The Overreach of the Self-Righteous

Thomas Dobbs, Managing Editor

Dear Burroughs,

Please grow up.

Mr. Novak, the production and technical manager in the Theater Department here at John Burroughs, shared with us a Veterans Day video recalling his time serving as a Marine in Iraq. Rather than sharing our gratitude for his service, sacrifice, and dedication, our community instead acted self-righteously. A few days after the incident, Mr. Novak apologized for some obscure and undefined stereotype that at some point allegedly was perpetuated in the clip. Suddenly, the narrative changed. It took just one complaint.

We as a community no longer remember the message, theme, or context of the video and instead only remember the unwarranted apology. I call such an apology “unwarranted” because it lacked specifics. I have yet to find someone who can recall the precise sin.

To clarify, I fully support nuanced and spirited discussions about US military operations abroad with respect to the morality of specific military policies. But passing condemning judgment as seen by a photograph or video of a situation most of us will never understand slams the door shut to the possibility of discussion. It is the equivalent of viewing a photograph of doctors and nurses working in COVID-wards and then taking issue with their facial expressions or morale. Even if your point is technically accurate, it distorts the significance and difficulty of the moment. Scrutizine anyone in a position of stress and you are bound to find flaws and blemishes.

Mr. Novak, the majority of Burroughs students recognize your sacrifice for your country, as well as your dutiful work in daily assemblies and numerous school-sponsored events, such as Commons Cafe. You should be proud of your time spent sacrificing for your country, and I hope we all take the time to emphasize and thank you for your service. Intentions do matter.

It is true that such trivial emotional conflicts should no longer surprise us. The same flood of oversensitivity that enables us to expect apologies from a Veterans Day video is the same that has led us to other woes. Taking offense by citing minute and trivial concerns is a full-time competition at our school. Do month-long prom theme controversies sound like a normal aspect of high school? Perhaps serious arguments over GroupMe when pitching Senior t-shirt ideas will convince you of our demise? MICDS day? Not worth it. Lutheran North football? No thanks. Let’s have sports competitions and then cancel them. Did the science change or did we?

All such top-down adjudications threaten our society and community because they are undemocratic and illiberal. It’s all about what sounds good instead of what is good. I understand that certain people will select a few of the afore-mentioned topics and initiate a prolonged diatribe on the reasoning behind such a decision, but it is the overall pattern of decision-making that I hope to scrutinize. We systematically enable the outrage of a few to outshine the gratitude of many. Our world does not tolerate indecision or triviality, and it laughs when we cannot manage high school rivalries or non-offensive prom themes. As it should. When every decision is guided along thin political tightropes whilst dominated by fear instead of principled and decisive leadership, such missteps flourish. Perhaps a more significant example of indecision is one that occurred just this spring. Will we or will we not accept federal coronavirus relief funds? If John Burroughs needed the funds to support our staff and prevent layoffs, I agree this reason is both understandable and appropriate. But, when the media began to paint well-funded institutions who accept government relief as villainous, John Burroughs symbolically returned the loan. Did employees go unpaid or were the funds unnecessary? In this rebuke, I am not blind enough to ignore student failures. Working towards common sense requires good-faith students just as much as good-faith administrators. I am disheartened as much as any administrator when I see large unmasked student gatherings. Who are we to judge others when we ourselves cannot follow basic protocols of safety? But just as I criticize my classmates for ignoring health protocols, I also hope to speak to the administration on their flaws. And that is paying too much attention to outside noise. Here is my message: Stop listening to the exhortations of a few individuals who seek attention, controversy, and the non-stop pursuit of holding others to undefined heights of untainted virtue. Tell them to look themselves in the mirror, reflect upon their complaints, and to act with reason. The worthy and righteous goal of tolerance and inclusion should not enable a few radical neurotics to impede actions of little consequence. And when they come to your office door, respond with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” It is a fact that the video was intended to be nonoffensive, and we are yet to hear exactly what stretch of the imagination one could enact to categorize it as such. We can hyper-analyze the clip and locate the exact instant of a stereotype. Perhaps we would all even agree that the instant could be perceived as harmful. But does this scenario warrant a school-wide apology or the expectation of one? Every time we enable oversensitivity to silence others, more become unwilling to share their opinions publicly.

For objecting to prom and field day themes complaints, the hasty removal of MICDS day, or assembly apologies I have been titled hyperbolic or insensitive. But if any challenge to the sentiment-driven status quo immediately warrants accusations of poor faith, perhaps this signifies more pervasive rotting of the individual mind. You either agree and silently nod or you are simply ignorant and can’t practice empathy.

Mr. Novak, I apologize for this controversy, respect your desire to remain out of the spotlight, and appreciate your willingness to put this matter to rest. But just imagine if we enabled the fabricated reality of one to dominate the decisions of the whole in more important societal dilemmas than one Veterans Day video. All in all, I hope that the administration will play their part by heeding the voice of the silent majority instead of the shrieks of the insensible few.