On the Politics of Young Survivors

Amid conspiracy theories that claim to prove the Parkland survivors are "crisis actors," or that they're helpless waifs being coached by liberal media professionals, you might almost miss the way in which Bill O'Reilly's contribution to their scrutiny serves much the same function. On Tuesday, O'Reilly tweeted:

The big question is: should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases?

His "big question" is, of course, a variation on the standard refrain, "It's too early to politicize the tragedy," albeit one which measures time in terms of the age of minority. "Politicization" is also the underlying concern in the crisis actor theory: the premise being that someone (George Soros, in most versions) has made a paying gig out of putting gun control rhetoric in the mouths of victims, even if they have to pretend to be victims to do so. In both cases, though, the point is to discredit the voices calling for tighter gun control laws, either because the people speaking don't have the proper status, or because their rush to talk about solutions is disrespectful.

Because he couches it in terms of concern, O'Reilly's approach may come across as comparatively moderate, but it gathers rhetorical power by subtly combining the issues of status and legitimacy. It's hardly lost on him that the students themselves are the ones "politicizing" their own tragedy, which is their right, if anyone's. So his angle is that, for their own good, they shouldn't be allowed to do so in the public sphere, which is, it so happens, precisely the sphere were political action is most likely to result in change. The implication is that the people facilitating them -- their guardians, the media -- are being irresponsible by allowing minors to risk the legitimacy they attained by virtue of their status as victims. In that way, it echoes the big question many of the students themselves have been asking: Why haven't adults done what was necessary to keep us safe?

Never mind that O'Reilly doesn't appear to have had the same qualms when his former network interviewed the survivors of previous school shootings. Gun massacre survivors have already had their sense of agency, their sense of how much power the world permits them, violently challenged. To suppose that what they now need is paternal benevolence preventing them from speaking too loudly on their own behalf seems to me a disastrous misunderstanding of how badly some of them need to feel that they can themselves affect the change that paternal benevolence failed to give them in the first place.

It is, in fact, precisely their own good, as well as that of their peers, that the Parkland students have in mind when they rally at the State House in Tallahassee or confront Senator Marco Rubio during a televised town hall. The absurdity of O'Reilly's statement is the way in which it elevates the hazards of media exposure above the hazard of being shot in one's own classroom.

A passage I often return to in cases like this is Hannah Arendt's discussion of personae in her Sonning Prize speech, reprinted as the prologue to a posthumous anthology, Responsibility and Judgment. "Persona…" said Arendt,

originally referred to the actor's mask that covered his individual "personal" face and indicated to the spectator the role and the part of the actor in the play. But in this mask, which was designed and determined by the play, there existed a broad opening at the place of the mouth through which the individual, undisguised voice of the actor could sound. It's from this sounding through that the word persona was derived: per-sonare, "to sound through," is the verb of which persona, the mask, is the noun. And the Romans themselves were the first to use the noun in a metaphorical sense; in Roman law persona was somebody who possessed civil rights, in sharp distinction from the word homo, denoting someone who was nothing but a member of the human species…

What fascinates me about this etymology is the suggestion that we each approach the political superstructure of our societies (and never more so than in a democratic republic) through a sort of theatrical projection. That arrangement can be jarringly transparent at times, as when a politician's private life is suddenly revealed to contradict their persona, but its principle function is not to deceive. Rather, it serves amplify the assertion of our civil rights while shielding our inward selves. To engage politically is to adopt a persona that allows us stake our political claims while reserving some private sense of self.

Under normal circumstances, high school functions as a kind of tide pool environment where the relative smallness of the political stakes allows students to experiment with their developing political identities. What the Parkland survivors face are not normal circumstances. The stakes at Stoneman Douglas reached a pitch with which most adults need never contend. The survivors do not have the luxury of forming their opinions about gun control as an abstract topic of somewhat remote concern. To talk now as though keeping them away from television cameras might allow them to do so, or as though their emotions were a phase, perhaps understandable but nonetheless revisable, is to play at putting the bullet back in the chamber.

In point of fact, there has never been much question of letting these kids develop their political identities within the safety of relative obscurity. As soon as the first shots rang out in the halls of their school, they were bound for the national stage; the only question left was that of how they would be exposed to the viewing public. Since before Columbine or before, not a single mass shooting has occurred in America without video of the traumatized survivors commanding the airwaves for days on end. What is unheralded about Parkland is the extent to which these students have not only offered up their anguish, but also asserted their outrage, and the extent to which the adults around them have acknowledged their agency by yielding the stage to them. Denying them as much would mean constraining their political identities to the politically mute image of their own suffering.

Are there risks? Of course there are, and not just the vengefulness of partisan extremists. It can be easy to lose yourself in your persona, and the masks through which we speak are not always entirely of our own design. I keep thinking about Sam Zeif, attending what must have been deeply frustrating “listening session” orchestrated by the White House with the apparent idea of diverting the Parkland students' voices to someone else’s political ends. Therein lay the betrayal implied by Trump‘s crib note: "I hear you." After all, what use is a persona, with all its attendant risk of exposure, when the act of hearing is, itself, a theatrical contrivance?And as though they had rehearsed from the same script, student after student echoed the President's insistence that we as a nation must be open to any and every idea that might possibly lead to a solution -- armed teachers, undercover officers, a stricter focus on policing mental health, every idea, it seems, except for the one being advocated by already well-known, but conspicuously uninvited Parkland students like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg: broad reform of existing gun laws.

At last, the microphone made its way to Zeif, who could barely contain his emotion as he talked about texting goodbye to his family, about the realization that his younger brother was also in the school, and about his incomprehension at the ease with which the shooter acquired a military-grade weapon. The layer between the private self and the political context grew dangerously thin, and sobs wracked him as he passed the mic to one of the Newtown mothers. It was a raw and intimate moment, incongruously broadcast to the entire nation. For some time to come, Zeif's public persona will retain that shape, a mask of anguish. And yet, through it, per sonare, he spoke his claim on the world, and was heard.