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Why do we break rules ?

Cavalier attitude When rules are given the royal heave-ho

Cavalier attitude When rules are given the royal heave-ho   | Photo Credit: Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

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We tend to think of breaking rules and laws as applications of creativity, or even necessary for success. But there is never good enough justification to flout them.

Glance at the headlines in your morning newspaper — ah well, at your daily shot of web pages — and make a quick calculation. How many of the news snippets are about someone crazily trying to defy the law, rule, norm, moral code? So many, that if you’re pushed into thinking all the woes of life are caused by our contempt of common law, you’ve been pushed right.

We defile monuments by carving on the walls our undying love for someone. We overstay, wander off in national parks, pluck leaves and flowers and break branches. We drive without putting on a seatbelt, use the cellphone while driving. We disrespect all limits — speed, drinking, decibel level of horns, number of passengers on vehicles.

Inclusive

Rule-ignoring is inclusive. Everyone does it — class, caste, education, marital status, fitness no bar. All of us litter in public places, buy tickets in the black market, ignore stop-signs, negotiate with cops when caught, jump queues, park/drive on footpaths, or overtake on the wrong side. We smoke in the open, let our pets poop in the street and dump construction debris where people walk. We occupy public space with ramps outside homes. Is there an end to this list? Rule-breaking is a great leveller: no one gets punished. If you’re caught red-handed by a misguided watchman or an idealistic cop, you know how to wriggle out.

“I am baffled to notice that people often don’t follow my rules even when stated clearly. These, by the way, are in place because they are the best way to do things!” wrote an anguished blogger. “I’m trying love and compassion instead of throwing people off the balcony, but I am aware that the latter is more efficient.”

While flying, Indians pay little attention to evacuation instruction, says author Aakar Patel, writing in his blog Aakarvani. This cavalier attitude is why desis “make a grab for the overhead bins despite being told expressly to wait for the seat-belt sign to go off. A laptop bag once crashed down on my seated wife’s skull, as someone casually yanked stuff from the overhead bin. Heaven knows what sort of damage we do to each other every day in this Hobbesian fashion.” He points out how vehicles back up in our parts and even drive up the wrong side of highways. This utter disregard for rules of safety is a culture that is hard to break, he says.

Free expression?

Poor civic sense? A chalta hai attitude? Experts, sadly, do not agree on the “why”. Some argue rule-following is taught at home. The child is trained to follow ground rules — on cleanliness, politeness, right and wrong. Others say young people increasingly defy the law because the parental control is too strict for comfort. “What they can’t/couldn’t do at home finds free expression once they are outside and with friends.”

For the question “Why do we break primary traffic enforcement laws (seatbelt, cellphone use, parking, stopping behind lines)?” on a website, readers voted this as the best answer: We are careless or inattentive, we like to defy authority (who is he to tell me?), we feel we are young and therefore indestructible, we find it convenient (why waste driving time?). People think they rule the road when they are behind the wheel. And um, some genuinely don’t know traffic rules.

It’s a paradox, really. Most of us think we are honest, play by the rules — even when we litter, text while driving, mend the silencer in our vehicle, enjoy pirated movies/music, blow past speed limits, or lie to give our kids an advantage. When confronted, we offer a string of arguments in our defence. 1. I don’t always break rules, only when I can’t help it! 2. You talk as if I’ve stolen money! 3. It’s okay to break rules for others. 4. When so many get away with littering the beach, why should I look for a garbage bin? 5. Is that the rule? It’s not clear! And this clinching logic: When the big/powerful fish go scot-free why is the small fry caught?

Psychologists have found that rule-breaking makes people feel powerful, smart, innovative. You break rules, you feel macho — “See, I gamed the system!” Also, one who puts his feet on the seat in front at the theatre, smokes in public, parks on the speed-breaker and shouts at workers is thought of as a guy who “gets people to listen.” Breaking one rule, say, jumping a queue, gives you a sense of freedom from all rules. One offender said, “It’s healthy to let off steam once in a while, you know.” When a minor crashed the family BMW into a median, the parent claimed, “He can’t help it, it’s his hormones.” A study by Josephson Institute found that when asked if lying and cheating were necessary to succeed in life, more than 50% of young people are likely to say “Yes!”

We know the bottomline: breaking rules cannot be justified. No excuse is good enough. No violation of the law is legitimate. You follow rules because it is the honourable thing to do. Being law-abiding reduces chaos and ensures safety. Oh, yes, authorities everywhere try to ensure people follow rules. But the ultimate responsibility for following rules rests with every one of us. We should know right from wrong. We must see ourselves as honest people, in a positive light. Respect for rules is a necessary aspect of modern life.

And, ah, yes, misdemeanours have a way of coming back to bite us.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 10:45:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/why-do-we-break-rules/article22917000.ece

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