Over Rules

In my dealings with everyone from students, to acquaintances, to door-to-door political campaigners, I’ve decided that if I have an enemy type, it is the rule follower. Now, the longer you’ve known me, the more you’re probably laughing—because Ms. Meggie has been known to color within the lines. And I still do. When rules are sane, they increase social sanity. I once had a dream that I got a $55,000 ticket for going 55 mph in a parking garage. And even after I woke up, I decided that this was a good rule. But since I’ve grown a little, I’ve decided that following a rule doesn’t make a person good. I mean, we know that, right? The diabolical contract is all about causing great evil within the bounds of the rules. Or perhaps in ways more banal, the rule of law is where the weasels live. We get that. It’s something that occurs to us when we put away the rest of what Paul would call childish things. But the trouble is that I think about half this country doesn’t get it. In my years teaching, I’ve come across students who believe that because they followed all the rules of an assignment, they should get an A. In my years as a voter, I’ve found neighbors who believe that if everyone does what the country asks, nobody will be poor. Rules become a kind of economy—a transaction where somebody believes that if they put in this much discipline, or that much obedience, they’ll receive what a popular TV show just called moral dessert. You get to go to the head of the class. You get to go to the head of the economy. And if you somehow don’t get there, the onus is on somebody, somewhere who did not honor the contract. In other words, someone is not being *fair*. 

There are at least two problems here: First, as that TV show points out, moral dessert makes rule following an exercise in self-gratification. You follow the rule for the same reason that the lab rat pushes the lever: You get a cookie. You get the A. You get eternal life. Second, the rule-follower’s fetishization of fairness pushes everything from ethics, to human capability, to human worth into a sort of vending machine. Everybody knows what they’re supposed to do, and not a jot more. Everybody receives the cookie or not, regardless of anything else. Never mind that not everybody is within the same reach of the vending machine, or that somebody might have given half their quarters to someone else who had nothing for the vending machine, because that someone had to go down the hall and do their laundry. Never mind that closing existence into a system of lawful fairness puts a boundary around the desire to go beyond fairness. There is no reward for that. Or perhaps more damning, there is excessive award—extra credit—for helping someone who, for reasons that must be their fault, cannot achieve enough transactions to thrive on their own*. When you help the unexceptional struggler, you are a saint for feeding him. You are a saint for aiding a refugee from a shithole country. Because—according to your system of lawful fairness—you have already done what’s required of you. As a human, you’ve lived up to the contract. And your god? Well, I gotta tell you: If he really did set up this system, the chances are good that he isn’t around anymore. He set up the vending machine; it drops its goodies to those who deserve it. He’s got you on an automatic feeder. You aren’t his children. You don’t behave like a family of children. At best you’re his workers. And more likely, you’re just an experiment. 

It’s time to grow up. We have the capability of generosity. We have the breadth for imagination and empathy. We have the birthright not just to live life but to uphold it. You—and everything around you—are so much bigger. You—and everything around you—receive so much more attention. And that should scare you at least as much as your worries about not collecting enough tokens to buy the brownies, and their implicit points, to keep you out of hell.

*(Mind you, that when you failed up near the top of my post, the problem was with the system—and not you. You are the exception. Fairness thinking contradicts itself, in favor of the self.)

(Originally posted February 9, 2017)

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