chilling on his private yacht.

We revel in the folly of celebrities, especially when we feel looked down on or lectured by those living a lavish lifestyle, meaning we can often forget to focus on the good being done. But calling out perceived individual hypocrisy is a waste of time because while we’re busy squabbling and pointing fingers, the real perpetrators are getting away scot-free. Activists, whether it’s a famous actor or schoolchildren protesting in your city centre, are not voicing concern to make us feel bad – or make themselves look good (the over-used ‘virtue signalling’) – they’re promoting awareness.

But if we’re so desperate for somewhere to focus our collective disdain, maybe we should look to those in the public eye who frequently make money from what is tantamount to online bullying in the guise of opinion?

Climate change has long been a divisive topic but there’s one activist who has poked the online bully-bear. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, a student and activist from Sweden, recently set sail for New York on a carbon-neutral yacht to attend UN summits on tackling global warming. Cue a Twitter meltdown.

“Hi Greta, I’ve just booked some long-haul flights for my family to enjoy some winter sun on the beach this Christmas,” wrote Talk Radio broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer. “Level of guilt being felt: 0%”.

In a previous tweet, Hartley-Brewer referred to Thunberg as a “vulnerable child being exploited by her parents and every adult around her to further their political aims” and called her a “deeply troubled girl”, but there’s little of this concern in her more recent accusations. Rather she responded defiantly, saying “either St. Greta is a political campaigner to be debated or she is a child to be ignored. Pick one.”

Many people were appalled by her comments and mocking tone, alleging that her tweets were not part of a debate, they were bullying.

Author Matt Haig responded: “Why do you try and be like this? You do know that Greta isn’t doing this to spoil your holiday plans? She is a young person trying to help other people have a safe future. Even if you don’t like science why do you enjoy being a wanker to a young person trying to help the world?”

By far my favourite tweet read: “Hating on a kid this much reminds me of Voldemort.”

And yet, Hartley-Brewer was unrelenting. “After all the many, many, many angry tweets from the virtue signalling St Greta cultists who are happy to see a vulnerable child brainwashed and exploited to further their political aims…Level of guilt being felt for posting this tweet: still 0%. Next.”

Co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign, Arron Banks, retweeted a tweet from Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, wishing Thunberg good luck. But he added the comment that “freak yachting accidents do happen in August” which, although abhorrent, didn’t surprise me. This is the sort of bile churned out on a regular basis towards young women. Lucas reported Banks to Twitter but he was found not to have violated any rules. Another user referred to Thunberg as a “mentally deficient child who refuses to go to school”, thereby reducing a remarkable girl to nothing but stigma and name-calling.

Trolls should be taken with a pinch of salt but ridicule from people who work in a public forum is disgusting. Thunberg is regularly mocked, and her Asperger’s syndrome, a medical condition, is used as a reason why she shouldn’t be taken seriously. Recently, Thunberg stated that she would not meet with President Donald Trump during her trip to New York. She was immediately branded “arrogant” and “petulant”.

The rhetoric used to refer to young people is negative, dismissive and, at times, plain nasty. Is it fear that causes older people to react this way? Maybe it’s a genuine dislike of being advised by someone younger (and someone female)? “I refuse to be told what to do by 16-year old girl,” wrote an (older, male) Twitter user and, well, doesn’t that just sum things up?

Thunberg has also been named as the recipient of British GQ’s first Game Changer Award at GQ Men of the Year Awards 2019. “Your virtue signalling is not welcome here,” read one comment. “This Greta brat is being used as a tool by manipulative adults with an agenda.” The whole thread is very much ‘what-is-a-girl-doing-on-the-cover-of-a-men’s-mag-you’ve-lost-my-readership-fuck-off-GQ’.

So, a teenage girl can’t grace the pages of a publication? What about The Sun’s (now thankfully defunct) Page 3? Or the front covers of Nuts or Zoo? Evidently we’re still living in a deeply misogynistic society where girls are not to be taken seriously, shouldn’t dare to make a change and must simply look pretty and continue to get their baps out. There’s a good girl. 

A day or so after Thunberg reached New York, she replied to the criticism and negativity she’d received. “When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go,” she wrote. “I have Asperger’s Syndrome and that means I am sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower.”

She went on to say that she doesn’t speak publicly about her diagnosis because many people are still “ignorant” to the condition and see it as an “illness or something negative”. She revealed that the school strike for climate, an international movement of students, gave her “a meaning in a world that sometimes seems meaningless to so many people”.

So, Hartley-Brewer, Banks et al, do you reckon you could show me a braver, classier, smarter role model? I’m waiting.

By Emma Yates-Badley