Balk: Do the right thing, whatever that means


Tim Balk, Opinion Editor

Spike Lee was at Northwestern on Wednesday and spoke after a screening of his newest film, “Chi-Raq.” I missed the talk, which was disappointing.

I would have loved to listen to Lee, if for no other reason than the dude is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and directed what might just be the Great American Film. I’m talking about “Do The Right Thing,” of course, Lee’s 1989 masterpiece dealing with race relations on a street in Brooklyn.

Set on a blistering summer day, the film’s profundity comes in part from the fact that, at its end, it never gives a concrete answer as to what the “right thing” is.

Near the end of the film (spoiler alerts coming) the protagonist, played by Lee, upset by the wrongful killing of a black character by police, tosses a trash can through the window of the pizza parlor where he works, owned by his racist Italian-American boss.

Is this the right thing to do?

In the context of a complex film, it’s hard to say for sure. And Lee concludes the film by providing a pair of quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X presenting contrasting views on violence. Viewers are left to reach their own conclusions.

And it works. Because knowing what the right thing to do can be hard. Sometimes there is no “right thing” to do. Sometimes you just have to make your best guess.

For college students, this is an important lesson to remember. It’s easy to forget that people are, well, people, just going about their days, doing their best.

The world is infinitely complex, and on a given day we’re faced with endless decisions. We’re left to try our best, and to accept the fact that we’re supposed to make mistakes.

Take the presidential election. Nobody knows for certain the right way to vote. Choosing the “right thing” is complex. In the first place, there are philosophical questions to address. Do I want to vote for the person with whom my political views most align? Do I want to vote for the person who is most realistic and effective? Do I want to vote based on political reality or abstract idealism? On a candidate’s personality or on a candidate’s ideas?

What of the fact that each candidate, from Sen. Bernie Sanders all the way down to Donald Trump, would probably be better for some people and causes and worse for others?

We make our judgments and conclusions. That’s what living is. And on a smaller scale, we make such decisions on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Whether to prioritize sleep or study before an exam. Whether to do a reading or help a friend clean their dorm room. Even decisions carrying relatively little weight can be complex and stressful.

Part of the college experience is having to make these decisions, and often much more important ones, on our own. Weighing pros and cons, and sometimes screwing up.

Truth is, when it comes to many decisions, the right thing isn’t totally clear and may never be clear. That’s why we have debates, discussions and the rest. We try to puzzle closer to truth. But we should never forget that we’re further from it than we often like to admit. Nor should we forget that the point of college is, in large part, not to do the right thing but to practice working toward the right thing.

So maybe I should have cleared my commitments and gone to listen to Lee. Maybe I would have learned something. But I can’t say for certain whether going would have been the right thing to do.

Tim Balk is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.