Appreciating the Marvelously Unfiltered Rhetoric of the Parkland Student Survivors

In the month since the mass murder of seventeen high school students in Parkland, Florida, a new generation of activists has found its voice. As survivors of the shooting appeared on television and web news outlets across the country, they highlighted a more subtle reality of American political life: The vacuity of contemporary political discourse.

The students’ direct rhetoric serves as a reminder of how bloated and disingenuous standard political language has become. Every time one of these students has come face-to-face with a politician in the last few weeks, the tired tricks of political discourse look foolish and even cowardly in comparison to the Parkland students’ willingness to confront the gun control debate head-on.

For example, on February 22, CNN held a town hall in Sunrise, Florida in which Stoneman Douglas students and families publicly questioned Senator Marco Rubio and NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch. On paper, the event wasn’t a fair fight: On one side stood Rubio, a career politician and experienced debater. On the other stood teenagers still reeling from an unspeakable trauma. Rubio, admittedly, was not on the attack during these debates. His first priority was appearing sympathetic to the concerns of the students, not disproving the ideas the students presented. At the same time, Rubio was forced to defend his own pro-gun track record. Parkland students like Cameron Kasky easily outshone the more seasoned Rubio — Kasky’s clarity and directness emphasized the degree to which modern American political rhetoric has become bogged down by evasion and deflection.

In this exchange, which went viral in the days after the event, Rubio turns to a number of well-worn political tactics in attempts to dodge the question posed by Kasky. When Kasky asks “Can you tell me that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA in the future,” Rubio attempts to pivot with a line about his early days as an elected official in West Miami. It’s a distraction — like when a politician answers a question about tax reform with an anecdote about their immigrant grandparents. But Kasky’s question was so simple, his request so clear, the logic of his agenda so plain, and the pain on his face so visible, that Rubio’s evasion fell painfully short.

Rubio then invoked the Second Amendment, a typical and often effective tool, particularly for conservative politicians. Yet Kasky, again, overcame Rubio’s predictable evasions — and all Kasky did was repeat himself. “No more NRA money?” Kasky asked. Again, clarity and honesty left Rubio floundering. Political beliefs aside, it’s clear that Rubio’s well-worn tactics failed him. Politicians have long used scripted, practiced anecdotes or one-liners to wheel away from uncomfortable issues — Cameron Kasky suggests that candor is far more effective.

Then there is Emma Gonzalez, the senior whose shaved head and bracelet-laden wrists have come to symbolize the movement. On February 17, three days after the shooting, Gonzalez took the microphone at a Ft. Lauderdale rally and delivered the most memorable political speech I’ve seen since Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. She pulled no punches, opening by putting sarcastic air quotes around the proverbial “thoughts and prayers.” Though well-meaning, the real effect of simply saying “thoughts and prayers" is to substitute language for action. Like Rubio’s story about his past, sending thoughts and prayers is a dodge, used when it is inconvenient for politicians to confront policy issues. Gonzalez, understandably, is fed up.

Later she read President Trump’s tweet about the shooter Nick Cruz, in which the President insinuated that guns weren’t the issue at the core of the debate over Parkland. Gonzalez cut through Trump’s rambling with laser-sharp precision. “He would not have harmed that many students with a knife,” she cried. Gonzalez ended her speech with a rousing repetition of the phrase “We Call BS,” a refrain that could not be more appropriate for the moment. Her speech not only called for gun control, but honesty and clarity. It was a protest against the predictable, convoluted, inadequate political language — the BS — that has become an impediment to change.

Gonzalez said in her speech that “we are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” and she could very well be right. Though Parkland is just the latest in a string of mass shootings in the United States in the last few years, something about the response feels like this time around will be different. Part of the Parkland kids’ influence can be attributed to their continued use of blunt, direct rhetoric. Gonzalez, despite only joining Twitter a month ago, has already amassed double the followers of the NRA. Her Twitter is full of the same simple language she used in her speech. In a February 22 tweet about NRA executive Wayne LaPierre, Gonzalez lamented “the Disgust I feel for the lies you’re promoting.”  On March 2nd, Gonzalez tweeted “You know what matters here? People Keep Dying. Until Politicians care more about People than they do about Money, random and innocent People are going to Keep Dying. #VoteThemOut #NotOnOurWatch #WeCallBS.”

On March 14th, students across the nation walked out of their schools in protest, inspired by a slogan so sharp and concise it could only have been created by a person totally untrained in political sloganeering — #NeverAgain. Policy change is still a ways away, but early signs suggest that these students are not stopping until they find success. Their staying power is built in part on the effectiveness of their rhetoric.

The Parkland students’ willingness to do so has set them apart from the hackneyed tricks of American political discourse. Kasky, Gonzalez and the rest show that even the slipperiest, most skillful debater can’t dodge focused, persistent, passionate language, even if it comes from a high schooler.