Last year, I was on a panel on climate change, where a behavioural psychologist said the most depressing thing: most people don’t want to make small changes in their lifestyles because they think that collectively they won’t amount to much, so why bother?
Humans are programmed to think in big decisive moves, rather than small iterative ones. I made a mental note to resist this urge whenever I felt it in every facet of life – the environment, dieting, or even in personal finances. Just because our lives are imperfect on the whole doesn’t mean that small changes won’t at least nudge them in the direction of perfection.
This year started with an ostensibly frivolous but deeply serious demonstration of the danger of imperfection paralysis in Ricky Gervais’s Golden Globe opening monologue. There is a classic meme (this is how far we are into online culture, there are "classic" memes now) from a cartoon series called Mr Gotcha by Matt Bors. One of the frames depicts a tired-looking man carrying a bundle of sticks, who is saying: "We should improve society somewhat.” Mr Gotcha appears from a well and says: “Yet you participate in society. Curious! I am very intelligent.”
Mr Gotcha summarises roughly 98% of replies to any social or political commentary posted on the internet by people who think they are making some sort of killer argument-ending point.
You think climate change is bad, and yet you took a plane to your last holiday, gotcha! British car journalist Jeremy Clarkson was “very intelligent” when he called Greta Thunberg a hypocrite. You are an actual climate change activist and have eschewed air travel for boats and trains, and yet you made across the Atlantic on a diesel-powered boat. Gotcha!
There was a live demonstration of Mr Gotcha this week. Gervais pointed out what he believed was the hypocrisy of Hollywood elites in his opening speech at the Golden Globes. They work for companies such as Disney, Amazon and Apple – tax-dodging, zero hours-employing, Chinese sweat shop-running large corporations. "If ISIS started a streaming service, you’d call your agent," Gervais said, before ending his diatribe. "If you do win an award tonight," he sneered, "don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. If you win, thank your agent, thank your god, and fuck off."
All the speech needed at the end was for him to say "I am very intelligent" for it to be a perfect illustration of the Mr Gotcha fallacy.
Sure, Hollywood elites are as cloistered from real life as it can get, they do work for dubious companies, and there is something grating about thespian earnestness from an award podium. But the criticism of them isn’t that they try to make political points elsewhere, take their money, and shut up. It’s that they should make these political points all the time. When they don’t, accusations of hypocrisy shouldn’t silence them.
If only the "pure" (whoever they are) had been allowed to make social and political commentary or criticism, no change would have ever taken place. And perhaps that is the point. Mr Gotcha isn’t just a depiction of annoying men (and let’s face it, they are almost always men) who want to have the last word and affect a sort of knowing cynicism and weariness with political activism because they think it makes them look cool. (It doesn’t.) There is something more sinister about it. Some dark impulse that seeks to chill any efforts to bring about change for the better, by discrediting the messenger as not pure enough to do it.
Take Greta Thunberg. The vitriol and scratching around in the soil of her past to try and find a way to undermine her message is of witch hunt proportions. Did you know her mother was a Eurovision contestant? Where does her waste go when she takes a virtue-signalling boat rather than a plane? And why isn’t she in school?
It all reminds me of another young girl with a simple message who was also vilified. Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for advocating for education for girls in Pakistan, and since then the conspiracy theories claiming she was financed by western regimes that wanted to destabilise Pakistan came thick and fast. These are children asking for a safer world for all of us, and the first impulse is to find a way to nail some sort of hypocrisy to them so that their message can be discredited.
This is what Mr Gotcha wants to do ultimately – not face up to the real problems of the society in which he lives because then he might have to do something or admit he is too lazy to care. We all live in a society, and just because we do not live off-grid doesn’t mean we should do nothing at all. If Gervais really cared about Chinese sweat shops or tax dodgers, he should have made the offending corporations the target of his monologue and not the actors who enjoy the affectionate paid court jester roasting, with whom he will have a drink, a meal and a laugh afterwards. He thinks they are virtue signalling and out of touch, yet he still takes their money and participates in their events. Curious! I am very intelligent.
Don’t be Mr Gotcha. Or indeed, don’t let Mr Gotcha getcha. Happy new year!