Question the assumptions

(written 11/14/03) A friend of mine offered up this piece of advice about how to deal with children, learned from experience with his own two-year-old: Offer them choices where you’re happy with both outcomes. That way, they get to make a choice and feel in charge of their life, and you’re happy regardless. Choices like “Do you want to wear the red shirt or the green shirt?” or “Do you want to eat your vegetables first or second?” The question is framed to eliminate the assumptions that the child may want to question, like “Why do I have to wear the shirt at all?” or “I don’t want to eat vegetables.”

This may seem like a non sequitur, but it occurred to me recently while considering the survival strategies of organizations, a point I touched upon in the last post. After all, isn’t this the strategy used by the organizations in power to perpetuate themselves? ABC or CBS or NBC is the choice offered, not whether to watch television. Democrat or Republican. Catholic or Protestant. The dangers of the two-valued orientation should be evident (read Hayakawa’s book for more discussion), but is often overlooked in our society. By giving people only two or three choices, it eliminates the possibility of throwing out the question entirely, much like my friend only gives his two-year-old pre-approved options.

It’s interesting because people become so attuned to societal rules that they don’t even consider what assumptions are ingrained in those rules. For some reason, it’s very clear to me that the rules define a game, and define a world-view. So I speculate on the rules of the game, and how they serve to perpetuate power. And I feel free to step outside them when I think it’s necessary. Not that I’m some sort of crazed outlaw or anything, but I know that the rules exist for certain reasons and certain situations. If I don’t believe the rules apply, then why should I observe them? I liked Heinlein’s expression of it in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Professor Bernardo de la Paz describes himself as a rational anarchist, one who understands that rules exist in society, but also understands that those rules apply to him only as long as he lets them. There are consequences to breaking the rules, of course, but that is factored into my decision as to whether to abide by them.

The difficulty comes in dealing with people who believe that the rules are the rules full stop. People who believe in the organization chart in a bureaucracy and are terrified of breaking the chain of command. People who are brought up as Republicans and will never question their allegiance. People who believe that homosexuality is wrong or birth control is wrong, when I think those are mostly rules that the Church put in to ensure that its followers would “be fruitful and multiply”, thus ensuring the numerical and eventual political sovereignty of the Church.

How do you get people to question the rules? How do you get them to understand that the rules were put in place, often by a political aristocracy to preserve their power? How do you explain that they’re just rules, like in a game, not laws of nature? You’d think it would be easy for Americans to understand this; our entire country was based on the idea that our forefathers broke the rules, and rebelled for the sake of universal principles that they believed took precedence. But at this point, many Americans are just happy to treat the new rules as handed down from above, like Moses and the Ten Commandments.

Points I want to pick up in later posts: How and why I think I ended up with a decidedly independent viewpoint? And whether I think everybody should be trusted with the empowerment of deciding whether the rules apply to them. Also, I’ll see if I can come up with some ideas for encouraging the independent viewpoint I crave. But for now, I’m going to run off to a talk by Brian Eno.