Since the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this year, a handful of students led by David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez have decided to not, to borrow Rahm Emmanuel’s infamous quote, let the crisis they experienced go to waste. Their aggressive policy proposals have many Second Amendment supporters (rightly) concerned. However, some have decided that it’s appropriate to smear these students. Gonzalez in particular has been targeted by photo-shopped images and other provably-false claims.
One recent claim, that Gonzalez admitted in a speech to “bullying” the Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, is also demonstrably incorrect.
One of the first people to write on this was Courtney Kirchoff over at Steven Crowder’s website on March 27. She cites a tweet shared by “Milliennial Matt,” a self-styled MAGA proponent, in sourcing the clip. Matt appears to have found it, in turn, from a Youtube channel that first posted it on March 17. The eighteen-second clip comes from Gonzalez’s much longer speech given just a few days after the shooting in February.
Here’s the quote featured in the clip:
Since he was in middle school, it was no surprise to anyone who knew him to hear that he was the shooter. Those talking about how we should have not ostracized him? You didn’t know this kid, OK? We did.
This has, in part, fueled the recent #WalkUpNotOut pushback seen in response to nationwide school walk-outs. This other argument, essentially, is that many shooters act in response to bullying or mistreatment by their peers. Befriending loners and odd ducks rather than bullying them, therefore, can help prevent at least some shootings.
The clip, standing alone, looks fairly bad. But we have to pay attention to two key issues, because words matter.
First, let’s look at the bigger context of the quote from the full transcript:
There is one tweet I would like to call attention to. So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities again and again. We did, time and time again. Since he was in middle school, it was no surprise to anyone who knew him to hear that he was the shooter. Those talking about how we should have not ostracized him, you didn’t know this kid. OK, we did. We know that they are claiming mental health issues, and I am not a psychologist, but we need to pay attention to the fact that this was not just a mental health issue. He would not have harmed that many students with a knife.
Gonzalez says here that Cruz’s fellow students were all aware that he was unstable, and that there were serious warning signs. She then turns that into an argument about how the gun itself enabled the crime to be so big. (This is a questionable argument at best, as I will point out later.)
Second, we actually have to look at the actual words Gonzalez used. “Ostracize,” according to Merriam Webster, means “to exclude from a group by common consent.” By contrast, “bully” as a verb means “to treat (someone) in a cruel, insulting, threatening, or aggressive fashion.” These are two very different words, and represent two very different patterns of behavior.
What Gonzalez Actually Said
If words matter (which they should), then Gonzalez didn’t admit that the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas “bullied” Cruz. At best, she’s admitting that they cut a problem kid out of their larger school social community.
This is fully understandable, given how many documented behavioral problems and warning signs Cruz displayed before the shooting. Cruz had known emotional disturbance issues and acted out regularly. The students knew he was a problem kid, and they didn’t want to associate with him. Plus, at least one girl who did interact with him in a tutoring context recently wrote that she had had extremely bad experiences.
The honest truth is that we don’t know if Cruz could have been stopped by his fellow students befriending him. He’d been fantasizing and planning things for months prior to the shooting. What we DO know is that there were serious institutional failures on the parts of adults. Teachers and administrators, the Broward County Sherriff’s department (both during and before the shooting), and the FBI all failed to take action when they had clear indicators that Cruz was a problem.
The Bigger Error
This issue with Gonzalez is just one example of a recent trend that’s been cropping up in the MAGA era. People who claim to be on the right have gotten really, really sloppy at making arguments.
Just consider this example. I don’t think that Ms. Kirchoff, who wrote the original article for Louder with Crowder, was being malicious. She saw the video in the tweet, which was in turn shared from another source, who in turn clipped it from a much longer video. The original bad actor here was the person who decided to clip the video out of context of the bigger speech. Kirchoff likely just reacted to it and wrote the article, thinking it was representative of the whole speech.
However, that’s the problem. Instead of stopping to think of the context, she just went with it. She didn’t include or reference the larger context of the speech, which might have made her change her argument. A five-minute Google search session and reading of the speech would have been enough to find the transcript and act accordingly.
She also didn’t take the time to really consider the actual words Gonzalez used. There’s a big difference between keeping someone at arms length socially (ostracizing) and actively harassing them (bullying). However, she–and pretty much everyone else who clipped and shared that video–treated the two words interchangeably.
Making Better Arguments
As so many writers have pointed out, Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and their cadre of student advocates are not above criticism. They are engaging in a high-profile national debate, and should be treated with respect–and scrutinized–like anyone else.
But these kids don’t need to have made-up or out-of-context attacks thrown against them to be beaten. The substance of their arguments are frequently poor, and can be attacked on their merits. Case in point: Gonzales’s conclusion that the gun itself, an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, enabled Cruz to kill so many people isn’t supported. The Virginia Tech shooting was carried out with two handguns, and was far more lethal with 32 victims. In another example, twenty people were harmed in a 2014 stabbing spree in a Pennsylvania high school.
At this point, we’re once again in need of a political right that fights intelligently to defend its values. Just meme-ing without any critical thought or context doesn’t help anyone. It just makes you and your allies look stupid.