Saturday, October 3, 2009


I've had two interactions recently that put my earlier thoughts on the Grid into perspective. Both of them were about the idea of rules.

First, Jeanne Burns on her Quakers and Social Class blog posited that:
Middle and owning class people make the rules, and when working class or poor people don't follow the rules, there are dire consequences
This was followed up by some interesting comments. I'm sorry she wasn't willing to take it further, but I stand by my suggestion that (A) rules in general are something most folks desire, that they provide strcuture, and (B) that while many rules become means of maintaining position—that they are about the rich stayig rich and the powerful staying powerful—some rules are also about everyone being able to be part of the same "game," whether that game is a marketplace, a social interaction, a religious practice, or a game. And some are about keeping everyone safe and alive.

The second kind of rules are like the measuring kind of grid that has been discussed here before: rules of the marketplace say that certain kinds of contract are binding, that prices can be negotiated in these circumstances but not those, that my $10 is the same as your $10 (and yes, there are rules in many marketplaces that say the opposite, but these are the other, pernicious, keep-them-in-their-place kinds of rules).

As a parent of a seven-year-old, I am especially aware of the third kind of rule, and how easily it can be seen as the first kind ("Why can't I bungee-jump off the roof? It's not fair! All the other kids are doing it. You're just trying to keep me from having grown-up fun!" Not an actual quote, but close enough). Seatbelt laws as another means for the power elite to grab more power.

All rules feel like power-reinforcement tools when you're not in power.

And yet, we humans need some sort of internalized structure. Practices can form much of that structure, but so do rules. I'm thinking of the Rule of St Benedict, the basis for much of western Christian monastic life. It is highly structured and full of rules, but it allows those who submit to it the space to pursue a deeply spiritual path. It removes a variety of external anxieties.

Because at their best, rule systems are like a kind of group handshake. We agree when we walk onto the field that these are the rules of the game, and so we can feel confident that we are not going to have to work too hard to avoid being maimed by the other team.

The other conversation about rules was from a relatively recent arrival at meeting, who asked me via email about the unwritten rules of the meeting. Jeanne also talks about the unwritten rules as specifically enforcements of middle-class values. In her response to my comment, she wrote:
As for rules evolving from truth...there's a very good reason why Quakers have testimonies and don't consider them rules. One is that truth is always evolving; setting the truth in stone makes it that much harder to see new Light. Another is that our testimonies are evidence of our changed hearts, not guidelines to live by. First comes the changed heart. Then the new way to live life. Not the other way around.
This is all true. My response to the question about unwritten rules was:
One of the peculiar things about Friends is the weird (from the standpoint of society at large) way there appear to be unwritten rules. Often Friends chide one another for "breaking" these rules, but the rules are uncodified for a reason. In the end, there are structures and habits and usual practices, but no rules, as I understand the term.

The entirety of Quaker practice comes from the idea that the forms of worship and of living in the spirit ought to emerge out of convincement, of real spiritual feeling. Early Quakers were specifically rebelling against the falseness they saw in churchly "outward forms" and so they rejected rituals of baptism and communion, believing that inward baptism and inward communion were what was important, and that it was too easy for people to fake these sacraments, making them empty forms.

So, there are no codified "rules" as people usually use the term.

That does not mean "anything goes." It is customary, for example, to speak only once, if at all. In extraordinary circumstances, someone does speak twice, but that second spoken ministry had better be something that shakes the meeting's rafters, and it better have the sense that the speaker was given no choice but to speak twice, that he/she was PUSHED into speaking against his/her own reluctance. And that it was not self doing the pushing. If not, other many attenders will think the speaker is being self-indulgent.
The problem with rules—or forms in general—in a religious context is how easily they move from "our rules made by us meant to fill our need for structure" to "God's Law." And once something is no longer our rule, but is imposed from above, it becomes something we enforce on others. Like the Grid: I argued earlier that the real problem is not the existence of the grid as a tool for measurement and mutual understanding, but when that grid is enforced back on the earth, and the contours of the land are ignored in the Grid's favor. Same is true for rules: we need them, they are ours, and they give us limits within which to operate in a given context. When they become the Rules of the Parents/God/Ruling Class/Overseer, then they become pernicious. They then become tools of power.


Joe Banks said...

I'm reminded again of two words in this discussion that seem very relevant: game, and arbitrary.

This imaginary lines we make, whether between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, this neighborhood and that neighborhood, theists and non-heists... they are mechanisms for parsing a messy reality that doesn't really adhere to those boundaries very often. They are structures which help render the world meaningful, or perhaps more honestly, *workable*.

A dear friend who's been a camp counsellor for several decades once told me that he didn't think anything was relevant, in terms of child raising or child-care, other than consistancy. In other words, he'd seen very strict teacher, very emotional teachers, etc., who were great not because of their teaching strategy (or parenting strategy), but because it was consistant.

I think the same thing is true of the imaginary lines we're talking about -- to be effective at framing reality, or defining acceptable behavior, or getting people from point a to b, they have to consistent. The consistency is worth the inaccuracies incurred, such as when the range and township system shorts certain tracts of land, and adds to others.

The problem with any really useful system of imaginary lines is that the lines themselves fade, and we forget that we (or someone) made them up. They are arbitrary -- designed for the separation of one thing from another, designed to frame activity, like the game rules you've been talking about.

The stage after we forget about the lines arbitrary origins seems to be one in which the lines begin to calcify, to become something more than points of reference and orientation.

The next step in the cycle seems to be that the unreality of the lines, now invested with Importance and Pre-Eminence, conflicts with some part of reality, and somebody calls the Holy Lines into question -- heresy.

Heretics usually propose a different set of imaginary lines, and usually get oprressed enough in the process of being heretics that they invest strongly in the Truth of their lines. It's something I've always thought was unusual and admirable about the Society of Friends -- somehow they seem to have done that less than most heretical groups.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I appreciate the idea of three different kinds of rules! It’s the sort of insight one arrives at once one sheds the compulsion simply to rebel against all rules, and begins to contemplate the nature of rules dispassionately.

There have been many times in history when a people were abused by rulers who exploited them according to arbitrary personal whim, and the people took up their traditional rules as a defense against the oppression. Thus the ancient Jews successfully enforced their religious laws against their Roman overlords in the first century AD, and won a measure of autonomy thereby; the English enforced their “common law” first against their Norman conquerors and later against oppressive kings and parliaments. The American Declaration of Independence recites a list of traditional rules the British have broken, as the rallying cry for a (successful) war of independence. Gandhi used the leverage of traditional rules in India to throw the British out of the country. The American civil rights movement won many a struggle simply by enforcing the rules of due process and the rules set out in the Fourteenth Amendment.

If your mind is stuck in an attitude of rebellion against the rules, you don’t think of such things. And you lose the ability to make rules work for you against superior power.

To Joe Banks I would point out that the reason why the Society of Friends have “done that less than most heretical groups” may be that, prior to the Orthodox-Hicksite separation, they were never heretics. Indeed, the Orthodox remained, not heretics, but orthodox, even after the separation — which is precisely why even their opponents called them “the Orthodox”!

natcase said...

Joe and Marshall: Thanks for your comments. I have nothing to add, really. Both are spot on.

Ingrid Case said...

I'm the person who (unfortunately) got Jeanne started on the recent "rules" diatribe. She kicked that particular ball off a comment I made on someone else's Facebook thread, to the effect that it's a good rule to have children only when you're really ready (to the extent that anyone ever is) to care for them.

Jeanne took this as an example of a rule that middle and upper class people make and working class people must follow, which I think is a stretch. I agree that there are some rules that middle and upper class people make as a way of hanging on to power. "Don't discuss your salary" would be one good example, I think.

In this case, however, I meant "rule" as in "a wise bit of practice that will add helpful structure to your life." There's a Seattle dominatrix whose blog I read, not because I'm looking for new ways to torture poor Nat (just living with me is plenty!) but because I think she's funny and writes well.

In one of her columns ( she makes the point that many sex workers go a little nuts, and makes suggestions about how they might "create their own stand-alone structures in an unstructured world."

I'm not a sex worker, but I am self employed, and I think that much of what she has to say applies to any person who is self employed. Children complain about their parents (and other adults in positions of authority), but they rely on us for structure and organization. And adults complain about the rules of work and society, but I think we often need them just as much. My workplace still has rules, even though it's a virtual workplace where I manage my own time and billing. And I have my own customs and routines, which I find help me make this freelance thing sustainable.

For example, when I start work I read email and the NYTimes headlines. It's a ritual that helps me get ready for the day and lets me appear to know something when I talk with clients. I exercise just about every day, which helps me put work stress in perspective. And I do nothing on spec, or without a clear assignment. Those are my "rules"--or practices, or customs. They're part of my work-life grid.

Even if you're not self employed, you probably have some "rules for living" that you've picked up over time. We joke about the family rule "Never eat anything bigger than your head," but that's kind of a serious example, too. Some of my others include "You can be right, or you can be done," "The way someone routinely treats other people is the way he will ultimately treat you," and "If it's really an agreement, we can write it down."

Joe is spot on when he points out that these rules are only helpful when we don't let the tail wag the dog. They're true so long as they offer me useful structure. After that, they're just stuff I made up.

Marshall, I like your point about quoting an authority's chapter and verse back at them as a good way, sometimes, to achieve an underdog's aims. It comes back, I think, to the question of not just what the rule *is*, but of its use--actual and potential--in a given situation.