By: Jennifer Keohane
There’s been an unspoken rule of American politics that the children of politicians are off-limits for mockery in the press. While there are occasional moments where this rule is violated, such as when the Twitterverse seized upon 10-year-old Barron Trump’s incredibly bored expression during his father’s inauguration in January 2017, for the most part, children are not regular targets of character assassination.
Of course, there are good reasons for this. Children and teens typically don’t run for political office. And, as we know, character assassination is a favored tactic for gaining political advantage. Children and teen musicians and actors can sometimes find themselves the exception to this rule.
Yet, it seems that lately when young adults do get political, character assassination can follow. In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018, eloquent teens have been vocally getting involved in the debate over gun control.
US politicians have taken notice of this vocal group of students arguing for stricter gun control laws, and unsurprisingly those whose campaigns are funded by the NRA are feeling threatened. Attacks on the Stoneman Douglas students have mirrored attacks often used against adult politicians. For instance, conspiracy theories have abounded that some of the more vocal students are paid actors, not real high schoolers. A video laying out this case trended on YouTube on February 21. Arguing that someone is a paid actor instead of a genuine supporter of the cause could be intended to demonstrate hypocrisy and is also a form of the “bias” form of ad hominem argument.
Comments on the YouTube video echoed these conspiratorial themes, accusing one student, David Hogg, of being an actor.
Yet, those in favor of stricter gun regulations have rallied around these teens, presenting defenses such as:
The students’ defenses themselves have gone viral:
The attacks coming from the right side of the political spectrum reek of desperation and have led to easy arguments about the validity and credibility of these new political advocates. In my mind, these are great examples of character attacks that backfired on their users. One congressional aide in Florida who perpetuated the conspiracies was even fired. While it remains to be seen if stricter gun control laws will be an outcome of this moment of moral outrage, these character attacks gained very little ground for their users.