An April 4 letter to the Gazette (“Students Being Used for Political Gain”) offers up a set of assertions that are continually reported on Fox and Breitbart. The letter mirrors Fox’s commentary closely; my guess is the letter writer gets his news from that advocacy network. The assertions maintain that the Parkland students’ activism is a result of having been manipulated by the left. The letter goes on to say that the students are too dumb to know that they are being played. The writer’s assertion that “guns have nothing to do with school shooting” is representative of the quality of thought that produced the letter. From Fox (or a similar outlet) to the letter writer to the reader: That’s what an echo chamber is. It’s important for consumers of news and opinions to be on the lookout for points of view that are offered as fact but have no factual basis.
For example, the idea that the March for Our Lives was funded by the Democratic Party as the letter and Fox News repeatedly assert has no more factual basis than the far right conspiracy theories maintaining that the little kids slaughtered in Newtown had not really been slaughtered. Parents of the slaughtered kids were in the hideous position of having to defend themselves by insisting that, yes, their children really were murdered. The letter writer goes on to assert that “the prevailing sentiment in schools is that the Second Amendment is bad and gun restrictions are good.” I taught for 30 years, and if there was such a “prevailing sentiment,” no one ever let me in on it. Of course, there is often good reason not to provide a set of facts to support a point of view: Corroborating facts may not exist.
It is possible to promote a point of view using facts rather than assertion. When the letter writer makes the claim that “any law restricting our Second Amendment rights will only make criminals of law-abiding American patriots,” he forgets that we already had a law banning assault weapons from 1994 to 2004 when the law expired. The legislation did not make criminals out of gun owners. Three presidents (Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, all gun owners) wrote a letter in May, 1993, to the Boston Globe urging Congress to pass the ban. Reagan, having been shot in 1981 by a nut with a gun, was also instrumental in getting the Brady Bill passed in 1993: the Brady Bill (James Brady was Reagan’s press secretary and was paralyzed by gunshot wounds during the attack on President Reagan) set up background checks for gun purchasers. These are facts; you can verify them. That’s what makes a fact a fact.
The letter writer is indignant that 18-year-olds can vote because, according to him, 18-year-olds lack sufficient knowledge of the Constitution. The writer himself exhibits a bit of a Constitutional knowledge gap: The 26th Amendment gives 18 year olds the right to vote. Besides, if we limited voting rights to those who know the Constitution, it’s arguable that prominent office holders in the Executive Branch would not be allowed to vote.
You can bet that 18-year-olds are aware of the 26th Amendment even if the letter writer is not.
If you are a teacher, use the letter referred to here to teach what baseless efforts to persuade look like. Have your students rewrite the letter, verifying the various contentions. Have them determine whether verification is possible. Adults need to bring the same skepticism to what they read and view, particularly if they get their news from advocacy outlets like Fox or MSNBC. A moment from an old Simpsons illustrates the point: Homer says something ridiculous. The precocious Lisa challenges him. Homer, defending his ludicrous remark, replies indignantly to Lisa that his remark is true: “TV sez” is Homer’s defense. “TV sez” is not good enough, especially now.
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