Let me be quite blunt: #WalkUpNotOut, the recent hashtag encouraging students to be nicer to one another rather than protesting the current state of gun control, is a moronic use of language, a dichotomy that makes no sense, and a contrast which is designed to create conflict between two perfectly legitimate and reasonable actions.

There is no reason why a student would be unable to both advocate for better gun control and mental health services and reach out to those on the the socially isolated. Quite frankly, it’s absurd to tell students that they can prevent school shootings just by reaching out. Not only is that not necessarily true, but that implicitly places the responsibility for preventing school shootings solely on their shoulders. Students, generally speaking, are in school to learn, not to be crisis counselors, psychologists, or even outreach officers. The hashtag even sounds suspiciously like another version of “thoughts and prayers.” If everyone is just nice enough, if the kids just walk up to those social outcasts and talk to them, school shootings will just go away right? Just like how Facebook posts and likes help fix real world problems, right?

But, let’s take a second and be a little more generous. Ryan Petty, who created this hashtag, is a grieving father, trying to put together the sequence of events which led to the death of his daughter.  He is an activist who worked with lawmakers from both parties to create more legislative change than most of us ever will and whose efforts have led to concrete changes in both the gun control and mental health systems of Florida. #WalkUpNotOut seems to be the result of a not-insubstantial amount of reflection on how to best honor his daughter, who “just wanted to be your friend,” and prevent the sort of social alienation which leads to violence.  Disagree with him as you may, but his words are far from thoughtless, and his motivations far from ill-intentioned.

And the idea? It’s at least as old as I am, if not older.  My teachers and parents exhorted me to try and make friends with the kids who sat alone at lunch or who were left out on the playground, and I’m certain generations of students before me heard similar lectures. Reaching out and generally being nice to people is a timeless concept. The world would undoubtedly be a better place if, in the immortal words of Bill and Ted, people were “excellent to one another.” It would be a better place if people of different backgrounds, political beliefs, and religions listened to one another more often and lived in closer proximity. Our political discourse would certainly be improved. What’s more, violence in general, no matter in whose name it’s conducted, tends to come from disaffected, isolated, and angry young men (and it’s almost always men) who see no other alternative. Reaching out, being there, and giving them someone to talk to outside the echo chambers of the internet is vitally important. So yes, by all means, walk up. It’s a good thing!

But such an insight is hardly a revolutionary thought; it’s just common decency. More importantly, it’s not mutually exclusive with protest. And this is where even the most generous interpretation only gets so far. Mr. Petty, with all due respect, has an important insight, one which has been said, and ignored, many times in many different ways (one man was even nailed to a cross for saying how great it would be nice to people for a change), but he has delivered it in the worst possible way.  There isn’t any reason why the two principles should be mutually exclusive to start with, and by setting them in opposition to one another, he has weakened both. Now he joins a long tradition of venerable thinkers, from George Wallace and Richard Nixon to Mike Huckabee and countless other faceless op-ed writers and Twitter commentators who, either out of cynicism or misguided indignation, have opposed a social movement worth listening to with a platitude. The fundamental question remains: why can’t students both protest gun violence and be nicer to one another? The only differences are the ones we create, and Mr. Petty has managed to turn common decency into a partisan issue.


Photo courtesy of: https://www.theepochtimes.com/student-walkout-is-americas-lesson-of-a-lifetime_2466685.html