Here Are the Rules

A fist labeled "Obey"I’ve lived a good part of my life in the north, and plenty of places besides Pennsylvania (New Jersey, New York, West Virginia, Indiana). So I’ve seen snow. I’ve seen enough snow to satisfy Siberia. But I grew up in the south, and I guess my formative response to the seasons originated in a more temperate climate. That may account for the fact that on a day like today I’m thinking, “It’s October! Why the fuck is it snowing?”

And they say we’ll get inches. And inches. And inches. Ahhhhhhh!

Alright. OK. I’m calm now. Anyway, there’s half a bottle of whiskey in the kitchen, and maybe some food. I’m sure it’ll be alright.

I did sit down here with a real topic: following the rules. I suppose most people instinctively don’t like rules, which is not the same thing as rebelling against them. Actually, I believe it’s more likely that we’re ambivalent about rules. We don’t like being told what to do, but a place that literally has no rules, or not enough rules, sounds pretty creepy in practice. I’m looking at you, Somalia. Anarchy may be tolerable in a room full of two-year-olds, but it’s not that much fun at the national level. That’s probably why libertarian politicians like Ron Paul, who sort of remind us of anarchy, never get very far. Americans vote for libertarians the way Italians used to vote for communists. It’s OK, as long as they don’t actually get elected.

I also have to admit that some rules seem like Inherently Good Things. I want every single rule carefully followed in connection with flying an airplane. Or for that matter I want every Toilet Repair Rule followed. That is not the place to express rebellion against conformity.

My interest in this blog is more about social rules. I’ll quote a bit of wisdom from my ex-wife, a line I’ve used from time to time since I heard her say it. In describing the inscrutable mystery of how to raise a child properly, she said, “What makes a good child makes a bad adult.” We want children to do what we tell them, because probably 70-80% of the time  we do know what we’re talking about. We do not want recalcitrance, procrastination, or interrogation. We want immediate, cheerful obedience to our authority.

When adults give immediate, cheerful obedience to authority you can get some rather horrible results. If adults deserve to be called adults, they should be questioning. So how do you raise a human being to transition smoothly from quiet obedience to critical questioning of authority? The unfortunate answer is that there’s not a way. It necessarily involves pouting, tears, and slamming doors.

Now here’s my real topic. (It took me a while to warm up, didn’t it? I’m like an old car that has to sit running in the snow for a while.) One of the most pernicious phemonena in human culture is social rules. We’ll always have rules about how to behave, how to interact, what is “proper”, but some, or many, of those rules are overtly stupid and worse, like the rule that a woman cannot be governor of the state. But with a lot of thrashing around, noise, and with—guess who?—conservatives opposing the change, we’ve started getting rid of that rule.A woman breaking a rule of sitting on steps

An argument might be made that social rules exist to provide the greatest good to the most people, that we are all happier with social rules. I don’t think that’s always true. Basic human nature, basic needs, physical and spiritual, are the same throughout the world. If social rules are meant to ensure our happiness, then how is it possible for such rules to be not merely different, but stupendously different, throughout time and around the world? Almost every rule we find in any location can be contradicted in a dozen other  places.

At heart, social rules are about control. Of course I do not want to be controlled myself. I want other people to be controlled. Without social rules, I would have to think about things more, give more serious contemplation to what really is good or bad in a given situation, without a ready answer in the form of a rule. So much thinking. I might wind up having to think all the time.

There is only one rule that truly, morally, needs to be obeyed. Do not hurt anyone. Do not hurt anyone either by action or by negligence. If you are seriously trying to observe this, then all other rules are optional. (Though you will hurt people by accident sometimes; it’s part of the human condition.)

Often, very often, social rules harm the search for happiness, already not an easy thing to start with. Let’s note some literary examples. The ones that spring most immediately to my mind are about women, as so many social rules are about controlling women: Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina by Tolstoy), Janie (Their Eyes Were Watching God by Hurston), Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary by Flaubert). These three woman all suffer in various ways because society has said to them, “Here is what you have to do.” The rules they are given have no relationship to their feelings, to what they need emotionally, or to how they are being treated. It does not matter how your husband treats you. This is what we are telling you to do.

In 1993 Daniel Day-Lewis was in a movie version of The Age of Innocence (by Edith Wharton). The book takes place in the 1890s in upper-class New York, a society with rules and rituals as rigid as any tribe on earth. In describing his feelings toward the behavior of the characters in the movie, Daniel Day-Lewis said, “These people were savages.”

Part of what made them savage was the same thing that makes the good people standing on the steps of churches in small towns all over America just as savage—the way they treated people who broke the rules. To break idiotic social rules that stand between you and happiness, you have to be brave, and it’s hard to be brave.

If you want to write a novel, there is a ready-made topic here. This problem will never go away, and you can set your novel in any location on earth.

Cartoon of a woman rejecting rules

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Here Are the Rules

  1. did you ever read any richard bach, david?

  2. I don’t think so, or if I did, it was mucho many years ago, now a possibility. Is it something I might have read in high school?

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