The Parkland kids are all right — and then again, they aren’t. This tension between viewing the victims of an untold trauma as the best available advocates for gun restrictions and viewing them as, well, victims of an untold trauma has forced commentators on both sides of the debate into contortions. When National Review editor Charles C.W. Cooke tried to slice through one of those knots in an essay on Tuesday, it did not go well.
Cooke’s piece, titled “David Hogg Is Fair Game for Critics,” made an already angry internet angrier still. Cooke was cruel, he was heartless, he was attacking a child who was speaking up only because he and his classmates had been attacked already. What Cooke really argues is this: Many liberals say the Parkland children are the perfect people to explain how to prevent an experience they themselves have had — but that, though they’re adult enough to helm a mass movement, they’re still too childlike for critics to come after them. Cooke says liberals can’t have it both ways.
He has a point. The Parkland survivors should be taken seriously, and sincerely, by those who agree with them and those who disagree alike. Liberals shouldn’t call these children essential to an important debate at one moment and too delicate to engage with the other side at another, just as conservatives shouldn’t say the survivors are too innocent to participate and at the same time criticize them as conniving leftists exploiting their friends’ deaths for fame or political gain.
But what Cooke and his opponents don’t spare the time to articulate is the difference between bashing Hogg’s arguments and bashing Hogg himself. No one likes ad hominem attacks, at least in principle. But in this case, those attacks are even less constructive, and even more callous, than usual. That’s because they’re being leveled at a child, and because that child just saw 17 gunned down at his school. And because of the way the debate over Hogg began: with a far-right conspiracy campaign to cast him as a “crisis actor.”
For every conservative who has pointed out the inconsistency in Hogg’s defending the deputy sheriff who stayed outside the school during the shooting and then excoriating Florida Gov. Rick Scott for that officer’s failure, there are tens of others who have left substance aside. Instead, they call into question Hogg’s motivations. They accuse him of climbing over the dead bodies of his peers. They accuse him of pretending the killed were his peers at all.
It’s one thing to say Hogg gets it wrong on guns, or that threatening boycotts of everything and anything isn’t the surest route to legislative change. It’s another to cry out that Hogg is a liar or an idiot who doesn’t deserve a spot on our television screens.
No wonder liberals are on alert when reproof comes Hogg’s way or the way of his fellow survivors. That reproof is so often tinged with vitriol not simply for what these kids are saying but also for who they are. It’s natural to want to protect young people whom society has failed to protect. And while Cooke may be correct that it’s inconsistent to inoculate a movement’s leader from criticism on the merits, shielding a child from spite and slander is another matter.
In a country where everyone is mad all the time and everyone has the tools to put that madness on the internet, we often avoid the challenge of addressing someone’s arguments and go after their character instead. Changing that culture might be a big ask in the 21st century, but teenagers who’ve just been through tragedy seem like a fine place to start.
Molly Roberts writes for The Washington Post opinion section.