Thursday, June 21, 2018


Last month when my fourteen-year-old daughter got dress-coded at school for having colored hair and then her petition to change the dress code went mini-viral among some of our local friends, I learned something about myself: I don't see any value in following rules just because they are rules. This has not always been true; I have spent most of my life as a rule-follower by nature. So much, in fact, that even now I only break rules when I make a conscious, deliberate decision to do so. My default is still to follow rules just because my brain is used to believing that's what you're supposed to do. But I no longer assign any moral value to following rules, per se.

I found this image randomly on the internet and had originally linked to the source, but the source told me they didn't want me to link to them. I love that they chose a robot as their mascot for rule-following. I was a good little robot for much of my life, doing exactly what I was programmed to do.

This realization dawned on me as I read comments on my friends' posts about the dress code situation, and I saw how many of my friends' friends interpreted it as a moral issue: It was unambiguously clear to them that the right thing to do, even if you disagree with a school's dress code, is to follow it because it's the rule. In their eyes, I was a horrible father for allowing my daughter to dye her hair when that was against the rules, and the "right" way to do it would have been to first try to change the rule, then dye her hair. I see two problems with that logic:
  1. I was aware of the rule, but I wasn't sure it would be enforced. It's very common for old, outdated rules to still be on the books even though no one enforces them anymore because we recognize the rules no longer serve a purpose (or never did). If the rule wasn't going to be enforced, as I believed would be the case if the principal were a reasonable person conscious of the fact that we're living in the 21st century, then I wasn't going to bother making a fuss. 
  2. As far as I was concerned, the rule was not valid. The school has no right to tell my daughter what color her hair needs to be, because they do not own her body. She does. As such, I felt no need to ask for permission before I allowed her to exercise her right to do whatever she wants with her own body. 
See, here's the thing. Rules are not inviolable laws of the universe. They're agreements to behave in certain ways because we want to achieve certain effects. As humanity learns and progresses, we realize that some rules serve the purpose we created them for, and others don't. The ones that don't, we change. There are many ways to change rules, depending on the rule, the system that enforces the rule, and your position within that system. One tried and true way of changing rules is to break them. If enough people break the rule and we collectively see that the system doesn't fall apart, then the system is forced to reconsider the rule's purpose and value. The risk of taking this approach is that you may have to suffer system-imposed consequences of breaking the rule until it's changed. I made sure my daughter understood this before dyeing her hair and, as it turned out, she was faced with consequences: The principal told her she had to choose between covering up the dyed hair with natural-color dye or not participating in the end-of-year awards ceremony and other activities. I made it clear to my daughter that this was not a moral decision with a right and wrong answer; it was a matter of what compromises she was willing to make in order to be allowed continued participation in the system. She chose to cover up the bright colors in order to attend the awards ceremony, and did so for two days until we successfully changed the dress code. As far as I'm concerned, my daughter behaved ethically and responsibly throughout the ordeal, and her approach proved effective as she achieved her goal: Future students at the school will no longer be subjected to this silly, outdated rule. 

Human laws, of course, are just rules that a large group of people have agreed on. Just like any other rule, laws are only valuable so long as we agree they are valuable. For example, we tend to think of the choice to smoke marijuana or not as a moral issue because we're so used to it being illegal, but the fact that it is no longer illegal in several states and countries around the world shows just how arbitrary the law is. Those who do not believe it immoral to smoke pot and want to do so but live in places where it's illegal, then, have not a moral choice but a choice between potential consequences: 
  1. Choose not to smoke because they don't want to suffer the consequences of breaking the law.
  2. Choose to smoke knowing that they risk suffering the consequences of breaking the law. 
Either choice is a valid choice, and of course there are a lot of factors to consider that will be different for each individual. For example, if you are a black man in America then statistically speaking the risk you take when breaking the law is greater than the risk a white person faces when breaking the same law because black men are much more likely to receive tougher sentencing. If you're a minor, the choice to smoke pot or not carries with it not only legal risks but also health risks, as studies suggest marijuana use during teenage years can negatively impact brain development

Image result for no marijuana
Don't do drugs, kids. Adults, I sincerely do not care whether you do drugs, so long as you aren't hurting anybody. 

We've seen this divide between the rules-for-rules'-sake mindset and the rules-so-long-as-they-serve-a-purpose mindset in the response to the recent immigration crisis. To those who see following rules as a moral issue, the immigrants who broke the law by entering the United States illegally were simply suffering the consequences of breaking the law, and that happened to include their children being locked up in cages. These "illegals" had behaved immorally and it was not our place to remove the consequence of that choice any more than it would be our place to stop God from punishing a sinner (although now that I think about it, I recall there being a guy in Christian theology who did exactly that--a guy Christians are supposedly trying to be like...). For those of us who believe rules and laws are arbitrary and malleable, we're more likely to question whether the law these immigrants are being punished for violating is valid in the first place, and to conclude, if nothing else, that in this case the punishment far outweighed the severity of the crime. 

So that's my take on rules, laws, dress codes, pot, and immigration. What do you think? Does this kind of thinking inevitably lead to chaos and the downfall of civilization? Alternatively, am I giving rules too much credit and really we'd be better off without them entirely? What rules or laws do you break regularly? Do you break speed limit laws when driving? I want to hear your thoughts, and I promise to be nice even if we disagree--that's a rule I try hard not to break. 

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