I woke up on March 14 to students walking out of school in protest of America’s inaction on gun violence.
Fed-up student after fed-up student filled my television screen, and I found myself getting a little teary-eyed as I watched them stand together in solidarity outside their schools. These kids have seen and experienced far too much.
I perused my Facebook feed and saw messages of support and encouragement to kids participating in the National School Walkout.
I also encountered various iterations of this:
Such posts, advising kids to put their energies into being kinder instead of engaging in civil protest, are accompanied by the hashtag #WalkUpNotOut.
The gist of #WalkUpNotOut is that protest is pointless and kids should try to be more inclusive in order to stop gun violence. The premise of the argument is that America’s epidemic of school shootings isn’t about gun policy, it’s about kids feeling excluded, lonely, and unloved.
The implication? If kids would just be nicer to one another, this issue would be solved.
The message has gotten widespread support — particularly among gun rights advocates — but also among idealistic peacemakers drawn to anything advocating kindness.
I get it. Kids who have healthy friendships and support systems don’t generally decide to mass murder their classmates. That seems like a logical point.
However, it’s a deflection from the issue at hand — and a potentially dangerous one at that.
What #WalkUpNotOut basically says is, “You might get shot at school because you’re not being nice enough.”
The problem with the message of “walk up, not out” is that it’s essentially victim-blaming. It’s like telling a domestic abuse sufferer that if she’d just been nicer to her abuser, she wouldn’t have been hit. That the issue of school shootings isn’t really about shootings, but about being nicer.
As one Facebook user pointed out, it inadvertently sends the wrong message to the wrong people:
No doubt, all of us could be kinder to our fellow humans. But there have been bullies, loners, and outcasts forever. There are bullies, loners, and outcasts in other countries. Kids being unkind to one another is not a uniquely modern nor uniquely American phenomenon. But regular school shootings are.
I’m not saying kids shouldn’t be kinder. But kindness alone doesn’t solve our unique gun violence problem.
I’ve not been in a single school in the past decade that has not utilized character education and had inclusion messages plastered all over the walls. Many schools have character curriculums designed to help students be good citizens, good friends, and good people in general. Such programs can have a positive impact on students and schools.
But are they the magic answer to gun violence? No. Of course kids should be kind. Of course we should be encouraging kids to reach out to kids who are lonely. But what about when that’s not enough?
We have too many guns and they’re too easy to get. That’s the only difference between our kids and kids around the world.
One could make the argument that America has a “niceness” problem, but unkindness is a universal human reality. We are not more kindness-challenged than other places in the world, and messages like #WalkUpNotOut aren’t the answer to our unique gun violence problem. Other countries think we’re ridiculous because of our gun culture. Honestly, I’m sitting here thinking the same thing.
Kids can “walk up” to be nicer to one another and they can “walk out” to advocate for gun control legislation. Many of these teens are soon-to-be voters who’ve been traumatized by active shooter drills their entire lives. Let’s not squash their civic engagement with platitudes about niceness. They deserve better than that.