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Don't Mistake Progress for Hypocrisy in Yourself or Others
We're All Learning at Different Rates
There is genuine hypocrisy in the world, but not every example of inconsistency results from an attempt to flagrantly tout one standard while living by another. Sometimes it is just what progress looks like.
Gail, my wife, and I keep a supply of paper straws in the car. Whenever we eat out at a fast food place, we decline straws and use our own. We’re very proud of this. We too often ignore the fact that we’re putting the paper straws in plastic cups with radically greater mass than the straw we avoided.
We drive an EV. We talk about it. Our friends probably think we talk about it too much. Maybe you do, too. An EV is about three times as efficient as a car with only an internal combustion engine. As the grid transitions slowly from fossil fuels to renewables, an EV gets greener and greener. But all vehicles pollute. Production of the car pollutes. The operation of the car pollutes. Disposing of the car will pollute.
We lived downtown for nearly 20 years, and for three of those years, we chose not to own a car. We identified about a dozen alternative forms of transportation that made this practical. It saved a bit of money but not much. While walking, bike riding and public transportation are cheaper, Uber and rental cars are more expensive per trip than driving your own vehicle. Uber and Lyft also pollute more than your own car because the vehicle has to go to where you are to start the trip.
There is no practical, pollution-free model for transportation in America’s sprawling cities. Designing and implementing better cities should start now but will take generations to complete.
It has been my privilege to get to know many environmental activists, experts and leaders over the years. The best live their values comprehensively. Most make reasonable efforts to walk their talk. No one is perfect.
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When Mark Tercek took the helm of the Nature Conservancy about a decade ago, he made an impromptu speech to the headquarters team. He walked in with a bottle of water, a Dasani or something. Afterward, he says colleagues left reusable water bottles on his desk as gifts. That was likely his last Dasani. That’s what progress looks like.
There is a psychological notion called the fundamental attribution error that is at play here. Generally, when others do things wrong, we attribute their action to their motivation or character. When we do the same things, we see the deeds as exceptions justified by circumstances.
So, when someone cuts us off in traffic, we call them jerks. Or worse. When we cut someone off in traffic, we think, under the circumstances, I had no choice.
We are inclined to do the same thing with environmentalism, our efforts to end poverty, fight for social justice or improve global public health.
When someone else drinks from a disposable plastic cup, we are tempted to think they don’t care about the environment. If they’re wearing an Earth Day t-shirt, we think they are hypocrites. At the same time, we excuse our plastic purchases as being justified by circumstances. Perhaps we’re very thirsty, and the only option is plastic.
When someone gives to charity money earned by evicting low-income people from apartments or by exploiting low-wage workers, we may be tempted to call out the apparent hypocrisy. At the same time, we may be buying lunch from fast food joints that exploit low-wage workers or investing in companies that provide affordable housing—and regularly evict those who can’t pay. We too readily accept our decisions and vilify others’.
If the same actions can be seen either as exceptions required by circumstance or as manifestations of hypocrisy, we are in the position to choose how we perceive everyone’s efforts. We can see ourselves and others as making progress in a general direction that is good—even when we make mistakes.
We all respond to feedback, both positive and negative. We tend to do more of the things that generate positive feedback and fewer of the actions that result in negative comments.
Those of us who are advocates for change, regardless of the size of our platform, are too often tempted to use negative feedback to discourage bad behavior—especially hypocrisy—in others. There is likely more power in positive feedback, encouraging people to do more of the good they are doing.
Most people lack the self-awareness to genuinely appreciate negative feedback and will ignore it and the people who deliver it. Of course, most people love positive feedback and listen regularly to the people who share it.
Therefore, I’m challenging myself, and I’m inviting you to join me in seeing variations from good behavior as exceptions that highlight a context of progress and to compliment people for the good they are doing in the world more quickly than I criticize their deviations.
Don’t get me wrong. Climate change is a crisis that impacts virtually everyone on the planet, including most significantly, people, communities and countries that can’t afford mitigation. Because of the pandemic, poverty is increasing for the first time in decades. Global public health is COVID. These are all urgent crises. We need to do our best to address them and encourage others to do the same. The more positive we can be in our messaging, the more we can subtly address the political and other rifts that divide us.
Will you join me in seeking to be a kinder advocate for the causes you care about?