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.