Rules

When it comes to rules I tend to operate on a strong version of the “less is more” philosophy. When you, as somebody with authority, make a rule, you’ve put your authority at risk. If people find that it’s easy to break your rules then your authority diminishes. Even science says so. That’s not the kind of risk you should take lightly, especially not when you consider that there’s a strong sheep component to people in groups. You can exert control just as effectively with guidelines, rules of thumb, social pressure, and concepts of politeness.

For example, there’s really only one rule for guests in my house, though there are a heap of things that it’s really better for you to do, or not do. The rule is, “Thou shalt not do things that undermine the hospitality I’ve offered in my home.” That means no making the other house guests cry. No destroying the stuff in my house. No doing things that will have the cops called on us or the neighbours coming after us with pitchforks. These are all corollaries of the one rule, but I would never list them individually when telling people “the rules.” This is, I think, the best form of rule making. It’s phrased with the goal, the desired circumstances and behaviour, explicitly in mind.

Now, there are ways to be an jackass in my house without breaking that rule. You could, say, give me an order or otherwise usurp authority that, in my house, is mine, not yours. I won’t kick you out (and I will throw you out cold and uncaring if you break my one rule) but I will probably be rude back to you. I’m southern, thus compulsively polite to house guests if not people in general, thus people will notice when I’m rude to you. The usual result, because my authority as hostess is in tact and respected, is that you lose social status. Or you shape up and everybody forgets it. Either way, the consequences are based on the transgression and how your behaviour guides the feedback loop with those consequences. This is healthy, and nobody is dishing out punishment over momentary slips.

Outside my house there are thousands upon thousands of rules from a whole host of authorities with a variety of abilities to enforce them. I don’t have any respect for most of them, and don’t go out of my way to obey most of their rules. I am terrified of the TSA and their authority, but their rules are so dumb and hard to enforce that I still catch myself pushing them and getting kicks out of doing it, even while being terrified of getting packed off to GITMO. (Want to know how to smuggle your shampoo into your carry on luggage? Ask me, but somewhere off the record) An authority with no respect and enormous power is deeply terrifying, and let’s face it guys, will always read like a sad parody of the Gestapo.

My main point though is this: There is nothing inherently wrong with rules. They let people know what needs doing in order to get the circumstances we want. But that must be the goal of the rules, it must be inherent in how we conceive them, and they must stop there. More rules just means more loopholes. Loopholes discredit everything they touch. Leave the breakable things to culture.

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