Threatening climate sceptics and warning Twitter followers you are armed with a knife are not smart moves from Greenpeace India's communications director, Gene Hashmi
It's a car crash. There's simply no other way to view it. On 31 March, Greenpeace posted a blog on to the front page of the international version of its website. It was written by "Gene from Greenpeace India" and it discussed the organisation's recent investigation into the significant funding of climate scepticism by Koch Industries.
So far, so normal. But on the following day – 1 April, no less – part two of the blog went live. It included the now infamous passage:
The proper channels have failed. It's time for mass civil disobedience to cut off the financial oxygen from denial and scepticism. If you're one of those who believe that this is not just necessary but also possible, speak to us. Let's talk about what that mass civil disobedience is going to look like. If you're one of those who have spent their lives undermining progressive climate legislation, bankrolling junk science, fuelling spurious debates around false solutions and cattle-prodding democratically-elected governments into submission, then hear this: We know who you are. We know where you live. We know where you work. And we be many, but you be few.
Within hours these words were being reported across the blogosphere, particularly on sceptic websites, as nothing less than an incitement to intimidation. Web staff at Greenpeace tried to limit the damage by adding a forward to the blog noting how the author was "known around the Greenpeace world for stating his opinion loud and clear, and not being a diplomat".
It went on to say he was "a genuinely peaceful guy who believes in the power of peaceful protest to change the world".
But it was too little, too late: the comment field underneath the blog was quickly filling up with angry, hateful responses. Two Greenpeace web producers called Juliette and Andrew made a stab over the next few days at responding to the inevitable tidal wave of vitriol, but they were in effect only adding fuel to the fire:
We realise it might have sounded threatening to some. This is why we have explained over and over that it is NOT a threat of violence, that Greenpeace doesn't endorse violence, it is not a campaign tactic and never will be. Juliette
After much procrastination – in part, caused by the timing of the long Easter break – the blog was finally pulled by Greenpeace earlier today once senior staff realised what was going on.
Greenpeace has confirmed to me that the blog's author had been given "full blogging rights" on its international website and therefore did not need to first clear his ill-chosen words with a senior member of staff.
This isn't that surprising as "Gene from Greenpeace India" turns out to be Gene Hashmi, the communications director at Greenpeace India. A visit to his Twitter page reveals that he is someone who likes to play it fast and loose with his phrasings – not always an admirable trait for a communications director.
For example, here's a tweet he posted on 9 March after a period of inactivity on his Twitter account:
I haven't said anything in 7 months, so why are all 32 of you mofos following me? Just so you know, I'm carrying a knife.
His last tweet, posted on 31 March, states that he will be on a beach in Thailand until June without any access to the internet. How fortuitous.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace is now trying to salvage its damaged reputation. Ananth Guruswamy, Greenpeace International's programme director, has just posted this message in place of the offending blog:
You've probably come here to read a blog post written by our colleague Gene, in which he included the line addressing climate sceptics: "We know who you are. We know where you live. We know where you work. And we be many, but you be few."Well, we've taken down that post from our website. It's very easy to misconstrue that line, take it out of context and suggest it means something wholly different from the practice of peaceful civil disobedience, which is what the post was about. Anyone who knows Gene knows he's an entirely peaceful guy. In the interest of transparency we have moved it off site to this location, where you can read the offending quotes in context and judge for yourself.We got this one wrong, no doubt about it. I'm holding up my hands on behalf of the organisation and saying sorry for that. Peaceful action is at the very core of what we do, so any language that even comes close to suggesting that's not the case is something we cannot support.Gene in his blog asks: "What do you do when patient petitioning, protest marches and court orders fail? What do you do when all the protocols and cheat codes of democracy fail? This is what you do: you reclaim the language of democracy from the twisted bunch that have hijacked, cannibalised and subverted it."We need to reclaim the language of democracy and tolerance. A language that is clear and precise and distinguishes between individuals that hold an opinion from our deep and visceral reaction to the opinion itself. A language that does not confuse integrity of protest and civil disobedience with anger. One which establishes the fundamental tenets of protecting the planet for all life forms.The climate change debate is often characterised by more heat than light, and for that reason we all need to be careful about how we express ourselves.Of course the anti-science brigade on the web has seized on the line in that post and run with it (and will run and run and run), taken it out of context and run with it some more – it's what the climate contrarians exist to do.We do not look over our colleagues' shoulders when they blog. That's not what the web is about – and that means we'll make mistakes. No doubt this won't be the last one, but next time we'll deal with it a little quicker.
It goes without saying that the original blog should never have been posted in the first place but, for an organisation with a reputation for being media-savvy, Greenpeace took far, far too long in making the right decision to kill it and offer an apology.
The episode has echoes of how the University of East Anglia press office made its already mountainous task a whole lot harder by remaining essentially silent for so long after the stolen email scandal broke last November.
All actors in this "debate" make idiotic remarks from time to time and will no doubt continue to do so. For example, the proud residents of Beckistan will recall the occasion in February when their great leader Glenn Beck made the statement on his radio show that "there aren't enough knives" in the world for the IPCC's "dishonoured" climate scientists to commit hara-kiri. Not big. Not clever.
The divide between the sides is growing, as foolish outbursts such as this display. The last thing this debate needs right now is fodder to feed to the baying mobs inside their respective echo chambers.
In this internet age, it seems a long, long time since the 13-year-old George Washington wrote out his Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company, which included the immortal line: "Think before you speak; pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly."