Friday, May 07, 2010

The Trouble with Stupid Rules

(News-Herald, May 6) Now that the school year is starting to wind up, I’m wondering how things have been going in Danvers, Massachusetts.
You may recall that a high school in Danvers banned all uses of the word “meep.” Students were gathered for an anti-meep-policy assembly. All parents of students at the school received a robo-call about the new rule, and the principal also informed folks that police were “being kept aware of the situation.” A lawyer who sent the principal an e-mail that said, in its entirety, “meep,” received a reply telling her that her e-mail had been forwarded to the police. Students organized a protest through facebook. The administration blustered some more.
The whole situation was a fine example of the Rule of Stupid Rules in action. The Rule says, in part (and I’m saying “in part” because I’m making this rule up now and I might want to add to it later), that Stupid Rules never solve the problem they’re created to solve and always do great damage to the institution that tries to use them.
Stupid rules are bad for the organization, whether it’s a school or a volunteer board or a municipality or an entire country. Here is why:
1) Stupid rules almost never actually address the problem they’re meant to address. Reports from Danvers suggest that the original problem was that students were using “meep” to harass a biology teacher. “Don’t harass the teacher” seems like a good rule, and more useful in this situation. They were yanking open his classroom door, popping into the room, and yelling “meep.” The four-letter word in question seems like the least problematic variable in this equation.
2) Stupid rules are usually painfully specific. In Pittsburgh, it’s illegal to sleep outside on a refrigerator. This devotion to detail means that
3) Stupid rules are hard to enforce and easy to mock. If I go to the burgh, may I sleep beside a refrigerator? May I sleep on a stove or microwave? What if I’m on the refrigerator resting my eyes?
If I can’t say “meep,” can I say “meet”? Or “eep”?
4) Stupid rules lead to major battles. Once I start mocking your rule, you and I both know that we are no longer really talking about the rule. By instigating a stupid rule, you create whole new ways for me to thumb my nose at you. Not only that, but to the casual observer, it doesn’t look like I’m being disrespectful, and if you go ballistic, you’re the one who looks stupid.
The principal at Danvers High created a situation where any student could easily mock his authority, and all he got for his trouble was yards of news coverage in which he looks like a dope.
5) Stupid rules don’t work. Want to bet that students in Danvers still say “meep”? Because stupid rules actually encourage people to oppose authority while giving them new and creative ways to do it, stupid rules actually create way more problems. I’ll bet when this mess started, the meepers were mostly just the students of that particular teacher. By the time the authorities were done, every student in the school was a meeper.
6) Trying to crack down just puts you in the wrong.
Seriously. Did that principal once consider what would happen when he was standing in a courtroom trying to explain to a judge why the first amendment does not cover the right to say “meep”?
7) It erodes institutional respect. When you’re in charge, you get a certain amount of respect for showing up, and after that you either build it or destroy it. The Declaration of Independence observes that all government takes its power from the consent of the governed. Give the governed enough reasons to stop thinking of you as a legitimate authority, and pretty soon you won’t even be able to get them to follow you out of a burning building.
Almost every state and municipality has some stupid rules on the books. Someone in uniform who insists on enforcing them as if they are essential to preserving civilization doesn’t increase respect for the rules—he just decreases the respect for his uniform. Likewise, the steady flow of stupid rules from big marble buildings in DC has not increased anybody’s faith in the Fed’s ability to save us all.
Danvers’ meepy international fame faded in about a week, but the t-shirts are still for sale and I’m betting that’s one principal who is looking forward to summer vacation.

1 comment:

Joe said...

A few other rules that some might say meet your Stupid Rules criteria: Prohibition; the old 55 mph interstate highway speed limit; and the criminalization of marijuana. Oh, and BTW, as a side note, the Declaration of Independence didn't merely "observe" that all government takes its power from the consent of the governed, it proclaimed to the world what was at that time a highly radical notion.

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