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Stop scapegoating and alienating vulnerable people

Movie still from "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," set in a high school, with a young man in the foreground looking off into the distance as two young women stand in the near background, talking about him
“Psst. What is he doing?”
“I don’t know. I think he’s… thinking?”
“… Weird.”
(Photo credit Summit Entertainment, LLC)

People on all sides of the issue seem to be looking for some kind of solution to school shootings and mass shootings in general. Which is good. They’re doing that at the expense of innocent, vulnerable people. That’s bad. Pro-gun control, pro-WalkingUpNotOut, everyone is pinning this violence on people who had nothing to do with it, are already dealing with enough on their own, and are actively harmed by being saddled with that blame.

It’s not that people on one side or the other don’t care — no one seems to care. Whether it’s the quiet/lonely/weird kids in school or the people with mental illnesses out in the world, no one really seems to care much about them anyway (except, of course, after mass shootings), so it’s natural that they should disappear when bullets start flying and the public gets scared. It’s unsurprising that no one really thinks about their well being when things are scary and confusing. It is not even slightly a shock that they should be dismissed as acceptable collateral damage during the course of debate.

That’s not okay. I don’t fucking care how scared you are.

Before I get into this, I do have to point out that…

Teenagers are not licensed therapists.

Because this point must be made: No, teenagers cannot be held responsible for their classmates’ emotional health. They aren’t mental health professionals. They literally haven’t fully developed their prefrontal cortex yet. They are not equipped for that responsibility.

Imagine this fun exchange:

Popular Kid. Hey, Quiet Kid I’ve Never Talked To Before! Want to sit with us at lunch?
Quiet Kid. I’m actually okay, thanks. I was just writing some stuff.
Popular Kid. What are you writing?
Quiet Kid. Stuff.
Popular Kid. … Bad stuff?
Quiet Kid. If you must know, my mom died last year, and I’m still kind of working through that, and that’s what I’m writing.
Popular Kid. … Okay.
Quiet Kid. All right?
Popular Kid. …. Want to talk about it? I guess?
Quiet Kid. You know what, 17-Year-Old Dance Captain Who’s Never Made Eye Contact with Me Before? I think I’m good.
Popular Kid. … I remember when my… grandfather died…
Quiet Kid. Seriously, I’m good.
Popular Kid. Please don’t shoot me.

If a teenager really is having emotional issues, the 17-year-old dance captain who’s never made eye contact with them before is not the person who needs to be dealing with that. How about Florida takes some of that $400 million and dedicates it to reducing class sizes and adding guidance counselors, instead of throwing more guns at the problem?

That said:

Stop fucking scapegoating vulnerable people.

I mentioned that last part because it bears mentioning, but that’s not the thing that worries me the most. I really hate to mention it at all, honestly, because it reinforces the idea that the quiet/lonely/weird kids at school are all ticking time bombs who need professional help. And they fucking aren’t.

I’ve said it before: #WalkUpNotOut isn’t just awful because it puts the burden on teenagers to prevent mass shootings. And it isn’t just awful because said teenagers might be trying to establish relationships with kids who are dangerous. It’s also — not instead, but also — and not just also, but primarily — awful because the vast majority of kids these students are being told to Walk Up to aren’t dangerous. They aren’t threats. Yes, asking a kid to Walk Up to Nikolas Cruz and heal him with the power of friendship would have been a horrible plan at every level — but every other student at Stoneman Douglas High School, even the weird ones, wasn’t Nikolas Cruz. You know who was? Him. Just the one guy.

The vast majority of kids who are weird, lonely, quiet, who don’t fit in, aren’t threats. But their classmates are being told to view them as threats and treat them as threats. It doesn’t do anything to prevent gun violence in schools, but it does serve to alienate the quiet kids — the targets of Walk Up — when frequently, their lives are hard enough as it is.

And you know who else is viewing and treating them that way? Us. The adults who have already failed them plenty in this area, thanks much. The teachers the kids should be able to go to for help and support, and who instead are a) slapping a “future school shooter” label on them and b) pawning them off on other students to take care of. The parents who already didn’t understand their kids and are now more scared of them than ever. It’s bad enough that people had to propagate this shit inside schools — they had to make a fucking hashtag out of it and take it national. They had to put the focus on the quiet kids so everyone can demonize them and discuss them as future shooters just waiting for their time.

Not every quiet kid has emotional issues. And even the ones who do are very rarely violent — to others, at least. Suicide is the second most common cause of death among teens 15-19. And while homicide is the third, less than two percent of those are related to school shootings. Increasing their alienation and isolation, telling them that they’re violent and dangerous, that they need to be carefully handled (per the Walk Up crowd) or that they must be avoided at all cost (per the anti-Walk Uppers) will only make that worse. That won’t do anything to keep kids from turning guns on their classmates, but it could make it far more likely that they’ll turn the guns on themselves. But no one seems to worry about those particular dead children. We’re just worried about protecting the normies from the weirdos.

These kids aren’t the future shooters. They’re the future shot.

Fucking stop fucking scapegoating vulnerable people.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold? The Columbine outcasts-turned-killers? Weren’t outcasts. They had friends. They went to prom. They went to prom in a limo packed with friends. They didn’t target the cool kids. Harris was friendly, well-spoken, and seething with inner rage. Their stated goal wasn’t to punish bullies but to become infamous for the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history. They weren’t the sad, lonely, isolated kids who could be friendshipped into happiness if only someone would ask to be their lab partner.

The Columbine killers weren’t the shy, introverted teens who spent all their time writing poetry. Those kids were getting shot up in the library and the courtyard along with their classmates.

And outside of schools, the people with mental illnesses whom we love to blame for mass violence aren’t the violent threats, they’re the victims — far more likely to be the target of violence than the perpetrator. But every time a mass shooting occurs, they’re the focus of debate (to the point that I’m so fucking tired of discussing it). And that’s because they’re an easy target and a handy distraction.

And let’s not kid ourselves that we’ve suddenly developed a big, swelling heart for these people. Nobody gave two shits about the lonely high school students back before they were deemed a threat to public safety. No was suggesting Walking Up or being welcoming and compassionate on February 13th. Mental illness wasn’t a big deal back when Congress was doing their best to gut the ACA. It only becomes a big deal when people are scared, and when people are scared, they don’t care who gets hurt while they do whatever they can to not be scared anymore.

Don’t make vulnerable people collateral damage.

I’ve said before that life is complicated and difficult, and nothing is simple and easy. And if anything ever looks simple and easy, that’s because you aren’t looking hard enough.

#WalkUpNotOut is a simple, easy message. “Protect our kids from school shooters” is a simple, easy message. “Keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” simple and easy. That’s how you know those messages are minefields.

We can’t say it’s acceptable to make life worse for quiet kids in school and people with mental illnesses out in the world as long as we end up with gun control. Moreover, we can’t pretend that isn’t happening. We can’t say we’re too busy, or the issue is too complicated, to keep their well being — their actual, physical lives — in mind.

We’re seeing a lot of commonalities among the growing number of mass shooters. A history of domestic violence is a big one. Involvement with white supremacist and other far-right groups is another. (And, of course, that’s not to mention ownership of semiautomatic rifles.) Absent from the list 78 percent of the time is mental illness. Also generally absent from the list: sitting alone at lunchtime in high school. But we continue to ignore the people who legitimately show signs of being a threat so we can focus on the people with mental illnesses and the quiet kids in school.

These people aren’t threats. They aren’t ticking time bombs. They are human beings. They deserve compassion and attention not because they might kill us all — which, again, isn’t the case — but because they’re human beings. We can’t allow them to be further victimized just to advance our (admittedly important) agendas, because they’re human beings.

These kids are already standing in front of bullets along with the rest of their classmates. It’s not acceptable to throw them under the bus as well.

4 thoughts on Stop scapegoating and alienating vulnerable people

  1. The school I was at, WalkingUp would have been used by bullies as another means of harassment.

    1. A friend of mine said that if people had suddenly started acting friendly to her, completely out of nowhere, she’d just have assumed it was a prank.

      1. I was a bullied kid, and I can attest to this.. because as I got older, any time a kid I had deemed to be ‘cooler’ than me tried to befriend me, I assumed it was a setup.

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