Rules are Made to be…Flexible?

We are all told from a young age that we need to follow certain rules to be successful, or to keep order. Certainly, everyone but perhaps the most die-hard of anarchists among us agrees that rules are an important part of our society. What exactly these rules should do or regulate, is a topic of considerable more controversy, but not one I want to discuss today.

Instead, I want to talk about the unnecessary rigidity with which we enforce rules today. Instead of making rules a flexible code by which to properly keep order and respect in society, we have, in many cases, allowed rules to become elevated to sacrosanct status. Instead of looking at the pros and cons of enforcing a rule in any given situation, we repeat the mantra that “rules are rules” and the punishment must be enforced no matter the situation.

One of the best speakers I have seen on this subject is Barry Schwartz, who within this excellent TED talk (it’s long, but worth it) tells the story of a professor who accidentally gave his young son a “Mike’s Hard Lemonade” and nearly ended up losing custody of him.

Schwartz emphasizes that in nearly every step of the process, the hospital workers, social workers or judges told this man that “they wished they didn’t have to” enforce whatever sanction they were upon him. Schwartz tells us, they didn’t have to at all.

For another example, which resonates with me personally as I attended school at Fairfax County, check out this Time Magazine column comparing a recent Fairfax County “drug” violation of a high school football player with the recent, controversial decision by BYU to suspend one of their star basketball players. The tragic incident in Fairfax County, in which the 15 year old, after being expelled and told he would have to transfer took his own life, is not an isolated occurrence. Here is yet another example in Fairfax County from the Washington Post of a girl who was expelled for bringing in her own prescription medication.

I can understand the need for schools to create strict drug and alcohol related laws, and I sympathize with the difficulty administrators must face while trying to keep schools safe and drug free. But, is there really no room in the system for flexibility and understanding? Do we really need to penalize a young girl who brings in prescription acne medication the same as a student who knowingly brings illegal drugs like marijuana to school?

Ultimately, I think the question comes down to: are rules being enforced just because they exist, with no regard to context, or is there a greater purpose and meaning to them? Rules, like Schwartz says, are too often put into place so people don’t have to think. Why think carefully about the conditions and context of a child bringing prescription medication to school if we can just rely on the “rules” and expel her? Are we really content living in a society where rules have been placed so high on a pedestal that we have stopped thinking about…well, anything?