Search This Blog

Wednesday, 15 February 2023

Two Rules of Social Life


Two rules make social life possible and endurable:

1.      You can’t always have what you want and sometimes you shouldn’t want what you want. (I will explain in a moment).

2.      A good rule is one which can be broken if circumstances demand it.

Whatever Lola Wants, Lola gets makes us smile not least because the words do make us want Lola. But not all our wants have quite so much charm about them as Lola’s. Some wants are just greedy, some are nasty (I want to see you dead). Some are reasonably upgraded to the level of Needs (I just need some money to get started again) and some get further upgraded to Rights though not always reasonably.

The language of Rights once served an excellent purpose, notably in establishing goals for international organisations. Countries signed up to Declarations of Human Rights and then found that other countries wanted to hold them to account for non-compliance. Those Declarations also gave individuals and movements access to a rhetoric in which to couch their appeals.

But the language of rights becomes useless when too many people use it to assert what are really no more than their wants, and  more or less regardless of how others might be affected. Social  media provide forums where a cacophony of voices  can shout out claims to competing and incompatible Rights. You end up thinking that they are immature rather than deprived of something. The language of Rights is totally fucked.

The possibility of co-operating with others breaks down if you don’t accept that you can’t always have what you want. In democratically organised polities, if you lose an election you are supposed to accept that you have lost - however upset you may be - and hand over to the winner. Not so Donald Trump. He is not prepared to lose; declares himself the Real Winner, the True Winner; denounces and bullies those who disagree and, in general, seeks to undermine democratic process. It would be merely pitiful if there wasn’t about a third of the American population still cheering him on and even reading the absurd Tweets. Even President Bolsonaro did not put up a serious fight against losing. That so many Americans can still back Donald Trump indicates that the USA has a really serious problem in functioning well as a society.

Part of self-discipline - unknown to Mr Trump and to millions on Twitter  - is that you recognise that something you want is not always something you should try to get  because of how others would be affected. Doing things which are illegal often falls into that category, though not always. Regardless of what the law says, you can still judge that the adverse effect on others would outweigh any good which might accrue to you from some particular action.

That thought is one which sharp-elbowed people have trouble with, starting in my country with NotInMyBackYards who don’t want new housing in their very expensive neighbourhoods, thank you very much.

More generally when we accuse people of a sense (or excessive sense) of entitlement and privilege we are in effect, saying that they are unable or unwilling to balance their own wants against those of other people. They are just Me, Me, Me people. Often it works and Me, Me, Me will get you Likes by the thousand and if you are really lucky the hundred thousand. There is not just one Donald Trump in the world; there are hundreds and thousands, some of them female, and many of whom become Celebrities because they have so,so many Followers awaiting today's new photograph. It's hilarious, really. 

So that’s the first Rule: You can’t always have what you want and you shouldn’t always want what you want.  What about the second?

Societies and most obviously big societies are governed by many thousands of rules most of which we don’t even know exist. A huge cadre of people earn their living by enforcing those rules and can really only do so if they believe that rules will fit every case. They don’t and the system isn’t working if there is no mechanism for over-riding a rule to achieve some greater good. A stickler for rules is not only a pain in the arse but someone who gets in the way of achieving better outcomes in difficult situations.

In my country a good example is provided by the way the Ministry of the Interior (the Home Office) treats people who arrive in the country illegally. I agree entirely that it does create problems: some of those entering illegally will do so because they are criminals of one kind or another and intend to pursue a criminal career; others may be agents of a foreign power intent on causing disruption (though it’s true, some of those have been welcomed with open arms including, I guess, university students acting as agents of their home country’s regime). Some need medical care and housing and all the rest and there is already a very long queue of people waiting for those things so really you should take your turn.

But the overall response is rule-obsessed, unimaginative, and hugely expensive. It is also actively and deliberately unpleasant.

An alternative approach would acknowledge that rules have been broken but would try to make the best of a bad job. A preliminary assessment might simply try to establish whether an illegally-arrived person  could go to work while awaiting a decision on their future. So you’re a doctor? Yes. Can you prove that? Yes. OK. Would you be prepared to work in some capacity in the NHS? Yes. Great, then let’s set something up.

But they’ve Broken the Rules!  Yeah, but a good rule is one which can be broken in the right circumstances and this looks like a right circumstance: this person has a medical qualification; we need people with medical qualifications; they need a job. It’s win-win.

Of course, it’s opportunistic and it doesn’t suit the bureaucratic mind. But it might achieve more overall good than current rule-bound approaches. And it would free up resources to attend to those who have arrived with  less to offer than the (stereotype) medical practitioner. But even among those with less to offer there will be fit young people who could pick fruit or build houses in NIMBY backyards. Go for it!







No comments:

Post a Comment