We Call B.S. and the Death of Political Speech as We Know It

Delaney Tarr is not impressed and for Florida politicians that’s a problem.

Many have remarked since the Parkland, Florida school shooting about how articulate the surviving students are, how smart they are, how fearless they are when facing down the nation’s political leaders and demanding change.

The way the students, their parents and teachers have reacted is very different from victims of other mass shootings. They have gone beyond sharing their loss and their feelings to demanding — as opposed to asking for — substantive changes that might prevent similar acts of violence in the future. The students, in particular, are frustrating protectors of the status quo with techniques learned in lessons their opponents have long ago forgotten.

Many have attributed the effectiveness of the students to their lifelong immersion in the information rich world of the internet. That may explain their organizational skills, but their savvy of how political speech is used to deflect tough questions and defer necessary action is a sign that the standard techniques most politicians rely on, no longer work with the public at large.

For ever, politicians have artfully used and mis-used language to mislead their constituents. Campaign slogans over-simplify the issues and divide voters into either/or camps. Carefully crafted position statements are used to appeal to the widest possible audience while masking positions politicians actually hold on controversial issues.

In my lifetime, the master of the deliberate mis-use of precise language is former President Bill Clinton. As part of his effort to appeal to voters in the middle, while holding onto his base on the left, he gave us the following phrases as part of a political strategy known as triangulation:

“Abortion should be safe, legal and rare.”

“This is the end of welfare as we know it.”

“The era of big government is over.”

Each of these phrases were popular and meaningless in their own way. Each meant to attract the widest possible audience and leave the impression Clinton thought just as you did.

In defense of his own presidency, Clinton gave us, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” and “I did not have ‘sexual relations’ with that woman.” Each phrase required the audience to not only hear what was being said, but to understand the flexible definitions being applied to each word contained therein.

Clinton’s use of language to reach beyond his base led George W. Bush to sell the idea of “compassionate conservatism” and to fight the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Both Clinton and Bush were using language to say, “I’m not the guy you think I am. Trust me.”

This is the language pattern used by nearly all the candidates in the 2016 race for president with the exception of two: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Sanders was able to slow the Hillary Clinton train with genuine language to explain his difficult to achieve goals. Trump dispatched every other Republican in the field and went on to defeat Clinton by using language to tear down the established order.

This approach to political speech only worked for Sanders and Trump because the audience — the voters — had come to realize, through experience, that they could no longer rely on practiced politicians to tell the honest truth. Voters rewarded the imperfect Sanders and Trump, and punished those who engaged in predictable pandering.

The lesson of the 2016 campaign has not ended the use of pandering by most politicians or by interest groups like the National Rifle Association. But now, common techniques used to deflect and defer have met the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. They have no patience for it. They won’t tolerate it. They have pledged to “call B.S.” when they hear it.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio met up against this challenge at a town hall meeting on gun violence sponsored by CNN. In a blue suit of political armor and a light purple regal tie, Rubio came prepared to use his superior — I can do this in my sleep — communications skills to survive the night, but met up against high school students who recognize the routine.

Cameron Kasky, a student who survived the shooting, pressed Rubio on whether he would stop taking campaign contributions from the NRA. The crowd cheered when the question was asked and immediately jeered when they recognized Rubio’s careful steps forward as he began his response. The audience wanted answers not gestures offered in faux empathy. While Rubio refused to give ground on NRA donations, Kasky succeeded in exposing the senator as a politician the students cannot rely on to do what they believe is the right thing on guns.

A group of students traveled to Tallahassee in an effort to change Florida state gun laws. There they were met with more careful language from politicians trying to avoid hard decisions. Delaney Tarr told a news conference she and her peers — all teen-agers — were unimpressed by the platitudes. “We’ll keep you in our thoughts. You are so strong, you are so powerful,” lawmakers told the students, but Tarr spoke back.

“That’s not why we are here[at the state capitol]. We are not here to be patted on the back. We know what we are doing and we are doing it for a reason. We know what we want. We want gun reform. We want common sense gun laws.

“The people around us failed us. And if they continue to fail us then they will no longer be in office, because soon we will be given the ability to vote and we will vote them out.”

Whether the Florida students and their parents can sustain their fight long enough to keep the pressure on is unknown, but what they have shown the world is that the news we are washed in daily, is not too much information to absorb. It does sink in and it can be accessed on behalf of change when conditions are right.

Political leaders who rest easy believing they can placate the masses with a few well-chosen words over estimate their power. Far from being put safely in a corner to be ignored, it appears to be more likely that — like a teen-ager — voters in this country watch, see and hear everything. They learn from their observations and are more than capable of entering the public square to defend their rights at a time of their choosing.

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Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.

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Dean Pagani

Dean Pagani

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.

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