How the Parkland students brought us back from the brink

In the aftermath of a mass shooting, we have been forced to explain the cravenness of a society without substance

Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve seen a lot from the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida in the last two weeks, ever since a former student killed 17 people at the school with an AR-15 assault rifle. They’ve done countless interviews. They’ve publicly excoriated Marco Rubio at a CNN town hall. They’ve organized support for a walk on Washington, D.C. to push for stricter gun laws.

They also held a vigil.

Last week at BuzzFeed, Charlie Warzel noted how savagely the Marjory Stoneman students have dunked all over the right-wing online trolls who are hopelessly trying to convince the world they’re frauds. “The pro-Trump media has met its match in the Parkland students,” the headline declared. The far-right media pushing conspiracy theories about the students being crisis actors, or simply coached in their lines — or both — made a critical tactical error, Warzel wrote. “It chose a political enemy effectively born onto the internet and innately capable of waging an information war.”

This is entirely likely. But there is something else these students have been born into: a world where mass school shootings are considered completely normal — the graduating class of 2018 were likely born a year after the Columbine shootings — and thus also into a world wherein the candlelight vigil was the focal point of the national stories detailing the aftermath. A world that came to a weird tipping point in the spring of 2016.

That May, a gorilla named Harambe was shot at the Cincinnati zoo as he dragged around a three-year old boy who’d managed to get into his enclosure. The reaction was instant, and quickly turned to the strange. Harambe became an all-encompassing meme — the event horizon for anything created or talked about online. But, months after Harambe’s death and months into the ridiculous meme universe it spawned, something interesting happened: people attended candlelight vigils for the dead gorilla, each one an obvious and deliberate send-up of the post-Columbine auto-impulse to offer symbolic healing, declare “never again” with an increasingly hollow voice, and do exactly nothing to actually prevent future suffering.

The phony vigils tapped into a palpable sense of fatigue with a society of pure symbols, dedicated to words without deeds, to politics of po-faced solemnity backed by vacant assurances; a feeling that growing up in the 2000s meant understanding that the adult world was perhaps not merely comically unserious or hypocritical but actually powerless to reverse a profound and desperate nihilism that consistently undermined its response to even the most serious events.

At that juncture in 2016, it felt like we were all about to step off the edge into a weird dark hole of nothingness, where even something apparently as sacred as collective mourning could be so ruthlessly skewered. The year that followed, with the memeification of politics, the persistent lark of fake news, an endless dive into conspiracy theory, and the election of Donald Trump — the purest human distillation of our culture of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ — seemed to suggest that we’d truly tipped into oblivion. That we’d become unmoored from solid ground. That we could all look at the exact same thing — a dead gorilla, a dress — and each see a million different realities. That nothing really meant anything anymore.

Now, it feels as though the students of Parkland, Florida have pulled us back from the brink.

Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons

Thousands attended the vigil for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high. National and international media covered it. But what’s become clear is that it will not be what people remember about this shooting. That’s new and crucial, and entirely due to the Parkland students refusing to let their story to end there, as it had for so many before them, and refusing to watch their experience be defined by what’s unfortunately become a kind of traditional gathering, the physical manifestation of the empty “thoughts and prayers.”

The Parkland students’ push to reattach meaning to events has forced the rest of us to turn around and confront the world we were busy creating for them as they grew up. This might partly explain why their loud demands for change have been met with a collective sense of surprise among established commentators in the press, and with large swaths of people beyond. We have been forced to snap to attention and to explain ourselves — to explain the cravenness of a society without substance.

Watching the students, it’s easy to see that they are fed up. Fed up, surely, with lax gun laws and politicians on the take. But fed up, too, maybe, with the theatre of a deeply apathetic society, and the adults who’ve let it get this bad. This is perhaps the root of their caustic clapbacks to their moronic online critics. It’s not merely that they were born in the waters of the internet; they also appear to simply be tired that the internet’s descent into false equivalencies and moral emptiness has to be duplicated in the real world.

Perhaps nothing speaks to this more than how the Parkland students have made us reconsider the words we wrote over and over and over, but never bothered to understand. They have coopted the dying phrase “never again,” and recast it as something with more definition than it had at its sincere genesis. No longer merely a vague wish, “never again” is now reborn as a defiant hashtag, and a call to definitive action.

Never again means no more guns in schools, no more cash from the NRA, and no more empty words. Never again means no more dead kids. It means something.

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