Following vs. Breaking the Rules

I’m sorry this post is a day late.  It’s been a hectic week.  After today’s post, I’ll be taking a month off from blogging.  First I’ll be teaching madly for two weeks, and for two weeks after that, I’ll be hiking in Colorado.  I will, however, post one very special (non-blog) video during the month of July, so keep an eye out for that.

Since this is my last post for a while, I wanted to explore a question that combines several ideas I’ve discussed in previous posts.  The question is: When should you follow the rules and when should you break them?  The kind of rules I am talking about here are man-made social norms, expectations, and laws that are possible to break, not natural laws, such as the law of gravity, which are generally unbreakable.

Some rules are formal (e.g., traffic regulations), while others are informal (e.g., the expectation that I not pick my nose in public).  Whereas formal rules are enforced by police officers and the court system, informal rules are typically enforced by social stigma and disdain.  People will say or think bad things about me if I double dip a chip at a party, for example.

Now of course rules can be very helpful.  They guide us through social interactions and bind society together.  But sometimes rules are dumb, overly simplistic, or just plain wrong.  In those cases, they might be worth breaking.

Which brings me to my first point: The majority of rules are man-made and thus, they are breakable.  Although this may seem totally obvious, it had never occurred to me until I learned about social constructivism and symbolic interactionism.  Once I consciously realized that rules are made by people, I began to consider the origin of all the rules I’m “supposed” to follow.  I realized that many of these rules were made by people who were trying to control or manipulate other people.  In some cases, this led me to decide to break the rules.  For example, there are many unwritten rules about how women should dress and behave.  We are expected to look a certain way, which for many women means spending time, energy, and money on clothes, cosmetics, plastic surgery, diet pills, etc.  No one person is responsible for creating these rules, but they are maintained and promoted primarily by the industries that make money from them.  Knowing this makes me feel really good about looking like a slob.  It’s my little way of fighting back against corporate America.

As I talked about in my post on human agency, it’s very empowering to realize that you can make choices about how to live your life.  In the case of rules, you can decide which rules to follow and which to break.  Of course it helps to have some guidelines in place when making these decisions.  My personal guidelines are based on an idea I talked about in my very first post: Knowing what my values are helps me make decisions that are in line with my values.  For example, because I believe in the inherent worth of all human beings, I try my hardest to not do anything that harms other people.  Therefore, I am perfectly happy to follow rules that forbid killing, stealing, and cheating.  As explained in my post on self-determination theory, I have fully internalized those rules and therefore feel that following them is a personal choice that is integrated with my sense of self.  So basically, since I want to be a person who doesn’t hurt other people, I gladly choose to abide by rules that prohibit me from hurting other people.

Sometimes, however, my values allow for a bit of rule/law breaking.  One fairly benign example of this is my refusal to wait for the crosswalk sign to change if there are no cars coming.  So long as a small child isn’t watching, it doesn’t hurt anyone if I cross the street before the sign says I’m allowed to.  I confess that I also let my dog off the leash almost every morning in a park where it is clearly posted that dogs should be kept on leash.  Besides the fact that there’s rarely anyone else there, I’m confident that she won’t physically hurt anyone, and I’m willing to risk annoying people for the sake of getting her some exercise.

That brings me to my next point: When deciding whether to follow or break the rules, it’s important to consider the consequences of breaking the rules.  Sometimes, even if you disagree with a rule or think it’s silly, the rewards of breaking it aren’t worth the consequences.  For example, although I think it’s ridiculous how fussy citation rules are (some words must be capitalized, some must be in italics, in some places you use a period, in others a common, etc.), I’m going to carefully follow these rules when preparing my dissertation, because if I don’t, they won’t let me graduate.  In this case, it’s in my best interest to just bite my tongue and follow the rules.

At other times, it’s worth taking a stand and breaking the rules, even if you must suffer serious consequences.  This would be true of any case when the rules themselves are morally dubious.  A great example of this was when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger.  I can’t say that I have any great examples from my life, which probably means that I’m a moral wimp.

In summary, when deciding whether to follow or break the rules, it’s important to consider (1) where the rules come from and who they benefit, (2) whether the rules align with your personal values, and (3) what the consequences of breaking the rules will be.  If the rules are silly or in conflict with your values, and the consequences of breaking them are worth the rewards, go ahead and break away!  That’s a choice you are free to make.

So be sure to check out the extra-special video I’ll be posting next month.  Besides that, see you back here in August.  Hope you have a wonderful July.  Thanks for reading, and happy learning!


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