Comply, conform, or counter?

Rules are supposed to help us go through life with ease, and move ahead without inconveniencing others

September 09, 2018 05:00 pm | Updated 08:36 pm IST

Photo of business hands holding blackboard and writing CONFORMITY concept

Photo of business hands holding blackboard and writing CONFORMITY concept

We really can’t get away from rules. They are everywhere — written, unwritten, assumed, invisible…our lives are governed by them. The structure of our days, the organisation of our spaces, the way we work, speak and relate to each other, even the way we resist — all of this happens within a framework that sets out for us, how things must be done. For the most part, the rules are supposed to help us go through life with ease, giving us a sense of how to move without bumping into or inconveniencing each other.


Once we become aware of these rules, we have one of several possible responses. We (either consciously or unthinkingly) comply with them, out of habit, or sometimes because we actually believe them, or we respect those who expect us to go by them. Or we might question them and push for change. Or we might outright reject them and make new rules.

In our personal lives, we often follow simple household rules out of deference to elders in the house or people we have affection or regard for. We don’t think about this because it doesn’t bother us too much to just follow such rules. We begin to question these strictures when they come in the way of what we want to do, but usually, we are able to negotiate with family, because, in this context, preserving the relationship is more important that sticking to the rules.

In professional and academic settings, rules are not so easily negotiated. In these cases, rules exist to ensure the smooth functioning of institutions and to serve a set of larger social, cultural or economic goals (definitely not in that order of priority, and sometimes political imperatives also creep in).

Over time, you find that large institutions end up paying more attention to the rules themselves rather than the goals that they were meant to help achieve. While those who have become part of such institutions continue to follow the rules out of force of habit, newcomers begin to chafe when they see a disconnect between the larger mission of the institution and the blind adherence to rules, some of which were made in completely different contexts and for a different kind of society. Some institutions and organisations have mechanisms by which these rules can be challenged, through discussion and debate, and ultimately changed to reflect the new environment. At a macro level, courts do this by allowing challenges to the law that can lead to amendments. While many of us chafe at any hint of compulsion (and rules often come across as this), there are points in life when we want to push against the rules just to see how far we can go, or because it seems to be the fashionable thing to do. Or, we want to fight them because they seem unjust or out of step with the times.

What are your compulsions for not wanting to follow a rule? Does it come from your beliefs, or is it something else? What would you replace the rule with? Working out these questions will give you a firmer handle on how to approach the issues, and better positioned to argue for change.

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus.

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