Rule-Keepers, Rebels and Right-Thinkers

Rules tend to come ‘after the fact’.

In considering the grammar of a language such as English, the rules imposed upon it arise directly out of usage. Rules, in other words, originate within the descriptive, but become prescriptive as common use is deemed to be inflexible.

To take an example from English grammar, I tend to use semicolons as something between a full-stop and a comma. There are times, in the pacing of my writing, that a comma is insufficient, a full-stop too emphatic. I want to separate clauses for a half-beat longer for the sake of rhythm, perhaps, or so as to introduce an idea with slightly more emphasis.

Sad to say, there are strict rules for semicolons. You cannot use them as ‘extended commas’. If I remember correctly – and I don’t much care whether I do or whether I don’t – a semicolon cannot precede a subordinate clause.

On the other hand, I’m informed that a colon can do precisely this. Well, bully for the colon, but to my mind that’s an abuse of the language. A colon is emphatic, a comma with an implicit exclamation mark. It’s a touchy-feely beast that doesn’t stand up well to the simplistic two-line summaries of grammatical prescription. A colon, for me, is something which takes the reader from, say, a scene set to the specific element of the scene upon which the writer wants to draw focus. The Tories: have they lost the plot? may be an example of that. Colons are great in a headline, but in a body of prose they tend to stand out like sore thumbs, however correctly used in the minds of those who would wave to the prescriptions of grammar tomes.

In thinking more about this in the light of grammar, it seems the argument may be extended into other areas which suffer from the same affliction when we consider codes of conduct more generally. Consider morality. Within society, some things promote social harmony and general well being; other things work against it. In the realm of what is deemed to be ‘natural law’, this permits us to make guidelines fairly readily. Dishonesty, for example, is frowned upon. A person telling a lie is not to be trusted. If he cannot be taken at his word, then in the short term those with whom he interacts suffer; in the long term, he suffers himself as trust is lost. Thus honesty wins out over lying and we have a natural law, applicable to all situations. “Thou shalt not bear false witness” becomes a rule that is generally applicable.

Only, of course, it isn’t. If you happened to know the hiding place of a family of Jews in Nazi Germany and a Gestapo officer were to enquire after them, “I don’t know” would be a lie but, nonetheless, the ethical response.

This provides an interesting contrast between, say, Buddhism and Christianity. Christianity has its commandments, not to be broken. Buddhism, on the other hand, presents its adherents, (in the form of monks), with precepts. These are similar to commandments and are couched as such – as rules – but no sooner are they formulated than stories arise within the loose canon, (and note here that the canon is indeed loose while, in Christianity, it is strictly delineated, another aspect of strict adherence as opposed to a more flexible approach), which speak of monks breaking the precepts, making them heroes for doing so skilfully. The focus is upon ‘right thinking’ in considering what brings about the optimal result on an ethical level. I have seen such tales in Buddhism making heroes of monks who have had physical contact with women, even had sex with them, monks who have burned ancient and beloved Buddhist tomes and statuary and, indeed, it seems there cannot be a precept out there that doesn’t have its band of mythic heroes who have made themselves so by the blatancy of their breaking it.

Perhaps right thinking over rules is something we should consider generally, though that is not without its risks. Too much ‘right thinking’ in the hands of disparate individuals could lead to a breakdown of cohesion and disunity, even anarchy, and while each of us may trust his or her own judgement, we’re all a bit wary of the bloke next door. Nonetheless, it is disturbing in discussion in many areas to hear rather too much about rules and conventions, standard practice and tradition, culture and conformity, whether in their adherence or in their rejection. There are those who, adhere to some religion, or reject it; adhere to some economic system or reject it; adhere to some grammar or reject it; adhere to some culture or reject it; adhere to some political party or reject it. The irony in hearing the rejectionists is, very often, that they are as hidebound by the rules they reject as the adherents of those rules are hidebound in their keeping. As the adherent is obliged to say ‘Yes’ at every turn, so the rebel is equally obliged to say ‘No’. They have no more freedom of movement, freedom of thought, freedom of action than those they oppose.

This seems to be particularly the case in western societies. It can lead to stalemate, as in the UK where the workers seemed perennially to be in conflict with management in the 1970s, the conflict brought to an unsatisfactory conclusion not by following the German or Nordic models of finding the middle ground and acknowledging that healthy business benefits both sides who should be working together for that goal, but by Thatcher handing victory to one side, a solution the price of which we are now paying. As we pay it, we see again the rise of extreme elements who oppose free-market economics altogether. Then there’s the abortion debate. Two undeniable rights – the right of a woman to choose, the right of the unborn child – cannot both be accommodated fully in any solution, and yet debate too often does not revolve around compromise but, rather, two sides each talking past the other as each espouses its position as paramount, discounting the other side’s arguments as inconsequential.

One thing that has always fascinated me is the yin-yang symbol of Chinese Taoism. When something reaches its extreme, we find at its heart the seed of its opposite. This is singularly acknowledged in Japanese society with its strict adherence to rules in the harmonious co-existence of omote and ura. Omote is that which is seen, the front, the face, the public. Ura is that which is unseen, the behind, the hidden. Rather than analyse it in depth, an example will suffice. Japan is strict in its adherence to rules. However, this can lead to things becoming impractically rigid. To take two examples in the legal sphere, prostitution and gambling. Both are outlawed, but the Japanese are pragmatic and know that neither may be stopped by the imposition of laws. Enter the Yakuza, the Japanese ‘mafia’. They run both, run them efficiently and effectively under strict self-regulation, and they punish – very harshly – those who intrude upon their territory. These organisations are so well established within the system that even their business meetings may be publicly reported. It is a contradiction – the legal side-by-side with the illegal – without conflict; or, at least, largely so.

This is certainly a system not to be advocated. It is, however, illustrative of what happens when adherence to rules becomes too extreme. What may be advocated is less extremism; less rigidity; less blind adherence or equally blind dismissal; less this or that; less compliance or rebellion; less have it all or throw it all away. We need to get rid of the idea of ‘sitting on the fence’, as if the middle-ground is somehow precarious, as if ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are broad highways instead of the narrow verges at the extremes of opinion.

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