For the past two weeks I have been participating, involuntarily, in a course about how to apply for jobs. I already know how to apply for a job, so that part of the course is a complete waste of time, but I am getting loads of insights to the wonder that is the human psyche. Just now I had following conversation down in the lobby by the elevators:
“Hi I’m the janitor. Where are you going?”
“To the 4th floor.”
“Are you a participant in the course?”
“Then you have to take the stairs.”
“Because that’s the way it is. It’s the rule. Says so on the sign there.”
I looked at him in disbelief and then I looked at the completely deserted lobby. There was really no one else around. The course is taking place in a high-rise building with a multitude of activities happening on the various floors. Office space, a kindergarten, various school type activities etc, so there are times when the elevators are very busy. At those times it does of course make sense to have a rule that says that the people higher up in the building, or the parents with their kids, have right of way to the elevator. But at this particular time the lobby was deserted. No one in sight. But the janitor was still sticking to his point – I should take the stairs. He even went as far as to say that he wanted to see me do that. I contemplated telling him that wouldn’t really be possible since he was actually standing in the elevator as we were having this conversation and the stairs are located in a separate entrance, but then I decided against it seeing as the likelihood of it being a very fruitful discussion was virtually zero. I waited him out and then took the elevator.
Rules are a funny thing. We make them to keep things organized, to prevent chaos. One might even say we need them, to make our existence predictable, manageable. Without rules society and our civilization might fall apart. Good rules should be foreseeable, logical, fill an obvious function. And when they do they are easy to follow. Adhering to them is even desirable. But rules have a treacherous nature. What was created to make our lives easier, more predictable, can just as easily enslave us. When a rule is enforced for its own sake, for no logical reason, they cease to have an organizing function and transform into something else. Something that resembles a prison. If you want me to adhere to a rule and the only motivation you can offer me is “because that’s the rule” the likelihood that my behavior will be as desired is not very high. The concept of rules for rules sake is not really a winning one, but rather tends to instill hostility and an attitude of resistance in those exposed to them. Like me taking the elevator as soon as he was gone. Granted I have a somewhat rebellious nature and I am prone to random acts of anarchism, but if a rule makes sense to me, if I can see a reason for it, I will generally follow it. And I don’t think I am unique in this sense. The danger with the type of rigid rule obedience that this janitor guy was trying to enforce is that it either fosters a mentality of unreflected obedience or undermines the credibility of rules all together.
A few years back I was working at a home for teenagers with various problems. As the cliché goes, these kids obviously needed to be given rules to give them guidance and we of course had a whole list to offer them. But what amazed me was how the kids related to these rules. Very few asked for the reasons behind them, they just wanted to get that list so they could memorize it and anything that wasn’t on that list was then automatically allowed. I had a very memorable conversation with one of the boys about the general concept of our rules. He was claiming that one or the other thing wasn’t regulated in these rules and therefore he couldn’t be held accountable for what ever it was he had done, the exact thing slips my mind, but it was something fairly obvious like stealing toilet paper from the communal bathroom or something like that.
“It doesn’t say that you shouldn’t leave your room naked either, but somehow you managed to figure that out.”
The point I was trying to get across to him was that rules shouldn’t be a substitute for him using his brain. All the rules were there for a reason and if he thought a bit about it he would actually be able to figure out if the things that weren’t explicitly mentioned in that list of rules were “allowed” or not. Essentially I was trying to explain the concept of common sense. It should also be pointed out that this particular boy was by no means suffering from a decreased intellectual capacity, quite the opposite, and in his case blind obedience was never even part of the plan. He liked to question things but his questioning had turned into an endless quest of finding loopholes. To him rules had lost their organizing role and transformed into something that should be overcome. My comment may not be the most professional statement I ever made, but it was a sort of summary of what rules should be: logical and comprehensible.
In the end I think it all comes down to some sort of fundamental belief in humanity. The belief that we are actually capable of understanding the concept of consequences. That we are not all just mindless robots unwilling and incapable of critical thinking and reflective thought. If there is a limited amount of elevators and some of the people have a greater need to use them they should be allowed the right of way. That makes sense. But to transform that into a rule that says that one group of people, the ones with a lesser need, are never allowed to use the elevators, even if they are all free, undermines the whole credibility of the rule. A foreseeable logic is the key to respect of any rules. Anything else will foster disrespect and disobedience because as soon as you start to question the reasons and the logic and you discover that there is none to be found, your respect for that rule will decrease. And if you have this experience too often you’ll soon lose faith not only in the rule at hand, but in the whole concept. And I think that’s what had happened to that boy. He had been given the “it’s the rule” answer so many times that he could no longer see what the real purpose of having rules was. He had lost sight of the fact that in the case of good rules you can usually figure them out on your own by just applying a bit of logical reasoning. Good rules help us organize things. I have no problem taking a queue number and waiting for my turn at the post office or similar places, it makes the whole activity easier for everyone involved, but if I’m the only customer there and the clerk still wants me to take a queue number that’s a different story. If that happens I will get pissed off, tired and disappointed in him or her as a fellow human being because asking me to do that is an expression of blind obedience and that’s something that should be avoided at all costs. I am not saying rules are made to be broken, not at all, but I am saying rules should always be questioned and those that don’t measure up should definitely be broken. Sticking to rules that have no logical reason and adds no value is not only stupid, but it fosters stupidity and reproduces it. Reflection and questioning is an integral part of being human and something that should be encouraged at all times. Even when it comes to rules. And if a rule has no other justification that “because it’s the rule”, then it most certainly should be broken. Part of me even wants to claim that it’s our duty to not follow those types of rules. An act of resistance to the dumbing down of society with questioning as the guiding principle.
I am going down to have a smoke now and I won’t be taking the stairs. Unless there are several people waiting who are in greater need to use the elevator. Then I will take the stars. When there’s a reason.