Greta Thunberg speaks at the United Nations where world leaders were holding a summit on climate change on September 23, 2019, in New York City. Photo: AFP / Spencer Platt / Getty Images

“How dare you?” cried Greta Thunberg at the UN Climate Action Summit on Monday. Like Malala Yousafzai before her, this pipsqueak with a giant voice is striving to wake the rest of us up to the fact that we are old enough to know better.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean,” the young Swede admonished world leaders, who applauded politely but will in all likelihood slink back to their air-conditioned offices and, though more subtly than Donald Trump, continue to do nothing useful about the existential threat of climate change.

Thunberg has made a name for herself not only with the power of her message and the charisma with which she has been able to rally thousands of other young people around this suffering planet to her cause, but by harshly rejecting disingenuous praise. She can be, to put it impolitely, an impolite little brat.

This flies in the face of diplomatic theory. The world is run by egomaniacs, and nothing can be gained, so the theory goes, by insulting them. Kim Jong Un is one of the masters of this game, writing the textbook on how a weak basket case of a nation can manipulate the most powerful egomaniac of them all, Donald J Trump.

But this theory applies not only to international diplomacy. We are all taught from infancy to practice it in our own tiny corners of the planet. Respect your elders, even when they are utter jerks. Respect your spouse, even when he or she is a narcissistic idiot or, worse, is abusive.

Respect religious beliefs, no matter how absurd – and no matter what evil organized religion condones, or carries out.

For months, tens of thousands of mostly young Hong Kong residents have stopped being polite, as the corrupt tycoons who run their city get fatter and fatter while a decent future for youth looks more and more unlikely. Opportunists on both sides of the “democracy” argument have prolonged the dispute, drowning out the core messages of the protesters.

In a few cases, the impoliteness has turned violent. And we’ve seen that movie before, in the streets of Paris, Cairo and Bangkok, in the oppressed heartlands of Syria and Sudan, even in – once, famously – Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

The English word “tolerance” derives from the Latin tolerare, “endure.” Building materials fail if their tolerances are exceeded, when the stresses put upon them are too great to endure. In the same way, our planet has the ability to cope with mankind’s abuses up to a point, but even its tolerance is not without boundaries. When breaking points are finally reached, things – and sometimes regimes and “world orders” – get broken. And so do people.

Religious tolerance

Seventy years ago, the Indian subcontinent was partitioned along religious lines. Back then, there probably was no option. And to be fair, for much of its history India has shown remarkable capacity for ethnic, religious and cultural diversity.

But today, options do exist. Religion, mostly in developed Western nations but increasingly in Asia as well, no longer has the clout it used to command. Today in polite society, one is free to be free of religious superstition, of the edicts of priests and imams.

However, we are not yet free to shout, “How dare you!” How dare Hindutva extremists deprive Muslims of their rights? How dare Islamist extremists in the subcontinent’s other nuclear-armed state conduct acts of cross-border terror?

But are such people really extremists, or are they the true voices of their respective religions? Yes we are, their subscribers insist, and they sometimes very nearly accomplish their goals, as seen most recently in the caliphate of Islamic State – kept alive for years by one theocracy based in Riyadh and ultimately brought down, at least temporarily, by another based in Tehran.

Ah, but there are “moderate” Muslims, we are told, and there are indeed. Every religion has “moderates.” But what does that even mean? Every major religion has “holy scriptures” written in ancient times when the word “tolerance” barely figured in their languages. By what logic, for example, can a monotheistic religion, whose very definition is “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” tolerate any other religion, or, indeed, secularism?

Religion is not the root of all evil, but it is the cause or catalyst of enough of the most dangerous and hurtful evils plaguing the world today – in Kashmir, in Syria, in Yemen, in Gaza, in Myanmar, even in “developed” societies like South Korea – that a cry of “How dare you!” would not be out of place.

Still, we are adults here, we understand how the world works. We are not bratty Swedish teenagers.

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