Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rules that are written and those that are real

Highway speed limits were the topic on the call-in radio show a few days ago in my home town. The show asked, since people routinely drive 20 kilometres an hour (at about 75 miles an hour for American readers) above the posted speed limit, maybe the province should just raise the posted speed limit to 120 km/h.

It's an interesting debate. On one hand, the law would acknowledge what people, drivers as well as police, are actually doing, anyway; on the other, raising the speed limit may encourage people to drive even faster.

Would someone who exceeds the speed limit—breaks the law, in other words—persist in unlawful behavior and drive 140 kilometres an hour?

The debate illustrates the difference between what people say and what they do, and between the stated laws and the rules that people really obey. John Irving explored this idea in his novel The Cider House Rules. Much of it is set on an orchard farm, whose owners post rules for the pickers who stay during the season in the “cider house.” Rules like "Please don't go up on the roof if you've been drinking—especially at night."

Of course, all the orchard pickers went up on the roof at night, with beer, because it was cooler.

The pickers disobeyed nearly all the written rules, but they obeyed very firm rules. Mr. Rose, the head picker, made the real rules that governed the cider house, rules that were clear and understood, if unwritten.

I think John Irving got it right: the real rules are unstated but clear.

We can see this phenomenon playing out all around us. The written rules say "no bullying tolerated," but bullies always have ruled every playground.

Writ large, we see this in eastern Ukraine today. The United Nations' rules proclaim the sovereignty of states, yet Russia supports its proxies in prosecuting a rebellion. Then official Russian government sources deny this, in writing, and decry Ukraine's use of force.

The written rules tell us not to commit adultery; in former centuries, the penalties were fierce. Yet there was probably as much sex unauthorized by religion or society going on in previous centuries as there is today.

Why the conflict?

The phrase "put it in writing" supposedly means that written communications is more credible, more reliable, more likely to be true. “Unwritten rules” is a cliché in itself. But the unwritten rules are more accurate.

The written rules tell us what we should do.

To me, the bigger question is not why we don’t follow the written rules, but rather, why we feel compelled to write down rules that go against what we normally do.

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