Rule of dumb – 2.

Good people respond to “may nots.” Tell them that they may not do something, and they will either go along with that restriction or try to renegotiate it. Naughty people only respond to “cannots,” which are may nots with teeth. If there isn’t an actual cost to them doing what they want to do, they will carry on doing it.

Good people in our mainstream society are also increasingly conflict-averse people. That’s how we’ve bringing them up: not only to avoid conflict whenever possible, but without the skills to handle it when it’s unavoidable. As a result, they don’t like to enforce their own boundaries, and that includes reinforcing unspoken rules. They don’t like to go up to the local teenagers and tell them to stop using their car as a goalpost. When they do, they tend to come across either as pleading, and get laughed off, or as imperious, and get into all sorts of scrapes.  Even if they get the balance right, they tend to find that it doesn’t work: the naughty people just don’t care.

So what the good people do is look for external, societal enforcement. They might contact a government official or start a petition. And eventually somebody sitting in an office somewhere will get a piece of paper on their desk, spelling trouble for them because there is a Problem, and they need to Fix It.

The people sitting in offices tend to be good people, too, just as conflict-averse as the good people on the street, and with a formal or informal obligation to keep the public happy. So the people in the offices will write a rule, and have a sign put up in the car park – “no ball games.” That discharge their obligation to the community. Where there was chaos and much grinding of teeth, there is now a Rule. The Rule will ensure safety & peace.

The problem is that nothing’s changed. Rules are not magic spells: they don’t affect reality, regardless of how often you repeat them. Unless they carry an enforceable consequence, they are may-nots, not cannots. The good people, who wouldn’t have done naughty things anyway, will obey them. The naughty people, on the other hand, will continue doing whatever the hell they want, perhaps enjoying it all the more precisely because it is illicit. Then idiots like me, with no training, physical resources, or any kind of useful back-up will have to try and stop them.

And the fun thing is… the rule-enforcers are the only people who actually get punished for the rule-breaking. They are punished formally by their superiors if they fail to enforce them. They are punished informally by the good people, who have no compunction whatsoever venting all their pent-up angst against people whose uniforms stop them from retaliating. They are punished by the naughty people, who are equally happy practising their own brand of enforcement and playing the system to do their dirty work for them. They can do both: physically assault you and report you on a trumped-out charge; and, as members of the public, their word counts more than that of a hired official.

From the point of view of improving public behaviour, rules achieve virtually nothing. In a way, however, they work: they create a group of people who act as shock absorbers, as society’s designated punch-bags. All the good people can sleep a little better, knowing that they’ve done what they needed to do: their problems are now someone else’s responsibility.

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2 thoughts on “Rule of dumb – 2.

  1. Pingback: Rules | SMA bloggers

  2. Pingback: Rules – White Tiger Martial Arts

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