What we can learn from Emma Gonzalez

And why we need to talk about angry activists.

When nineteen year-old, gun-control activist Emma Gonzalez posed a question to National Rifle Association (NRA) representative Dana Loesh on CNN in February, crowds jeered as Loesh, like a well-trained political spokesperson, talked around the question. As the heckling increased to the point that Loesh could not continue with her response, Gonzalez appealed to the audience, “Guys, if I can’t hear her statement, I can’t come up with a rebuttal.”

As predicated by her role as questioner, Gonzalez in that specific Q&A platform was not given a right to rebuttal. However, she didn’t need one. The dignified manner in which she presented herself from her very clear question, her unapologetic but respectful tone and engaged body language, stood in stark contrast to the meandering lobbyist.  

When twenty-five year-old Nuseir Yassin quit his job in New York to travel the world, he set about posting a one-minute video on Facebook every day. After 750 days he built a following of over six million people on his page ‘Nas Daily’.  Before starting the page, Nas grew up in the Arab town of Arraba in Israel, took a scholarship at Harvard and worked in high-tech.

So how did he go viral? The Nas Daily videos are contagiously positive. He meets people from every country and tells their stories, or discusses his ideals about the world, addresses everyday problems, and provides a moderate, balanced and moreover, optimistic perspective on complex social dilemmas.

In his video on Day 729 ‘How to win friends’, Nas reveals how in his journey he was able to build connections and influence others with equality and respect. “It’s always important to respect people even when they don’t respect you back… If you do these two main things religiously, every single day, you will start making waves… when you influence people, something beautiful starts happening: A community.”

Nuseir Yassin is overwhelmingly positive, yet as an Arab-Israeli, has not grown up bubble-wrapped from the complexity of world issues. He knows conflict and suffering. However, he chooses to see the merits in every situation, and portrays these situations with relentless energy and a purpose to bring people together in a globally interconnected space.

Emma Gonzalez is angry, but she balances anger with clarity, dignity and respect. As a nineteen year-old, she is overcoming trauma by articulating this trauma into a conducive, activist space, and has built a movement. In a world of mindless conflict, and babies for presidents, this maturity and resilience is remarkable.

I grit my teeth every time I pass a stand imploring peers to sign a petition that … remains the same in formula week to week.

Why do these people leave me in awe and inspiration, while many student activists that I see every day, online and at university, make me feel indignant?

There is a confession I need to make; when someone says “trigger warning” I impulsively roll my eyes, and then mentally berate myself. I grit my teeth every time I pass a stand of student activists imploring peers to sign a petition that changes slightly in content, but remains the same in formula week to week. I instantly shut off at the start of a lecture, when a twenty-something in a customized angry t-shirt announces an upcoming rally.

When I hear about the violent student riots at Berkeley in 2017 over professional troll Milo Yiannopoulis, or angry student mobs on U.S campuses targeting liberal professors such as Erica and Nicholas Christakis, Brandeis University’s repealing of an honorary degree to ex-Muslim women’s activist Ayan Hirsi Ali, or locally, the disruption of guest speaker Colonel Richard Kemp at the University of Sydney in 2015, or of ABC’s Q&A in 2014 where protestors chanted slogans at Christopher Pyne on live television – I  feel short of empathy. I struggle to find a rebuttal when told by conservative relatives that the left have become intolerant and therefore peripheral and irrelevant.

I’m ashamed that I feel these knee-jerk reactions, because as a progressive student I believe activism is important and sometimes the only way for issues to be voiced in the public arena. Speech in our wonderfully democratic ‘utopia’, does not in fact operate within a marketplace of ideas.

Certain speech is privileged over others by the force of hidden powers, such as the distribution of wealth, corporate and property ownership, consumer markets, the media and poor journalism, the status quo, and factors such as race, class, gender and sexuality. As John Stuart Mill famously said in his book On Liberty, if a minority or dissident chooses to protest irrationally, it is lamentable, but they should not be silenced because of it. Their anger is a product of imbalances of power and the neglect of oppressed groups.

It is fair to be angry, but to act accordingly is not always fair to the success of your cause.

However, does it serve their purpose when the majority of the student population is at best indifferent, or at worst, equate equal rights for women with loud offended activists? Milo Yiannopolous has obvious problematic views that are harmful to many groups of people. But by the staging of violent dissent, the student mobs inevitably fuelled Milo’s rhetoric that free speech is endangered by the Left.

His trollish followers responded in fury, and arguably Milo gained more of a public platform because of it. Intolerance distracts from real discussion. If someone of a potentially “dangerous” opinion is given a platform, is it reasonable for a student to do what they must to silence them? Even if this means disruption, heckling, or violence? But more importantly, is this form of protest useful?

In cases of activism and advocating progressive change, the minority or the dissident experiences ‘the victim’s paradox’. Because of their oppression they have every right to be angry and express that anger. They have a right, and are right, to be intolerant of harmful opinions. However when looking at the bigger picture, intolerance and victimhood mindsets may do little in influencing other people to join their cause, and to productively change their situation. It is fair to be angry, but to act accordingly is not always fair to the success of your cause.

Emma Gonzalez on CNN spoke out against the heckling of the NRA representative, not because she agreed with the NRA. She saw her opponent as a person, a person had the platform to speak, and she respected this. Most importantly however, her expressed desire to hear the argument of her opponent spoke louder than her opponent’s political obfuscation.

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