Recently, in a debate in the Florida statehouse on gun control legislation, state Representative Elizabeth Porter challenged her colleagues to overcome the emotional pull of the children impacted by the shooting and to rely on common sense and reason to guide their decision making.
She said: "We've been told we need to listen to the children and do what the children ask. Are there any children on this floor? Are there any children making laws? Do we allow the children to tell us that we should pass a law that says, 'No homework?' Or 'You finish high school at the age of 12' just because they want it so? No. The adults make the laws because we have the age. We have the wisdom. And we have the experience to make these laws. We have to make laws with our heads and not with our emotions. Because emotions will lead us astray. However, our common sense and our rationale will not."
On many levels, this argument is problematic and yet, to many, its rhetorical appeal can be quite compelling. There are a number of issues to consider. First, Porter says that there are no children who are lawmakers. Her logic is that because we don't elect children as legislators we don't have to be compelled by their interests to make laws that they want.
A quick look at the qualifications for state legislator shows that a person must be 21 years of age to be elected but there is no reason to dismiss the interests or concerns of youth. The students are not asking to run for election, they are asking to be heard. So many people lament what they see as youth apathy and they decry youth complacency and lack of engagement. Yet we give them so little training to be part of the process. It would not hurt democracy if we had children's input on laws and policy. We ask them to tackle tough questions in high school law and social justice classes so why not trust them to engage with the political process in their teenage years?
Second, Porter uses what she thinks is a straw man argument. She asks questions that most people might reasonably agree to in order to lead her audience to insert a different example into the question and to create the illusion that the examples are equal. "Do we ask children if they want to do their homework?" is actually meant to make us leap to "Should we ask children about gun control?" Since the answer to the first question is "no" then the answer to the second question should also be "no." But why is this response the correct one? She assumes we will jump and say "no, children should not be consulted about homework."
Yet, there is evidence to show that we should listen to our children when they express concerns about their homework. More and more studies show that certain kinds of homework are not particularly effective. We certainly could listen to our children and engage in good discussions about what homework is good and when it is good.
And, similarly, we could ask our children about gun control.
Finally, Porter says that adults have the wisdom and common sense and that rational thought, not emotion, must prevail in cases where there has been an acute and traumatic event that might lead to rash decisions. To be fair she does not add that last part of the statement but one can assume that she is suggesting that the discussions in the legislature have arisen as a result of the most current tragedy. Certainly if this incident were the only case of a school shooting then one might agree but common sense tells us that if something keeps happening over and over again then it might be time for change.
Political rhetoric is meant to convince us of a particular view point. Rhetorical tools can be compelling.
As citizens our task is to challenge the assumptions that are asserted as truths and we have a responsibility to teach our children to do the same.