Published April 23, 2018

In the past two months, multiple student survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas have fought to make their voices heard and to establish their credibility as activists. Many conspiracy theorists have accused the student leaders as being “crisis actors” or have claimed that the shooting was a “false flag” and never happened at all, which have all been quickly debunked as false. However, the issue of these young activists’ age (most of them are not yet 18) has proven to be one of the most difficult topics to address:


Do activists who are not yet legally adults deserve to speak and be heard?


To answer this question, it’s important to first establish that everyone, including children, has the right to speak. That’s the beauty of free speech: anyone can say anything in the United States without fear of arrest (with several exceptions, including fighting words and defamation, of course).


Just because everyone has the right to speak, however, doesn’t mean that they have the right to be heard. The 1st amendment only prevents people from being arrested for something they say; it does not mean that others have to be forced to listen.


Which ideas, then, should be promoted in society? Certainly, we as Americans should agree that ideas promoting blind, irrational hatred should not be given consideration. It’s important to note that while some groups, such as neo-Nazis, should be unequivocally condemned, this does not mean that we should hate people just because we disagree with their ideas. (If that were the case, I’d be confident enough to say that no one would have any friends.)


However, “not blindly hateful” is not the only criterion for what makes an idea worthwhile. We as a society must be careful to promote ideas and arguments that are backed up by rational thought; that is, ideas must be supported by reason, logic, evidence, and facts.


Again, the principle of rationality does not, and should not, be used to weed out dissenting ideas. Because so many issues today are exceptionally complex, it’s possible for two different ideas to disagree, to be well-supported by evidence, and to deserve the public’s attention.


Nevertheless, data presented in some research and studies suggests that the ideas for gun reform we have presented could truly succeed in reducing gun deaths in our society.


With the above considerations, it is evident that child activists have every right to be heard if their ideas are not hateful and have rational merit.  


In addition to attacking the ideas of the #Neveragain movement, critics have dismissed young activists’ platform, based not on the merit of our ideas, but rather on the sole basis of our youth.


Why, exactly, should our age bar us from entering public discussion?


Some might say it’s because of our lack of education. It’s true that many of us have not finished high school or college yet, meaning that there are a lot of things that we have not yet learned. Others might say it’s because we are not completely physically developed. It’s true that there are parts of our brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, that are not fully mature yet. However, this does not inhibit our ability to reason; to look at the facts and evidence, to put all the pieces together, to come up with a logical solution.


Being educated is not the same thing as being intelligent, although education undoubtedly helps develop people’s cognitive skills. Being a child does not mean you are simple-minded, and conversely, being an adult does not mean you are all-knowing. There is no magic “intelligence switch” that is flipped in the second between age 17 and 18 when a person legally becomes an adult.


In some cases, children may even be smarter or better problem-solvers than adults. Research shows that each generation has a higher IQ than the generation before it.


If you’re having trouble believing that children can be intelligent, just take a quick look in your community. Many middle and high school students participate in various competitions, from robotics to academic decathlon to science fairs to forensics and debate, and some possess more knowledge in their specific fields than the average adult.


These children may not be adults, but they are extremely articulate, quick-thinking, and adept problem-solvers.


Another argument used against teen activists is that we have not yet been exposed to the “real world”, that we simply don’t have sufficient life experience to come up with good solutions.


Even though those of us under 18 are not able to vote, every single one of us has been affected by government policies. (In fact, an argument could probably be made that children have more of a right to speak out than others because we have no other way to influence public policy.)


Sure, we may not yet be self-sufficient or make mortgage payments or care for minors, but that doesn’t make our experiences any less “real”.


When students at Columbine or Sandy Hook or Marjory Stoneman Douglas or any other school in America that has had an incident involving guns, those bullets are real. Those injuries are real. Those deaths are real.


All of our experiences, however trivial or serious, are real, and should not be dismissed.


Different viewpoints often stem from different life experiences. Our experiences growing up today are likely very different from the experiences of older generations growing up. If you disagree with us, don’t you want to hear about our experiences? Don’t you want to hear about why we believe the things we do?


We’re growing up in a different world. So, when we say that lockdown drills are just as normal to us as fire drills, tornado drills, or earthquake drills, listen to us. When we say that we know which classroom we would prefer to be in in the event of an active shooter, listen to us. When we say that we actively scope out movie theaters, shopping malls, bowling alleys, our hangout spots to see the best escape route, listen to us. When we say we know that if an active shooter comes into our classroom, then our goal is no longer to escape, to hide, to stay alive, but rather to delay the shooter so that police can come and our classmates have a better chance…


Listen to us. Understand where we are coming from. Understand that this is what the real world looks like to us.


And yes, you are right: experience does not equate expertise. We are not experts on gun violence, but we can use the studies of researchers to come up with an idea of what should be done.


Isn’t that what everybody else does? Politicians, political commentators, journalists, lobbyists, adult activists? Few of those people, if any, possess an extensive education in the topic that they try to solve. They talk to experts for insight, and then make their decisions. If the adults can weigh in on issues where they don’t have specialized expertise, why can’t we?


This is not to say that we are above criticism. Because we are young, we have something different to offer to American society: unmitigated passion, optimism, and a stubbornness in refusing to accept that things cannot change. These qualities are what have made young people so successful with movements in earlier generations.


However, with this bright-eyed outlook on life, we, the youth, are also susceptible to being overly idealistic and naïve. Because of this, there are times when we will stumble, when we will mess up. And when we do, call us out. Criticize our arguments, our premises, our actions, our reasoning; we are capable of understanding opposing views.


Don’t resort to personal attacks. Regardless of your point of view, they do not contribute anything of value to the conversation.


We have now made our decision to join the conversation. We now present ourselves and our ideas to the American public.


We cannot control what you will do.


We can only hope that you will consider what we have to say. We have marched, making sure that you see us. We have spoken out, making sure that you hear us.


Will you listen?

B.N. is currently a student at the University of Pennsylvania. When not advocating for gun reform policies that should have been implemented a long time ago, B.N. can be found watching Netflix, dancing, or playing soccer.