The Problems of A Young People’s Movement

Recently, there’s been a lot of attention being paid to a group of high school students who were survivors of a horrific gun attack in Florida. While they’re not the first students to suffer from such a crappy situation, what made this tragedy even more significant was that the students didn’t remain the backdrop of the event but have now taken front stage and are literally the movement itself.

This has resulted in a number of unexpected outcomes. First, the “usual” response of “this isn’t the time” to discuss gun violence was completely drowned out by the survivors themselves who refused to allow pro-NRA pundits to dictate the terms of the conversation. And the opposite side, the political operatives who have been screaming into the wind for decades about gun violence, were also taken a bit by surprise because as much as they have wanted to do so, they’re not dictating the message but having to listen alongside everyone else who is seeing this dynamic group of young people demand and focus attention.

And this is part of the problem that I fear because as Mancur Olson pointed out in “The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups” (1965) and reinforced by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward in “Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail” (1977), getting a movement started is a lot easier than sustaining one over time. The reasons are varied, but there’s both a free rider problem (people think others will do the work for them so they sit out the movement, convinced someone else will take up the slack) and an age problem, which I’ll talk about it a moment here.

The first problem is not easily overcome. People organize because of personal motivations, and they quite often are faced with the belief that they’re climbing a mountain that has no footing. When they realize there’s a group of others with similar goals, they become motivated and feel the sense of belonging that makes them put themselves out there for hopes of a solution. What can often happen is that solidarity may actually lead to a limited success because their opposition is also overwhelmed by the numbers gathered in such a short amount of time. So, they go home, armed with the knowledge that they succeeded. But they don’t often get everything they wanted, so when they take to the streets again to achieve the rest, they find that a fraction of their comrades appear the second time around due to that pesky free rider problem.

Which brings me to the second problem: age. One of the advantages of the current movement is also its biggest liability: Children eventually stop being children. Right now, young high school students are rallied around the idea of wanting to fix things for the youth of America. But there’s a time stamp on how effective they are going to be because of the fact that once they stop being high school students and are then perceived to be adults, their message practically disappears overnight. People tend to care when children are affected, but when those children grow up into adulthood, it’s amazing how society quickly turns their backs on those same people.

Which means, if anything is going to happen, it’s going to have to happen really soon. The NRA, conservatives and those who like the status quo are very, very good at kicking cans down the road. This is kind of the origin of the phrase “thoughts and prayers”. The term “thoughts and prayers” has only recently been debunked to reveal it means “we’re not going to do anything about this now, so all we’re willing to do is pretend we’re thinking about it, but we’re not.” Historically, they’ve been really good at ignoring huge calamities with infamous responses of “now’s not the time” and all sorts of other bags of wind, knee jerk reactions. Therefore, if anything is going to happen, it’s going to have to happen during the next few weeks, or at least before the next atrocious event occurs because once the next geographically named event occurs, Florida will be yesterday’s news, and those who want to do nothing will breathe a sign of relief that they never actually had to do anything to make things better.

Author of Innocent Until Proven Guilty and 15 other novels. Writer, college professor and computer game designer.

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