Extinction Rebellion’s Roger Hallam loses the plot

30 December 2019

4.9 MINS

By Theodore Dalrymple, The Australian.

Editor’s Note: Dalrymple laments the vulgar language which “woke” people employ in their attempt to appear relatable or relevant. Ultimately, no matter how highly-educated they may be, their thought is eviscerated and their arguments are weak, evinced by their lack of creative expression and their inability to distinguish the most basic concepts. This decline in the quality of public discourse bodes ill for society.
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Secular holiness is an unpleasant trait, and it is always a pleasure to see the unfrocking of a secular bishop such as Roger Hallam, co-founder of his own evangelical church, the Extinction Rebellion.

In an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, he said:

“The fact of the matter is, millions of people have been killed in vicious circumstances on a regular basis throughout history … (The Belgians) went to the Congo in the late 19th century and decimated it.”

In this context, he said, the Holocaust was almost a normal event, “just another f..kery in human history”.

At first sight he might appear to have joined the camp of the anti-Semites such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, who once called the Holocaust a detail of history, but I do not think this is quite fair to Hallam. He was not claiming that the Holocaust did not happen or that it was not serious; he was claiming that it was not unique and that, if it were not, we should not continue to say it was unique.

There has long been academic debate, no doubt ghoulish but couched in respectable terms, as to whether the Holocaust is typologically comparable to anything else; for example, the Armenian or Rwandan genocides, or the mass killings in Cambodia under Pol Pot. No doubt something can be said on both sides of the question. I do not think anything important turns on it for, as Bishop Joseph Butler said, everything is what it is, and not another thing. The Rwandan genocide would be neither better nor worse than it actually was, whether it were the same as, similar to or distinct from the Holocaust.

What is appalling about Hallam’s words is their crudity. The vulgarity of his expression was matched by the imprecision of his thought, as exemplified by the excuse he offered after his words caused an outcry.

“I want to fully acknow­ledge the unimaginable suffering caused by the Holocaust that led to all of Europe saying ‘Never again’. But it is happening again, on a far greater scale and in plain sight. The global north is pumping lethal levels of CO2 into the atmosphere and simultaneously erecting ever greater barriers to immigration while turning whole zones of the world into death zones.”

The word f..kery, apart from its vulgarity, is extremely lazy, especially when used by someone with pretensions to intellectual seriousness. It is a bit like seeing the Himalayas and saying “Very nice”. A cup of tea and the St Matthew Passion are also very nice.

It is hardly to be expected that a man using such a term to describe the wilful murder of millions of people with a view to exterminating their kind entirely is not a very clear thinker. On Hallam’s view of the matter, taking a ride on the No. 31 bus is the same as, or worse than, herding naked people into a gas chamber disguised as a shower and killing them with cyanide. Here false comparison does matter, for it can justify almost any action, from assassination to military invasion, to avoid the thing that is compared to the Holocaust.

The combination of CO2 emissions and barriers to immigration are turning whole zones of the world into death zones, says Hallam. One of the largest of these zones, presumably, the second-largest continent, Africa, is not dying, at least if the number of humans living in it is taken as the criterion. Its population is growing by about 2.4 per cent a year; that is to say, it will double (all things being equal, which they may not be) within 30 years. This is a far cry from Hallam’s assertion that we have only a short time to avert extinction as a species: the assertion that supposedly justifies him in breaking the law in any way he chooses.

But Hallam is not just a bar-room bore who insists that Hitler is alive and well and living in Paraguay, or that aliens from a flying saucer abducted his neighbour and took her to Mars. He is supposedly an educated man, for several years having studied for a PhD at King’s College London, apparently researching civil disobedience. (Of late he has done mainly fieldwork by the method social anthropologists used to call participant observation.) Presumably, before he was allowed to proceed to a PhD, he was vetted for his level of education, knowledge and ability. He is in fact the author of a chapter titled Escape from the Neoliberal Higher Education Prison: A Proposal for a New Digital Communist University, in a volume titled The Future of University Education, a snip at $160 (the cheapest I could find).

It is well-known that highly-educated people are capable of idiocy, and perhaps even prone to it, outside their field of special knowledge. But the vulgarity of expression and imprecision of thought of someone such as Hallam, who might well have reached the upper echelons of academe had he not decided to save the world instead, are indicative of a reduction in basic educational standards. People have always written tosh, but after many years of compulsory education of the entire population, one might have hoped for a better mastery of language and grasp of what constitutes an argument in someone at a supposedly high level.

To be reduced to using the word f..kery in the face of the Holocaust, or a catastrophe in history of any scale, is symptomatic of a debasement of language, a limitation of vocabulary and a stunted imagination, and — since language is so intimately connected to thought — of an impoverishment of an inability to think. Edgar Wallace, who left school in the East End of London in 1887 aged 12, had better English than Hallam, PhD student at one of the country’s elite institutions.

The impoverishment of our public discourse, of which Hallam’s interview with Die Zeit is only an example, is now evident and one is tempted to say planned and deliberate. It is as if the educated classes had been trying for years to demonstrate their sympathetic identification with the lower orders by adopting what they supposed, wrongly, were their vulgar habits of speech.

Some time ago I saw a play called Tribes by Nina Raine, a highly-educated (and praised) playwright, descendant of Boris Pasternak, in which she depicted life in an upper-middle-class household — for the benefit of an upper-middle-class audience, of course. Opening the script at random, to page 28, I find the following expressions within the space of 15 lines:

I want my f..king pen back.

You thieving little sh.t.

Oh, f..k you.

My arse!

This language, more or less constant throughout the play, is the reverse of expressive, except in the most primitive sense. But the intelligentsia would probably consider that to draw attention to this fact is absurd, censorious, sanctimonious, narrow-minded, bigoted, inhibited and generally retrograde, a linguistic Luddism that is trying to turn the clock back. Crudity on his view will set you free, refinement will constrain or imprison you. But, then, we should not be surprised that a man cannot tell the difference between genocide and pollution.


Theodore Dalrymple is the author of more than 30 books, including Grief and Other Stories (NewEnglish Review Press).

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

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