Journal of Applied Youth Studies, volume 2, number 3, February 2018
Recent years have seen the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo campaigns mobilise against the state repression of people of colour and oppressive male behaviour toward women.
These energetic movements provide important ongoing expressions of speaking truth to power.
Standing up for what you believe, especially when the protagonists are rich, powerful and dogmatic, is always going to be hard. It requires considerable courage and strong commitment.
Yet, this is precisely what American students have also been doing in the wake of the recent Florida mass shooting.
The origins of the phrase “speak truth to power” stems from an old Quaker saying from the 18th century that was reproduced in the book Speak truth to power: A Quaker search for an alternative to violence published in 1955.
Quakers are members of a group with Christian roots that began in England in the 1650s. The formal title of the movement is the Society of Friends or the Religious Society of Friends. Quakers, who practice pacifism, have long played a key role in both the abolition of slavery and women’s rights movements.
It is fitting, then, that the latest incarnation of speaking truth to power is likewise oriented toward alternatives to violence and the putting down of arms.
The “power” in this instance is the National Rifle Association (NRA), the major gun lobby in the United States.
Those who are speaking up against guns, especially military style guns, now count among their number survivors of the 14 February 2018 school massacre in which 17 of their classmates were killed.
Fearless in their demeanour and withering in their criticism, these students are leading a new wave of resistance to a mightily entrenched gun culture in the US.
The critique has been twofold but simple.
Stop the guns. Guns are the problem, not mental illness, victim precipitation, lack of security or unarmed teachers. Stop the guns, stop the killing.
Shame on the NRA. It is time for change, and the NRA and politicians taking money from the NRA need to be held to account. Their efforts are directed at stopping needed reform. To stop the killing means that major changes in gun laws are needed. Change the laws.
Passionate, uncompromising speeches, extensive television coverage, collective resistance to government efforts to keep them in the classroom, expert use of social media, and the translation of their anger and grief into political action have garnered for the students a voice on gun control that is unprecedented in recent memory.
So much so, that major companies are now joining the boycott of the NRA.
The campaign is hitting the powerful where it hurts.
So much so, that the victims of the tragedy have been transformed into villains in the eyes of some – students and their families are receiving daily death threats from gun supporters.
Meanwhile, the NRA is in attack mode in regards to those speaking out against their interests. It is on the back foot but the harder it pushes, the more traction that is gained by the anti-gun movement.
The actions of these students illustrate the ways in which mass mobilisation can circumvent and short circuit even the most powerful of interest groups.
Speaking truth to power is not easy. But, oh what a difference it can make. These high school students are showing by word and deed just how it is done and what can be achieved.
In doing so, they simultaneously give hope that a different future is, indeed, possible.