The American right is officially terrified of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Those students, who rapidly turned themselves into activists and organizers after 17 of their fellow students and teachers were murdered at their school, have become the most visible face of this new phase of the gun debate, and conservatives are absolutely livid about it. As a consequence, they’re desperately arguing not just that the students are wrong in their suggestions for how gun policy should be changed, but also that they shouldn’t be speaking at all and ought to be ignored.
There are two critical reasons the right is having this reaction, one more obvious than the other. The plainer reason is that as people who were personally touched by gun violence and as young people — old enough to be informed and articulate but still children — the students make extremely sympathetic advocates, garnering attention and a respectful hearing for their views. The less obvious reason is that because of that status, the students take away the most critical tool conservatives use to win political arguments: the personal vilification of those who disagree with them.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying liberals don’t often vilify their opponents, too. But that technique lies at the absolute core of the right’s rhetoric, and you can tell by how conservatives react when it gets taken away from them.
So right now, conservatives are engaged in a two-pronged attempt to take it back. On the more extreme side, you have the social media trolls, the conspiracy theorists, the more repugnant media figures, who are offering insane claims that the students are paid agents of dark forces, and can therefore be ignored. On the more allegedly mainstream side, you have radio and television hosts who are saying that the students are naive and foolish, and should not by virtue of their victimhood be granted any special status — and can therefore be ignored.
The question of how we should assess the testimony and recommendations of ordinary citizens touched by tragedy, or for that matter how we should integrate our judgments about the people making political arguments with our judgments about the arguments themselves, is a complicated one. And we should note that conservatives themselves use such people to advocate for their agenda whenever possible — to take just one example, you may remember that the 2016 Republican national convention featured appearances by the mother of one of the Americans killed at Benghazi and the parents of people killed by immigrants.
In case you aren’t tuned in to right-wing media, let’s take a quick tour around some of the things conservatives have been saying about the Parkland students:
- Former congressman and CNN commentator Jack Kingston tweeted that students planning a nationwide rally were being used by “left wing gun control activists” in the “wake of a horrible tragedy,” and bizarrely linked this to George Soros and Antifa. When asked about it on the air, he said, “Do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?” again mentioning Soros, the supposed puppetmaster of a thousand right-wing conspiracy theories.
- NRA board member and frequent Fox News guest Ted Nugent used Facebook to promote the theory that the students are actors who are being coached and fed lines by someone or other.
- Donald Trump Jr. liked two tweets from far-right websites attacking one of the outspoken students.
- “Should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases?” asked former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on his website. “The answer is no, the media should not be doing that.”
- “Sick of the Parkland Puppets yet?” asked National Review film critic Armond White. “Why their ubiquitous presence on TV news shows? Who’s their publicist?”
- “There’s been some unfortunate media handling of these traumatized children,” said Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway. “They’ve used them as ways to enact what they always like to do, which is a gun control agenda.”
- Fox News host Tucker Carlson said that gun-control advocates and the media “are using these kids in a kind of moral blackmail, where you are not allowed to disagree or you are attacking the child.”
As Carlson accidentally let slip, what worries the right is not that they won’t be allowed to disagree with the Parkland students, but that they’ll be restricted to disagreeing with them on substance, and not be able to give the kind of full-throated personal attack they’re used to.
The “paid actor” attack is also a familiar one from the right — pretty much every time there’s a mass protest from liberals, conservatives can be counted on to allege that George Soros is paying them all. This accusation has a long history; as historian Kevin Kruse pointed out, conservatives even accused the children who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock in 1957 of being actors.
Ironically — or perhaps not — the most prominent figure to have used paid actors in a political event recently was Donald Trump, who retained a firm to assemble actors to cheer for his announcement speech, at a rate of $50 each. The firm lodged a complaint with the Federal Election Commission because the Trump campaign failed to pay its bill (the campaign did eventually pay).
The idea of the paid actor criticism, like the charge that the students must be using PR agents to book their interviews, is that if you can find some reason that their words aren’t a pure expression of their feelings without any strategic intent behind it, then their testimony is no longer valid and need not be addressed substantively. So either they’re just emotional and naive and therefore need not be listened to, or they’re too savvy and strategic and therefore need not be listened to.
The truth is that in politics, people on every side try to find sympathetic spokespersons with personal stories that give them authority to speak on particular issues. More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle wrote that there are three modes of persuasion: logos (facts and logic), pathos (emotion) and ethos (the character and credibility of the speaker). While conservatives might complain that the Parkland students are using ethos and pathos to overwhelm logos, in fact it’s their ethos that forces conservatives to argue on the basis of logos.
Once you rule out personal attacks, what’s left is arguing substance. No one is going to criticize Tucker Carlson or anyone else for disagreeing with the students, for saying “Here’s why the ban on AR-15s they’re proposing is a bad idea.” It’s only personal attacks on the students, which we so often accept as just how politics gets done, that come off sounding so despicable.
Which is exactly why the right wishes that the Parkland students would just go away.