Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Systems So Rigid We Don't Have to Use Our Brains
Long ago and in a hemisphere far, far away, I lived for a few months under a government that was even more rule-bound than our own. Almost every good thing I saw happen there happened in defiance of some rule, regulation, or law. A few years after that, the system collapsed under its own weight. The same thing may happen here, eventually.
On one hand, I firmly favor the rule of law. Laws should apply to those who make them and those who enforce them. Laws which exist should be enforced. Laws we cannot or will not enforce should be repealed. And so on. I'm not saying that we should have as many laws as possible or laws against everything we don't like. As we begin to see in our society, it's possible to become so rule-bound that it is diffcult or impossible to live or do business and still comply with every law and regulation. I'm also not saying that there is no room for flexibility or even mercy. Laws should be enforced, but reasonably and humanely.
Long ago and in a hemisphere far, far away, I lived for a few months under a government that was even more rule-bound than our own. I returned home and reported that almost every good thing I saw happen there had happened in defiance of some rule, regulation, or law. A few years after that, it collapsed under its own weight. (I'm pretty sure it wasn't my fault.)
In his 1934 poem "Choruses from the Rock," T. S. Eliot laments modernity's pursuit of "systems so perfect no one will need to be good." I concluded from my experience in the Soviet Union that attempts to create "systems so perfect no one will need to be good" actually tend to create systems so rigid and complex that it's nearly impossible to be good. Since then I have seen the same phenomenon on a smaller scale in bureaucracies, corporations, and even households.
Some institutions create similar situations. You've heard enough of the news in recent years to know that I'm not exaggerating much (if at all) when I mention the mentality which might mete out the same punishment to the first-grader who draws a crayon picture of a gun in class and the high school senior who brings a loaded pistol to school. One is almost certainly innocent and harmless; the other is criminal, dangerous, and foolhardy in the extreme. The administrative mindset which punishes such wildly different actions equally often does so for this reason: It is unwilling, afraid, or unable to exercise sound judgment and to defend its judgment, once reached.
In such a climate, the tendency is to attempt to create a system so perfect that no intelligence, judgment, or courage is required: one rule for an entire category of offenses, including the imaginary and the unmistakably benign or trivial. Sometimes we say "zero tolerance." In my mind, this usually translates to "zero effort, zero application of reason, zero need for courage, zero ability to discern between harmful and harmless." Bureaucrats love such systems -- systems so rigid that they don't have to use their brains or their hearts or their spines.
Often, bureaucracies create such systems to avoid personal effort and personal responsibility. But sometimes they do so for a different but related reason: To avoid legal liability. In a society where we sue any time our feelings are hurt and anytime we stub our toe, it's hard to blame them for this. We ought to blame ourselves.
Whether the forced resignation of a successful high school coach in Orem is a consequence of a system so rigid that reason, judgment, and persuasion need not apply . . . I don't know. One hesitates to believe published reports without independent corroboration. According to the reports (e.g. the Salt Lake Tribune), Coach Dave Houle was acting in a responsible, reasonable, and gentlemanly manner. But we likely will never know the full story from all sides, or the complete context. Whatever is actually happening, on its face the situation has one of the common symptoms of the syndrome I am lamenting, which we often see in schools and other institutions (sometimes even in families): Effects seem wildly out of proportion to causes. Generally speaking, in the case of the schools, this syndrome may have something to do with yesterday's post, but that is an inflammatory discussion for another day.
In short, as I said, attempting to create "systems so perfect no one will need to be good" leads to the existence of systems in which it is nearly impossible to be good (obey all the rules). Attempting to create systems so perfect that intelligence, judgment, and persuasion are not required leads often enough to results that are stupid, cruel, and disproportionate. It may not be happening in a particular case in a given institution, but it happens.
How do we solve this? The first step, if memory serves, is to acknowledge that we have a problem. We'll have figure out the other eleven steps some other time.
Copyright 2006 by David Rodeback.