Rule Enforcers and Rule Makers

I was stopped in the subway yesterday by some rent-a-cops. It was a bit jarring.

It was at Square-Victoria metro around 2pm, and they were doing “random checks” of people’s subway passes. I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but it can be a strange feeling getting stopped by people who think they’re law enforcement, but really are not.

I’ve always distrusted police, so that didn’t help.

So I’m looking this guy straight in the eye as I pass him my card. He checks it and lets me go. No problem. I imagine this is a bit what being in a police state feels like– being able to be stopped at any time and asked for identification for any reason. I leave with my privacy feeling a bit invaded. Weird.

Papers Please

A lot of people think they hold power over you in certain contexts. I met Jessamyn West this weekend, and she talked about how she was stopped in a library in Des Moines for taking pictures. When she asked why, there was no reason– it was just “against policy.” Go figure. What happened afterwards is worth reading.

The thing is, rule makers often have good reasons for creating them. I was stopped in the subway because a lot of people are probably jumping the turnstiles or something. So it makes sense for them to check my card, I guess. (This is a bit like the RIAA piracy thing– accusing all of your paying customers of theft before a film to try and dissuade the occasional real thief, and alienating everyone else in the process.)

Anyway, the disconnect occurs when the rules are passed on to the enforcers– those who wear the uniforms, carry the badges and do the rounds. They don’t often understand why things were put into place, and even if they do, the power can get to their heads. So rules get generalized into these broad, absurd caricatures of themselves.

The reason I distrust police is precisely that– I feel like people look at rules and categorically follow them, blindly trusting that they’re being led in the right direction when they’re often being taken advantage of. If you step out of line, you’re seen as a having done something wrong even though you may actually know better. So we instead relinquish this power a little bit at a time, until it becomes habitual, destroying our personal sovereignty in the process.

The most powerful weapon against rule enforcers is the word WHY. We get trained out of using it very young because our parents get annoyed at it– and they got annoyed at it because they often don’t know the answer themselves. The real reason your parents want you to clean your room may be because they think a messy room is ugly, but they don’t say that– they’ll instead guilt you into doing it as if having a messy room is morally wrong. But it isn’t. It’s a choice.

Jumping the turnstiles is also a choice. So is saying no to rent-a-cops. So make your choices based on your own moral compass and ideas, not based on what the enforcers are telling you. That’s a hard thing, but it’s worth it.

You gotta be you.





10 responses to “Rule Enforcers and Rule Makers”

  1. Rufus Avatar

    Like a postal letter carrier yelling at you from down the block to get your dog on a leash. OR social media experts telling you to quit self-promting… which is how I found your blog post. Thank God I didn’t listen to THAT crap and clicked through anyway. 🙂

    1. Julien Avatar

      Hahaha, nice Rufus. BURN. 🙂

  2. Jon Brause Avatar

    Rules have gotten out of control. Moral compass is much easier to follow, unless you don’t have one.

  3. jessamyn Avatar

    The problem as I see it is how to say politely “no” to rent-a-cops while at the same time protesting these weird bad-faith power grabs. I think some people, myself included, are just touchy about people telling them what to do, especially when we think either they haven’t thought things through or when they’re promoting stupid rules.

    However, sassing the rental cop might make them think twice about having that job [same with telemarketers] but in the immediate now it’s just spreading bad juju around. I’m not sure what our responsibilities are vis a vis juju, but it’s something that concerns me as both a rule follower and sometimes a rule maker.

  4. Chamika Avatar

    Do you think that if they paid the enforcement officials more money, they would be more discerning in how they apply the rules? I’ve traveled to police states and I’m usually surprised at the difference in attitude between higher ranking officials and the foot soldiers. I also have encountered situations in airports where the lower ranking/lower paid border officials are fairly ignorant and tend to be extremely compliant whereas the higher-ups much more socially and culturally adept and able to discern to what degree to enforce the rules.

    I wonder if that’s a reflection of experience or money.

  5. Whitney Avatar

    Back in the days of working with the NFL, we worked with a lot of military folks. These people have chain of command in their blood stream, to the point where they won’t point out any flaws in a plan because “the boss knows best, it’s his show, and he’ll take the hit if it goes wrong” even when the boss will just blame his people for poor execution, doing exactly what he said in the civilian world. This perverse “Follow the leader” stuff drove me up a tree.
    In our house, we explain that 85-90% of all rules are health and safety related, the rest are room-mate and courtesy to others issues. You have to learn to live with others at home before you go off into the big wide world, and being considerate and having some semblance of manners is important.

    I ask my kids to question any rule they think is unfair, and I have to justify any rule I make- Clean rooms, for example, are about general hygiene, and taking care of your stuff- if you can’t find your school books under the dirty clothes, the panic becomes everyone’s problem, so a slightly neater room prevents the chaos. (We’re not white glove people by any stretch.)
    And I agree with you- it’s totally amazing how many people never ask why.

  6. Naomi Dunford Avatar

    Wow, I read the library story over at Jessamyn’s blog. So bizarre, and yet so unsurprising. The details are surprising, but the weird power freakout, not so much.

    I think a lot of it comes down to the amount of autonomy and agency given to the members of the lower ranks. They either get power hungry, or appear to be power hungry. The former comes from being treated like shit all the time by the higher ups. The latter can come from being terrified to bend the rules.

    Thank God I don’t have a job anymore, but when I did, they were soul-crushingly low level gigs. And there was very much an atmosphere of “we’re not paying you to think, we’re paying you to follow the rules.” So the rent-a-cops and the librarians, often out of a fear of being reprimanded for using their brains, simply follow the rules like cranky zombies.

  7. Diane Brogan Avatar

    Great post. I also have some nasty camera story memories. I am glad that Jessamyn West went the whole way to get the policy changed.

    We all need to be more diligent in asking why.

  8. Gab Goldenberg Avatar

    As someone who worked as a lifeguard, I can say that sometimes it’s the patrons who need to wise up. For example, we had a rule against people being on each other’s shoulders. Point being to avoid accidents. The problem is that people can put their legs on their friend’s shoulders to be carried, or just wrap their arms over the shoulders, from behind, to be pulled.

    What happens then is that the people who are on their friends’ shoulders with their legs get told to get off their friend. They ask you why others are allowed to put their arms over some else’s shoulders. So then you as a lifeguard tell those people who just had their arms on their friends not to hang on their friend, which isn’t that dangerous.

    -> “Hard cases make bad law.” And the people who have to clean up the messes are your frontline rentacops and librarians, who have my sympathy (even if they’re jerks at times, it’s cuz the job demands it, not by choice).

  9. Connie Crosby Avatar

    Interesting story, and thank you for the post to Jessamyn’s link. I’m glad you met her–you are both some of the coolest people I know. (And my world just shrunk that much smaller!)

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