It was an uplifting sight last week to see a video of a Las Vegas elementary school erupting with cheers, squeals and dance in response to just a few words from their teacher: “Starting tomorrow we don’t have to wear masks anymore!”
Those children were experiencing the joy many of us have started to feel as more places begin to roll back mask mandates, loosen quarantine requirements and generally forecast hope for a return to normalcy following two years of fear, isolation and general bunker-down mentalities. It’s the kind of joy that makes us once again appreciate the little things normalcy offers — like face-to-face interactions with our children’s teachers, hosting our child’s sleepover at our home, scheduling a weekly social event or a vacation without worrying about whether or not it might get canceled.
A return to normalcy doesn’t always inspire joy, however, if it involves a return to dysfunction.
In fact, if we think back to our world prior to February of 2020, we would discover a “normal” not all that different from the problems of today, a normal that still meant a world divided along lines of politics, culture, and faith. It was a period where catchphrases such as “inclusion” and “tolerance” were still aimed not at creating respectful and supportive environments but rather at nurturing a grievance culture that put everyone on guard against any mistake. Driven in great part by an often-distant and unforgiving media who feels no shame for distorting truth, it was still a period where professionals, particularly in health and education, suspended their beliefs and best judgments in order to accommodate the squeakiest wheels.
It was a normal that showcased an institutional dysfunction that began years ago and was highlighted by attorney and writer Philip K. Howard in his book The Lost Art of Drawing the Line: How Fairness Went Too Far. There he argues that over time, institutions have effectively lost the authority to make solid professional decisions as well an understanding of the common good.
It is an outcome he attributes to organizational attempts throughout the 20th century to increase efficiency and make decisions relying on a morally neutral framework intended to accommodate an increasingly pluralistic society. By dismissing the importance of humanity and the importance of leaders grounding decisions in a morality that actually promotes good decisions, he argues institutions have thrown away their actual authority. What they created instead was a breeding ground for every individual grievance, whether or not it is morally justified. And unfortunately, it is this pressure from this grievance culture that now forces leaders to make judgments based not on what they deem best in their professional and moral judgment but rather on what will allow them to avoid the most headaches.
According to Howard, this dysfunction is why leaders in the medical profession make decisions that aren’t primarily about promoting health but rather about avoiding malpractice claims. It also encourages educational leaders to make decisions based not on what actually benefits students or will allow teachers to draw on their personalities and passions to teach, but rather on what will protect their system from the most criticism (even if that criticism comes from those outside their districts). In other words, it’s a dysfunction that effectively incentivizes leaders to make decisions in pursuit of a superficial common good that Howard argues is actually “not that good.”
It’s a dysfunction, I believe, that still survives and has done us no favors throughout the pandemic; in fact, it has only further damaged the public trust of our institutions.
Doctors who legitimately prioritized people’s health were pressured from the beginning of the pandemic — particularly because of partisan-driven politics— to refrain from exercising their best judgment or offering individualized early patient treatment for COVID. In fact, doctors who had witnessed firsthand the effectiveness of repurposing historically safe drugs like ivermectin to treat COVID patients were essentially forced to “go rogue” and offer such treatments without institutional support and at the risk of ridicule in spite of their success in using that treatment. And now, it has been suggested that more lives were possibly lost because of the lack of such early treatments.
Likewise, educational leaders — overburdened with meeting demands from our public health officials as well as vocal parents with conflicting beliefs about how best to navigate the pandemic — have set aside their own professional judgments about how to implement best teaching practices during a pandemic in favor of what would avoid the biggest liabilities. It’s a decision with academic, social, and emotional impacts I imagine we’ll be uncovering for years to come.
Still, the task of resetting or solving the downside of this institutional “normal” isn’t an easy one.
It’s admittedly a problem created by every one of us and thus one we all could (and should) help solve. By simply checking our perceived grievances against actual reality — by making sure our complaints are based in fact and stand on a moral foundation — we could avoid contributing to the kind of culture that incentivizes decisions that simply avoid liability and criticism.
But getting people to agree these days on what is or isn’t “fact,” much less on what is or isn’t moral, is unfortunately not something that will happen overnight.
Given that, a more immediate solution is to find ways to incentivize, encourage, and protect, in both the public and private sphere, institutional leadership that encourages a commitment to moral principles, as well as strong professional judgment, in spite of public grievances and complaints.
If institutions actually want to move beyond an old standard of normal that actually benefits nobody and undermines its own authority, they have to come up with a new normal. They need to re-affirm their authority to make decisions in pursuit of the common good and deliver leadership that isn’t easily deterred from doing so by political attacks or fear of liability. And this they can only do by making room for leaders who understand the importance of making decisions steeped in fact, moral conviction, and strong professional judgment — and who are finally willing to take a stand.
Krissie Allen is a former attorney and English teacher who writes about issues impacting faith, society, and good sense. Her column appears every Tuesday in 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.