The wealthy D.C. suburb of Loudoun County, Virginia, has been making national news for what I’ll politely call “A School Board Full of Petty Tyrants.” Their recent proposals range from a proposed a speech code banning employees from criticizing its “racial equity” initiative to suspending a gym teacher after speaking at a school board meeting in opposition to a proposed gender identity policy.
Last week, the school district’s mania for silencing dissent took a turn for the ridiculous. Facing a room full of irate Loudoun residents with more than 250 people signed up for their minute at the mic, the board went into an early recess after a speaker elicited boos from the crowd.
For years, the board has insisted on total silence from all attendees at its meetings: no cheers, no boos, no applause. Instead, board members recommend attendees express their support by using “jazz hands.”
Returning from recess, board chair Brenda Sheridan sternly warned the crowd that another outburst would result in a vote to end public comment. A few dozen more citizens spoke, the clear majority opposed to the board’s relentless leftist agenda. In most cases, attendees remained obediently silent.
But when a former state senator’s speech brought the crowd to its feet, cheering, the school board made good its threat. They immediately voted to shut down public comment. Watch:
Much digital ink has already been spilled excoriating the Loudoun school board for its clear contempt for constitutional speech rights. I’m here for something a bit more trivial (although not unrelated). I’m here to argue in favor of applause — non-disruptive, reasonable clapping, with the occasional vocalized “woot!” — at public meetings.
No free-born American should ever be compelled, under any circumstances, to use “jazz hands,” because they’re not just a silly gesture. Here’s what these anti-applause policies are really about.
1. They’re a Mechanism of Control
Like Dolores Umbridge sweetly issuing an iron-fisted educational decree, the purveyors of “jazz hands” use decorum as a guise for the naked assertion of control. Never mind that applause has always been a polite, socially acceptable way of expressing approval in American culture. The elites are in charge now. You must leave your childish, provincial manners at the door.
One Loudoun parent expressed this well at last week’s meeting. “You treat your bosses—all of us—like children,” Daniel Brubaker told the school board. “When you give us a ‘time-out’ for clapping, we hear you saying, ‘Look at me. I am the captain now.’”
One wonders where this control over commonly accepted behavior ends. Are school board members allowed to demand that the public dress only in a certain color at school board meetings? Can they forbid smiling and end the meeting if anyone cracks a grin? Can they require attendees to copy the sentence “I must not tell lies” using a magical pen that cuts into their flesh?
2. They’re a Mechanism of Isolation
Besides asserting control, forbidding applause is a highly effective tool to isolate any citizen speaker at a public meeting. In nearly every circumstance, those who speak are facing a line-up of public officials, with their fellow citizens seated behind them.
The entire crowd could be fluttering their fingers like an audition for “A Chorus Line,” but the speaker has no way of knowing his peers are with him. The rousing, momentum-building effect of applause is entirely absent. His remarks are met with blank stares and silence. He is made to feel alone.
The elimination of audible support weakens the ordinary citizen versus those in power. It prevents cohesion among the people, which is always the bane of tyrants, small and great. It’s hard to believe the elimination of this stirring, unifying effect is purely accidental.
3. They’re a Mechanism of Humiliation
There’s nothing inherently foolish about a hand gesture, and there are cultural contexts in which it makes sense. In sign language, the gesture does convey applause. (Hmm, does that make “jazz hands” an appropriation of deaf culture by the hearing world?)
The undeniable fact, though, is that most Americans find the gesture awkward in typical contexts. It has never been used as a natural expression of approval in our mainstream culture. It feels foreign, forced, and often embarrassing.
After attending a Loudoun school board meeting to advocate for homeschool freedom in 2018, a friend joked, “I’m still recovering from the sight of 100 conservative homeschoolers being forced to do ‘jazz hands.’” Again, one wonders if this discomfort is being imposed by design.
Some argue that “silent applause” is more sensitive to those with sensory issues, who may find noise disturbing. But as a society, we accommodate the few in myriad ways without disrupting the normal cultural life of the many. Moreover, it’s far too convenient for elites to invoke hypothetical “compassion” to create a rule that serves the political purpose of squelching dissent.
If the school board in Loudoun County — and others like it — were truly interested in quiet, peaceful civil discourse, they might try listening to the parents of their students. They might try ceasing their endless culture-war drumbeat that treats other people’s children like subjects of a social experiment and weaponizes them against their families.
As long as they insist upon prioritizing indoctrination over education, they should have to listen to a few scathing critiques, followed by uproarious applause.