Lord, I was a political terror in high school. The 9/11 attacks happened my freshman year and by the time the Iraq war rolled around, I had drunk deeply from the poisoned chalice of that period. The world as I saw it was simple: there were patriots, cowards, and terrorists, with that second category encompassing liberals, Democrats, and the whole of Europe, and category three scarcely much different. I dread to think what I would have said if anyone had thrust a cable news camera in my face back then. It certainly would have been incendiary and wholly at odds with what I think today.
I was that way because that’s how high schoolers are: prone to maximalism, desirous of simple and self-flattering dichotomies, convinced they’re privy to knowledge that eludes their clueless parents. The late teenage years are marked by energy and impatience, which is why the notion that wisdom is innate to the young rather than attained through boring cultivation has such appeal. That isn’t to say that youthful perspectives aren’t valuable, but a 17-year-old’s thinking is going to lack the complexity that can only be forged in adult experience. In my case, breaking my Iraq fever meant reading, studying, laboring under the tutelage of a patient professor who showed me that nothing was so Spartan as the hawks had made it out to be. Thank goodness someone did.
Now we’re confronted by other teenagers with hot opinions, this time on the subject of gun control. All are survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and all have been seized on by adults who wish to cynically use the tragedy as indemnification for their own opinions. It began with a push for more gun regulations by a small but vocal group of MSD students, including David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and Delaney Tarr. Conservatives objected that leveraging kids in policy arguments was a lousy tactic—until they found a kid of their own: Kyle Kashuv, just as bright and eloquent as his peers and a stout defender of the Second Amendment. The students were quickly routed into the usual ideological circuits, with Hogg featured on CNN and MSNBC, and Kashuv feted on Fox News and across talk radio.
The result has been a proxy war between grieving high schoolers, with Hogg et al and Kashuv deployed into battle via the quotes and retweets of their elders. The hottest theater of this conflict has naturally been Twitter, that ludicrous medium that renders all outbursts of equal weight, a box for the philosopher and a box for the troll. And with even Twitter’s expanded character limit favoring putdowns over argumentation, “stop bullying children, you fatass!” has become a far more popular line of attack than any actual point about gun policy.
There were initially germs of good ideas here. Hogg has stressed that the gun control measures he wants are relatively precedented, like restoring the Clinton-era assault weapons ban and raising the legal age to purchase a rifle to 21. Some gun owners, meanwhile, fretted that even modest reforms could be the start of a slippery slope, especially if another mass shooting were to occur after they were enacted. “What about the Second Amendment?” they asked. That dialectic lasted about a day and a half before it gave way to the usual knife fights: today a quick scroll down one of Hogg’s recent tweets finds one respondent outing him as a George Soros puppet and another mocking the size of his biceps (“guns”—get it?).
Given that Turkey has yet to invade the state of Florida, this is hardly the most destructive proxy war we’re waging at the moment. But consequences and casualties have been racking up all the same. After right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham tweeted a snide remark about Hogg’s college future, he called for a boycott of her advertisers, many of which immediately dropped her show; Ingraham has since apologized and taken an abrupt vacation. The right then scored its own scalp: the journalist Kurt Eichenwald, who had attacked Kashuv on Twitter and was quickly disowned by MSNBC. In fairness, Kashuv and his allies don’t seem to favor firings: they’re more concerned with mutually assured destruction and making sure the left swallows its own venom. But the result has still been bizarre, a sort of asymmetrical phase of the proxy war in which students provoke pundits, lure them into counterattacking, and then blow up their careers.
Lost amidst all this sturm und drang has been this embarrassing truth: the adults involved here are rushing into ad hominem-fueled catfights with high schoolers. This is an immensely stupid way to proceed and it’s getting worse by the day. The students, of course, have every right to enter the fray, and those who disagree have every right to critique them. The problem is the fray itself, which we created and which has become such a miasma of belched-out toxins that even a school shooting can be poisoned into partisan nothingness in less than a month. If you happened to log on to Twitter during Holy Week, you found a grown adult calling a 17-year-old “wussy,” a blogger labeling a child “a despicable role model,” and whispers that a teenager’s fist pump was a Nazi salute. You heard massacre victims slandered as crisis actors and falsehoods about Hogg’s whereabouts the day of the shooting. You saw not high schoolers acting like adults but adults acting like high schoolers. Hogg calls the NRA “child murderers” because he’s an adolescent. What excuse do the rest of us have?
Indeed, despite their inconsistent toggling between bromides of universal love one minute and vitriol the next, there have been moments when the Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivors have put their critics to shame. (If nothing else, they’ve shown that high school can be about more than sexual angst and cystic acne, which was news to me.) It’s time for their elders to remember that they’re responsible for pointing the next generation in the right direction, not pressing the “pulverize” button whenever they hear something they don’t like. All we’re accomplishing is to give these activists the impression that the other side—which, for most of them, is the conservative side—is irrational and not to be reasoned with. These students need what I had: the opportunity to grow and even change their minds. And that can’t be done without a little bloodlust-free space to breathe.
Instead, unable to resist the kinds of verbal provocations that teachers hear every day, we’ve run ahead and pushed the boulder onto Piggy ourselves. We’ve turned the survivors into Teflon-coated partisan standard-bearers, the sum only of what they currently think. It’s the same fate that befell Jonathan Krohn, the 13-year-old wunderkind conservative and CPAC speaker who later renounced many of his views, only for his former allies to crucify him. That happened because the public sphere never viewed Krohn as a human in full; he was useful only as a rare young Republican and when the coat no longer fit he was unceremoniously binned.
The French thinker Gustave Le Bon described mobs as inherently childlike, since their members end up surrendering to feral instincts that years of civilization and education are supposed to suppress. How appropriate that we now have actual high schoolers as a yardstick to show how infantile our discourse has become. As for the kids, it may feel good now, but God forbid they step outside the roles that the braying masses have fashioned for them. Mob opinion will turn on you like that.
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.