It’s not a secret that Comrade PhysioProf and I have some rather fundamental disagreements on the subject of rules. On the occasion of his contributing a guest post for Dr. Isis that is chock full of the things, I thought it was a good opportunity to go into some depth on why I think rules are problematic.
Law Versus Culture
It is a weakness of our species that we tend to look at what is and accept it as what should be, particularly the things that change very little. In fact, the way our brains work, we stop noticing anything that is static enough. We do it for very good reasons: physical danger equals change; thought is physically expensive, requiring large amounts of energy. However, it makes us somewhat conservative.
This means that we tend to “problematize” deviations from the norm. They draw our attention in the same way danger does. This is an issue we see in medical circles and schools, where the debate is ongoing on where to draw the line between a very energetic child and a hyperactive one. The debate is present in psychiatry, where the lines are still shifting on what kinds of sexual expression should be considered disordered. And it’s definitely present in law, where much of the last century has been a fight to dismantle laws that do nothing more than decide who wins when two cultures clash.
To see how this tendency shapes laws, look no further than U.S. laws on clothing. Transport a woman from a Brazilian public beach to one in the U.S. and she will be arrested for indecency. The same is true for all but the most conservatively dressed of the men. Even they, in their Speedo-like suits, will raise cries of, “There oughta be a law.” Yet the clothing, or lack thereof, is nothing more than a cultural difference.
Similarly, CPP’s rules enshrine the norms of a single culture, one which specifically privileges the voices of particular people, stories of particular experiences and attributions to particular causes. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with the existence of that culture. However, CPP’s assertion that those rules are minimum requirements to “be a tolerable person” ignores that other cultures abound, even and especially within feminism.
In fact, by laying these local norms out as general rules, CPP suggests that other cultures of feminism aren’t valid. He suggests that if my rules for operating my blog are different, this isn’t a feminist blog. Skepchick wouldn’t be a feminist blog by those standards, no matter how much ass they kick. In fact, most blogs that operate from an assumption of equality and attempt to model equality as the norm rather than deconstructing the ways in which inequalities are conditioned wouldn’t count as feminist.
Taking the local norms with which he is most comfortable and turning them into (fucking!!!eleventy11!!11) rules puts CPP in a position to argue that his is the One Valid Culture. In the end, it allows him to decide which is the “true” feminism, which is absurd on its face but has happened in more than one argument. Obviously, I won’t have any of that, either personally or on principle.
Attribution and Consequence
Don’t we need rules, though, to protect us and stuff? Well, yes, but we should be very careful about making any rules that aren’t necessary and extra careful to avoid rules that are unrealistic. Why? Partly because of how we treat rule-breakers.
There’s this nifty little cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution error. In short, we tend to ignore the context of another person’s actions when deciding why they took that action. Instead, we believe that the person’s actions directly reveal their character. That’s not good thinking in any situation, but it’s particularly problematic when we don’t differentiate between local cultural norms and laws. With the fundamental attribution error, people of different cultures don’t just break rules (behavior); they reveal themselves to be criminals, and criminals may be stripped of their rights at will.
Yes, we have laws expressly designed to protect the rights of criminals. It’s a good thing we do, too, because we’re so damned bad at doing it ourselves, even with laws in place. Consider the Japanese internment camps of WWII. Consider the Bush administration’s position on torture. Consider the blissed-out dude who got beat up by the cops for a failure to follow directions. Consider the teenage girl who was sneered at by the U.S. Supreme Court for objecting to being strip-searched over ibuprofen.
This is hardly limited to people who break written laws, either. How many people have “gotten what they had coming” for holding the wrong person’s hand, being in the wrong part of town or saying, “No,” to the wrong person? Even just for having the wrong hair or skin, clothing or jewelry?
Nor does it matter much whether those who are accused are guilty of anything. The interred Japanese weren’t, and too many heterosexuals have ended up gay martyrs. This is another right that is formalized in our U.S. justice system specifically because it is not natural to us. Unless we know or admire the accused, we rarely hold judgment until a verdict is rendered.
Acquittals, even exonerations in which a different party is found guilty, do not restore reputations. There is a lasting taint to even being associated with broken rules. And when that taint results in a loss of rights, we must be as cautious as possible in assigning rules. Personal annoyance and discomfort do not outweigh such a curtailment.
Application and Enforcement
There are also problems involved in enforcing rules. I don’t think “power corrupts” is quite accurate in this regard. It may be true for some, but they make up a very small minority who were probably corrupt to begin with. Rather, unrewarded responsibility corrupts.
There are two general types of statements that come out of law enforcement or national security types when they are caught breaking their own rules. “I did what I had to do to get the bad guy,” and, “I am not a bad person. I uphold the law.” I think both are sincerely believed.
I have yet to meet someone who wants to go into law enforcement who doesn’t convincingly say they want to make the world a better, safer place. I don’t know how many of them, however, are prepared to have safety constantly demanded of them–and by a populace that mocks and fears them at least as much as it appreciates them. Nor do I know of any other rule-enforcement jobs that have a more easily satisfied clientele.
What we end up seeing in this situation is rules stretched to cover those whom the rule-makers and enforcers “know” to be bad, in an attempt to meet impossible demands. We also see a sense of entitlement among the enforcers that is somewhat natural, given the thankless nature of their jobs. The one reward the enforcers have under their own control is exemption from the rules.
In the end, this means that the punishment for rule-breaking is meted out, not based on who has actually broken the rules, but based on who wears the white hats and who wears the black ones. Protesters believed to be potentially violent are treated as though they’re rioting. Tickets and warnings (or nothing at all) are handed out based on skin color or accent or the age and condition of a car. Evidence is planted by officers who are frustrated over not finding what they’re sure should be there. And the occasional police officer or other public official makes it into the paper for failing to be arr
ested when they should have been.
In the online world, people are banned for being annoying or for questioning or mocking moderators. Failures to be polite or deferential are recharacterized as some rule violation or another, as are substantive differences of opinion. And friends and others “in good standing” at a site are not held by the enforcers to the same requirements for accuracy and impartiality as are those who might disagree with the enforcers.
When it comes down to it, human enforcement of rules is applied with all the accuracy and delicacy of a dull battle axe wielded by a Weta orc in full-body latex. Considering the harm that even an accusation of rule-breaking can do, we need a rapier, but we’re not getting one. Do we want to pile on more rules and add to the wild swinging?
Cost to Society
Golden Rule: Thems as has the gold makes the rules.
Laws and rules don’t get made without constituencies, and they don’t get made without that constituency believing the new rule or law will make them more secure. However, one is not merely secure. One is secure from something or someone, and one of the ironies of our system of government is that political influence frequently flows so that the constituencies protected by a new rule are the constituencies from which others may need to be protected. All too often, the bullies set the rules.
I mentioned earlier that much of our recent legal history involves dismantling laws that privilege one culture over another. Unfortunately, we haven’t lost the tendency during that time to enact laws that privilege a single culture. The most visible example in the last 30 years has been the trend toward enshrining religious values (the “sanctity” of various types of human tissues, the erosion of certain church-state barriers in regard to funding). We have allowed the size and influence of the evangelical movement to buy it more influence.
In allowing this to happen, we’ve stigmatized certain types of dissent, and that’s not something our society can afford. Dissent is what protects us from our own worst authoritarian tendencies–and those of others. Dissent is what keeps us secure from other constituencies. In creating new rules, we had better be damned sure we’re not enacting barriers to dissent.
Then there is the general cost to enforce rules. Enforcement takes resources. Public safety budgets expand with the number of rules they must cover. They also expand with the severity of the punishment prescribed. Harsh drug laws (along with the tendency to assign hat color based on skin color and wallet size) have bloated our prison systems and our tax bills.
Believe it or not, a very similar thing happens online. “Don’t feed the trolls,” is not just said because attention encourages the creatures. Policing comment threads takes a remarkable amount of time and energy that could be much better spent on the original topic that had everyone so interested, and there is just something about codifying a complicated set of cultural norms into rules that tends to make participants focus on broken rules to the exclusion of content. It hurts me to watch, since the two effective strategies I’ve found for dealing with trolls both involve getting the thread back on topic as soon as possible.
So, after all that, why don’t I like rules? Our society tends to treat habit as law, stigmatizing and punishing those even suspected of having different habits. The pressures placed on our rule-enforcers to make us secure with rules about which we carry some ambivalence ensure that rules will be enforced as unequally as they are created. And the more rules we have, the more resources we spend on enforcement that could be better spent on something else.
In the end, what Comrade PhysioProf has written is a fairly standard summary of the expectations for males participating in a particular culture of feminism. It is nothing like–and should not be confused for–the received word on how to “be a tolerable person.” Not for a single minute. We don’t need any more of those.