Friday, May 19, 2017

“The Rules Are Too Complicated”: Thoughts on commun(icat)ion

“Everyone” was playing Dominion, a strategy board game. The rules are too complicated for me. The group inviting me to play seemed puzzled by my refusal: “I don't have fun playing those [strategy] games. The rules are too complicated.”

Maybe the purpose of rules is to break them; hang in there with me! This platitude is a saying (in a Heideggerian sense I mean) that deserves consideration, and the answer, “rules hinder efficiency because they are not perfect” is emphatically not what I'm going to get at.

Breaking a rule is not just an act of freedom, it is an act that opens up freedom for others. When one cannot follow the rules, whether because one doesn't know them, believes them to be unfair or nonsensical – or because they are impossible to follow – one has no choice but to become open to the possibility of performing as one would like to: to express preference, to engage in questioning and/or critique, to seek out help or clarification. I'm reading Karl Jaspers' chapter on communication, in his Philosophy, which led me to wonder.

At a pharmacy, there may be a sign that has words written on it, like, “Go no farther toward the counter until called.” The sign is a command without justification – and without expressed consequences; it is a command to obey “or else.” Or else what? The freedom of the pharmacist, and of the patient, become possible, once an impatient or curious patient goes beyond the sign without permission, in a way they are not if the patient obeys the command with little besides the ubiquitous “or else” attached to it; new possibilities of expression, human relation, and shared understanding open up for both.

Try it! It doesn't have to be a pharmacy. Establish rapport with someone behind the counter, obey the sign the first time, when dropping off a prescription, an order. When picking it up – and it may not be advisable to do what I'm recommending in this paragraph – you can step beyond the sign, enough to have disobeyed it. Someone will admonish you for breaking the rules, almost certainly, verbally or some other way. Society becomes commerce – “or else.”

Without rules, we might not be able to exist as the “advanced” society (relatively advanced, technologically) we make up, in a mid-sized or small US city. I expect this post to be relevant to most people in the US. No god made these rules. In systems of rules, we often encounter the boundary line demarcating the transition from human rationality to human communication in the existential sense Jaspers discusses. It is up to all involved to decide what to do next.

What was I saying in “The rules are too complicated?” Any number of things. When a board game has complex rules, are we pushed toward each other more than in games with simpler rules? Was I expecting disappointment at the prospect of what I thought would happen were we to run up against my breaking the rules of the game? There are many ways to play games, not all of them conducive to genuine human relation.

Rules are (sometimes) meant to be broken in order to push us toward each other as human beings and then to relate to each other in a space of free communion. This did not happen for me at the pharmacy; and it did. The man behind the counter, with whom I'd established rapport, treated me well; the pharmacist or technician behind glass did not.

I encountered a person who chose what actions and what form of human relation would fill in that unspoken, ubiquitous “or else.” I did not discover the game players' “or else.” What might it have been? What do we avoid when we accept the commands without asking, in effect, “or else what?”

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