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Oct 11 2013

“The rules”

What’s wrong with invoking “the rules” when you’re trying to explain a perceived problem with certain kinds of speech or action or display or performance? Is there anything wrong with it? I think there is, yes, so I’m thinking about why. (This started with a reply to Minnow on The proud tradition of a free press.)

What’s wrong with it? It’s that it doesn’t get at the issues. It’s a shortcut, and shortcuts aren’t good for getting at issues. It doesn’t help significantly to talk about unwritten rules, because the rule quality remains, and that’s what falls short.

There are things I strongly think people should not do, though, so doesn’t that amount to rules? No, I don’t think so, although I could put them into rule form if I had to.

  • don’t make fun of the school bus driver and tell her how ugly and fat and hopeless she is
  • don’t call the high school atheist an evil little thing, especially in public, especially if you’re a legislator
  • don’t make clucking sounds while a legislator who is a woman is speaking

That helps to clarify one reason it’s not useful to invoke “the rules” – it’s because such rules shouldn’t be needed, because they fall under a broader heading, which isn’t itself really a rule, it’s more like a basic requirement for being a decent human being. It’s basically “don’t be shitty to people”…and I think that isn’t a rule so much as an orientation.

It isn’t a rule because people shouldn’t want to be shitty in the first place. If they don’t have that basic gut-level instinct, they need more work than rules can give.

But then we disagree on the details. I argue that personal insults=being shitty, but challenging beliefs is not being shitty. Others argue that challenging beliefs is indeed shitty; others again argue that challenging beliefs is shitty if it’s done in a particular way – with cartoons for instance.

I argue that personal insults in the form of group-based epithets – racist, ethnic, homophobic, nationalistic, and sexist – equal being shitty. Others argue that personal insults in the form of group-based epithets – racist, ethnic, homophobic, nationalistic, but not sexist – equal being shitty. Somebody was arguing that at me yesterday on Twitter, and very annoying it was. I don’t think I have yet seen anyone argue that racist epithets don’t equal being shitty, but I’m sure such people exist.

So would rules help to settle these disputes? Maybe. Possibly. Sexist epithets are popular because they’re popular; if rules made them less popular, they would spread less, and maybe the fashion would simply wither and die. But what rules wouldn’t do is get people to understand why they’re shitty in the first place.

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  1. 1
    hjhornbeck

    This is why I usually add a rule like “final word goes to the people in charge” to any code of conduct I help draft. It’s the best way to short-circuit “rules lawyering,” and the possibility of encouraging authoritarianism rarely pans out in my experience.

  2. 2
    georgelocke

    (This started with a reply to Minnow on The proud tradition of a free press.)

    “the rules” Minnow referred to were the policies of a particular institution in regard to a particular event. The OP seems to be in reference to “the rules” of human behavior in general.

    When a particular behaved in such a such a fashion, that behavior may be explained in reference to that institution’s policies, and there’s nothing weaselly about that unless you’re unwilling to discuss whether those rules are worth following.

  3. 3
    georgelocke

    ok, apparently I’m QUITE MISTAKEN: it appears that Minnow was referring to some nebulous, possibly ficitious “the rules” and not any actual set of policies.

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    George :)

    And yes, but also, I said “started with” on purpose, instead of for instance “is in reply to.” It set off a train of thought which was mostly independent of the comment.

    I guess where the two intersect is – I think what Minnow really meant is not “the rules” at all but the background assumptions, which are mostly both too obvious and too general to be listed – don’t hit people, don’t knock people’s tables over, don’t set fire to anything – and on and on.

  5. 5
    SallyStrange

    Funny, I was having a conversation on FB yesterday along these lines. Nice guy, uneducated about feminism and the ins and outs of dehumanizing language. People were explaining why it’s not okay to use “female” as a noun to refer to women.

    “So are you saying that I’m not ALLOWED to do that?” He’d respond. Or, “I see, so, saying cunt isn’t permitted because it doesn’t fit with civil discourse.”

    No, people would say, you’re ALLOWED to do whatever you want. It’s just that this kind of language is inadvisable for the following reasons. And again he’d fall back on the allowed/permitted/forbidden paradigm.

    I think I actually ran into an authoritarian who’s well-intentioned AND introspective self-aware. Kind of a novelty.

    I ended up explaining to him that nobody has the power to enforce anything here. If he disregards us, the only thing that will happen is that some people will feel upset or angry and might express that. And others–namely misogynists–might feel vindicated. His framing made it seem as if he only refrains from dehumanizing women because there are rules about it and he follows rules. But that isn’t how morality works, or, at least, it isn’t how it ought to work, in my opinion. Saying, “These are THE RULES” removes the need to take responsibility for making your own moral choices. So, I said as much, and now he’s mulling it over.

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    Zactly.

  7. 7
    Stacy

    “So are you saying that I’m not ALLOWED to do that?”…

    His framing made it seem as if he only refrains from dehumanizing women because there are rules about it and he follows rules. But that isn’t how morality works, or, at least, it isn’t how it ought to work, in my opinion.

    Some people use Rules framing for the opposite purpose–”You’re being an authoritarian and telling me how to behave!” they say, “How dare you! You’re not the boss of me.” The slimies were big on that one back in the day. Treating women with basic human respect is often cast by sexists as some sort of onerous RULE that they are bravely refusing to follow because they’re big brave iconoclasts.

    Conservatives framing consideration for anyone other than themselves as “Political Correctness” is the same sort of thing.

    Either way, bottom line: what Ophelia said.

  8. 8
    georgelocke

    @Ophelia 4 & @SallyStrange 5

    Thanks fro the commentary.

  1. 9
    Guest post: “The rules” 2 » Butterflies and Wheels

    […] a comment by SallyStrange on “The […]

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