Youth Activists Shouldn’t Have to Be Articulate Angels to Deserve Our Attention

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student David Hogg speaks onstage at March For Our Lives on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student David Hogg speaks onstage at March For Our Lives on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for March For Our Lives

The Atlantic, recently under fire for the hire of noted conservative provocateur Kevin Williamson, published an article this week by Ann Hulbert titled “Today’s Rebels are Model Children.” The piece is a well-deserved ode to the poignant grit of young people who have been dominating headlines in recent months, from “the Parkland, Florida survivors-turned-prodigy-activists” to the “100 sports-prodigies-turned-public-survivors” of the Larry Nassar trial. These children and young adults have captured our collective attention with their demands for us to listen and protect them. “Today’s young protesters … aren’t extremist misfits, or out-of-control tweeters, or squabbling grandstanders,” writes Hulbert.

Their trademark is breaking the mold by being the ultimate model children. They win gold medals at the Olympics, write 50-page term papers on the U.S. gun-control debate, excel at the piano (as the girl who first inspired Senator Dick Durbin’s DACA mission did). They strive not just to fit in but to soar in America.

As disciplined achievers, they aren’t just a stark contrast to their shaggy 1960s forebears—viewed by their elders as “vagabond dropouts in a vaguely academic orbit,” Renata Adler wrote in a New Yorker piece about student organizers back in 1965. More relevant, they subvert stereotypes of Millennials and Gen Z kids as needy snowflakes.

These children are subverting stereotypes—but not because they are “disciplined achievers” or “prodigies” or whatever term laden with respectability politics that adults keep ascribing to them. They’re subverting them because these stereotypes held little truth to begin with. In Hulbert’s well-intentioned mission to commend the dynamic, emotional poise of the Parkland students and the victims of Larry Nassar, she pits them against those other children. You know them. They’re the strawchild in every editorial bemoaning the free speech crisis on college campuses or investigation into the degradations of social media on teenager’s brains. Implicit in phrases like “disciplined achievers” and “star-pupil poise and politeness” are these other undisciplined, underachieving children, the ones who talk back, the ones who are anti-establishment, and who apparently are not worth our attention. “Anyone used to worrying about coddled young people, their backbone eroded by oversolicitous elders and smartphone addiction, was in for a surprisingly mature show of spine at last weekend’s March for Our Lives,” Hulbert tells us breathlessly.

Of course, anyone who had spent any time with these “coddled young people” in the past few years wouldn’t be at all surprised. The same teenagers and college students that pundits have been decrying have meanwhile led sweeping movements across the country fighting against police brutality, demanding a reckoning around sexual assault, and yes, fighting for gun control in supposed wastelands of opportunity and passion like Chicago. We simply haven’t been listening. And that has more to do with us and our desire for a particular style of protest than the “prodigious” talent of these newly recognized young activists

As my colleague Dahlia Lithwick noted, the reasons the Parkland survivors in particular surprise us is not because they are in any way prodigies—it’s because they’ve “been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America and that is being dismantled with great deliberation as funding for things like the arts, civics, and enrichment are zeroed out.” The Parkland students were prepared to take advantage of a moment like this: The eloquence that has captured the nation’s ears was nurtured by teachers armed not with handguns but with abundant and well-funded resources. And while these teens know how to talk a certain talk—or not talk at all, in the case of Emma Gonzalez’s weighty silence—it would be a mistake to believe that their arguments are supernaturally mature because they are spoken in a dialect pundits are more apt to understand.

And what’s more striking is that despite adults like Hulbert pitting them against “out-of-control tweeters” or “extremist misfits,” the Parkland teens have repeatedly expressed not only a familiarity with snowflake terms like intersectionality and privilege but also stood in solidarity with kids who look exactly the ones that are so often maligned by both liberal and conservative pundits—kids who didn’t have access to the same resources but share the same passion. What we are saying when we prioritize these “star-pupils” and “prodigies” over those other kids is that if you are a child in America without a 4.1 GPA or parliamentarian diction or a respect for certain “norms of civil discourse,” you don’t matter. Lionizing the Parkland teens as prodigies, as kids uniquely mature because they “aren’t pushing back against adult vigilance” is not only something these teenagers never asked for but also creates a too-clean delineation. On one side are kids who, as long as they remain respectful—we will deign to listen to. On the other side are the kids we won’t. But they all deserve to be heard. And they all deserve to be protected.