Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Rules

When I was in college, The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, a book of dating advice for women, was published and became a runaway bestseller.  Being a man, I haven't actually read the book, although I have read a synopsis and, as a man, I believe that qualifies me to have an opinion on the book.

I don't like it.  My theory of human relationships is that people should be open and honest with prospective partners (and themselves!) about who they are, what their goals and interests are, and what makes them happy and unhappy.  Any dating advice that is predicated upon following a set of rules that may or may not comport with those things is, in my view, artificial.  And I can speak with authority; I've been married for 16 years, we're happy and in love, and we've never given any serious consideration to breaking up.

But I do understand that not everybody can get it right without practice.  There are lots of people who have self-destructive habits and who need strong guidance to help them make the right decisions.  So The Rules isn't entirely unhelpful.  Fine by me.

By now, you might be wondering, hey, Jim, why are you bringing up a two-decade-old self-help book, only to criticize it, then ultimately acknowledge its value?

I'm not really talking about The Rules, but I did want to talk a little bit today about rules in general, and more specifically about disregarding them.

Pope Francis has been making headlines over the past six months with some pronouncements about the Christian religion that, well, raise some eyebrows.  Il Papa has been on an iconoclastic tear lately, announcing that the focus of the Church over the last, say, 2,000 years has been sort of wrong, that even atheists can go to heaven, that maybe Christians have spent a little too much time worrying about abortion and homosexuals and birth control lately and not enough time comforting the afflicted and feeding the hungry.

I'm not a Catholic and never have been, so I don't really recognize the authority of the Pope, especially not at this point in my life, having made some public declarations that I made recently.  But a lot of people do, and lots more may not recognize Francis as their spiritual leader but certainly regard his opinion as important, or at least worthy of consideration.

But I do sort of have to respect the kind of man that Francis is, seeing as how he's apparently going to drive his own (used) car, he lives in simple quarters instead of the usual palace, and he views himself with more humility than one would expect the winner of perhaps the world's most extremely political election to have.  We don't have to agree about spiritual matters--and by "agree about spiritual matters," I mean "agree that there are such things as spiritual matters"--for me to tip my cap.

I am reminded of one of the most famous, if apocryphal, quotes of Mohandas K. Gandhi, bestowed by his people with the title "Mahatma," meaning "Great One."  Gandhi was asked by a Christian missionary why he rejected Christ, despite quoting the words of Jesus so often.  He replied, "I do not reject Christ.  I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

If I have any criticism of the popes of my lifetime, it is that one--they have laid their focus far from the teachings of Christ.  Except this one.  I admire that.

But it is coming at the cost of some grumbling from those who view Catholic doctrine as "the Rules" and from those who prefer to focus their Christianity on Paul rather than Jesus, or at least want to focus on codifying in law what they view as instructions from God, particularly on social issues.  As to the first group, Francis can change the rules if he wants.  He is, according to Catholic doctrine, infallible.

But I suspect others will not be so easily swayed.  They view Francis's iconoclasm as heresy, or treason against the cause of conservative Christianity.

And they sort of have a point.  If there is a rule, and it is willfully broken without apparent consequence, that set of circumstances tends to undermine rules in general.

To provide a less charged example, consider taxes.  The truth is that almost everyone tells the truth about their income when filing tax returns, even when it would be difficult for the IRS to prove they were lying.  That's a good thing, because it would be difficult and frustrating to live under a system where the IRS had to expend a lot more effort to get people to pay their taxes.  But there is a widespread belief that cheating on taxes is an American tradition, and that most people fudge things at least a little bit.  That belief undermines the tax system by encouraging cheating by people who view the perceived state of affairs as permission.

Early last year, I had to drive several times between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona.  The distance is about 112 miles.  The posted speed limit on that stretch is 75 mph.  It is desolate, with little evidence of human activity along the route.  There is a small city, Casa Grande, between the two, and one must generally slow down a bit there.  But in the many times I have driven that stretch, I have never seen a police car, and I have certainly never seen anyone pulled over.  Traffic frequently moves in excess of 90 mph.

I admit that in Arizona I don't mind breaking that rule, the 75-mph limit, by so great a margin.  But I do speed on rural stretches in other states, generally keeping it to 9 over.  Figuratively knocking on wood, I have never been pulled over for anything less than 10 over.  (When I was 22, I was victimized by an unfamiliar speed limit change while on a late-night Taco Bell run, which resulted in my being cited for 71 in a 60 by a trooper who obviously needed to write some tickets, since he had the ticket written out before I even gave him my license.)

But I've noticed that few people follow the speed limit.  Worse still, people who don't follow the limit get frustrated by those who do.  I will admit to being in that category.

The unenforced 75-mph limit is dumb in that area because it only breeds contempt for the law.  Whether you are a public safety officer, or a tax policy wonk, or a Pope, or a self-help guru, or anyone else charged with setting rules, if there is one principle for you to serve, it ought to be that rules that command no one's respect are worse than the absence of rules.

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