Abandon All Fear

What nobody else seems to be saying…

[Rulebreaking] The Death of Discretion and Prudence

Posted by Lex Fear on March 9, 2006

“Do people exist for rules, or do rules exist for people?”

(Raw text, sorry but no links could be restored)

Do people exist for rules, or do rules exist for people? A question posed to me by a friend this weekend during a casual, off-record church politics (‘bollotics’) discussion.

An article published in the Metro the other day seemed to fit perfectly to this question. I believe it describes a perfect example of the kind of culture we are living in. It is not purely legalistic, however it teaches that rules and laws exist to be obeyed and that questioning the rules and laws is wrong. What it does not do, is give an explanation of why the rule or law exists, or why it is wrong to break it.

What I observe is that authorities have lost their ability to discriminate and act with discretion and prudence. Rather than sound judgment, we have a blanket application of rules that create inequality in less noticeable ways. What this all seems to result in is a cultural attitude of accusation, mistrust, blame, discharged responsibility, and box-checking. This in turn stifles creativity, thought, social responsibility and creates general apathy and cynicism amongst society.

From the Metro article:

“A schoolboy who set up a playground sweet shop because he was fed up with ‘overpriced health food’ is facing expulsion.

Teenager William Guntrip was raking in more than £50 a day by selling chocolate and fizzy drinks to other pupils during break times.

Now the health-conscious school, which has banned sweets from vending machines and filled the canteen with healthy options, says he will be expelled if he does not shut up shop.

William, 13, set up the venture at Sponne School in Towcaster, Northamptonshire, after his father Glyn pledged to give up smoking if the boy could make £1,000 through his own business. He trawled supermarket aisles and corner shops for cut-price bargains before selling the sweets to other youngsters who wanted a change from pasta, fruit and vegetables.”

Now, try to put aside the argument in your head that the school is trying to encourage healthy eating. There are two levels to this story. The first level is visible to everyone, a kid caught breaking the rules, the school is trying to make children healthy and he is frustrating that. The second level is not so obvious to all people, but with God’s help, I hope to reveal it to you.

Read the through the article again, this time paying attention to William Guntrips motivations:

“Fed up with overpriced health food”
“His father Glyn plegded to give up smoking if the boy could make £1000 through his own business”
“…trawled supermarket aisles and corner shops for cut-price bargains before selling the sweets to other youngsters who wanted a change…”

So what is the school trying to teach it’s students? Is it “…to provide a caring and challenging environment in which pupils of all abilities will flourish and aspire towards achieving their maximum potential.” As stated on their website? Or are they actually teaching children that what is important is rules, and making sure they aren’t broken regardless of the usefulness or wisdom in the rules.

Rules have a purpose, for example football wouldn’t be much fun to watch if their weren’t rules which keep the game going and (supposedly) stop cheating. But the rules in football are there for the game, for the people. William Guntrip had creative, moral and democratic reasons for setting up his business, his father had educational reasons. For the sake of the rules, the school is punishing a student for displaying these traits, sending the message to other students not to employ creativity, pursue business opportunities or stand up for moral causes.

As I have already set out, I feel however, this is not just limited to a school, or the educational establishment. It’s an example of something which is endemic in society today. Just look at these examples of indiscriminate enforcement:

  • Security for a party conference
  • Speed cameras
  • Parking tickets
  • Prosecution of Computer hackers
  • Trade marks laws
  • Anti-Terror laws
  • Immigration

Are there an alternatives?

Young boys who find innovative ways to raise money or start-up businesses should be encouraged. Whilst this sometimes results in breaches of the rules, they should be gently corrected and guided in using their abilities. Is it their fault for breaching the rules, or is it a case that the school is not offering a stimulating and challenging curriculum? Restricting the talents of students instead of trying to find tasks and lessons to glean those qualities and make the best use of them.

  • Restrict the use of indiscriminate speed cameras and increase policing by humans. A human officer can spot all sorts of offences such as driving under influence of drink or drugs and careless driving. In many cases they can issue a simple word of caution which does not erode public respect or confidence, but at the same time may cause someone to correct their driving habits. Limit parking enforcement to the bare minimum.
  • Parking enforcement in the UK has become a predatory system, mostly about revenue and little to do with traffic management. Why let the skills and knowledge of computer hackers rot away in a jail cell? They have not caused any mortal harm, and in most cases just headaches for those in power.
  • In much the same way as young budding entrepreneurs, hackers should be offered the chance of a light punishment if they agree to work for the government in testing systems and making them more secure.
  • More common sense needs to be employed at the patent office. Trademarks that ‘protect’ actual phrases used by large corporate’s should really be banned. Patenting a trademark basically allows you to take legal action against someone (usually small business) from using that trademark to sell products. Whilst there is a genuine need for trademarks, most times it appears to be hijacking not just common phrases but simple everyday speech. Some real trademarks actually registered or applied for: “I am Asian” (McDonalds), “Have you had your break today?” (McDonalds), “Fair and Balanced” (Fox News), “Germany 2006” (Fifa), “Pimp my” (Viacom), “Happy birthday to you” (Time Warner), “Super-Hero” (Marvel & DC Comics), “Blog” (Marble Sportwear), “to Google” (Google), The Colour Purple (Cadbury), “Virgin” (Richard Branson). One French firm has even tried to trademark the smell of strawberries!

I purposely won’t comment just yet on anti-terror or immigration laws, there’s too much to say on it in this post, which is off topic from the subject.

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