Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Ground Rules or Guidelines?

There are two mainstream films that contain similar phrases about rules and guidelines. The first is the 1984 film Ghostbusters where the character played by Bill Murray is on the verge of being seduced by a possessed Sigourney Weaver. He says: “I make it a rule never to sleep with possessed people…They're really more guidelines than actual rules”. The second is Pirates of the Caribbean where a ghostly Capt Barbossa explains the subtleties of the pirates code: “the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules”. Interestingly, both uses of the phrase are employed during a verbal exchange between the "normal" and the paranormal; between a world whose physical rules govern everything we do and a realm where rules and reality itself evaporate into meaninglessness.

In our world of gravity, time, dimension and light we’ve created countless measures to gauge and quantify both limits and extent. We’ve explored and discovered many of the underlying principles of a multitude of physical processes and phenomena. We’ve mapped the heavens to infinitesimal detail and subdivided atoms to ever diminishing fractions of existence, all with the laudable aim of establishing the fundamental laws of reality and gaining a deeper understanding of this contingent moment which we so precariously inhabit. In our certitude of the value and applicability of these truths we’ve reproduced our conceptions of fact and codified them in social laws, rules and codes of conduct such that there’s barely a facet of human endeavour which isn't regulated, modified or influenced by our perceptions. But despite the breadth and dimension of our wisdom there is still much that is not dreamt of in our philosophy, or as Wittgenstein wrote: “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” And yet we persist in using our understanding of the ubiquity and value of rules as a closely woven net to catch and ensnare all kinds of intangible creatures, both forbidding and innocent. My question is this: what rare life are we suffocating into the bargain - what gentle, unassuming and fragile creatures are we casting out as useless flotsam in our desire for control and mastery?

Civility, propriety, courtesy, common decency - call it what you will - few would disagree that such things are being eroded in contemporary society. For some people the solution is to put up walls and to create boundaries and rules which protect themselves and the people they care for from perceived danger and harm. For others, such things are just an inevitability, a consequence of social change and human progress. But we shouldn't submit to such reactionary or deterministic conclusions, especially since the solution is part of what makes us who we are: the ways we treat people and the way we wish to be treated.
"The knowledge of courtesy is a very necessary study; like grace and beauty, it breeds mutual liking." Montaigne
The 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that man, in a state of nature, was ruled by the most primitive and aggressive instincts. The solution therefore, for Hobbs, was that man requires the authority of law to attain civil society:"law is established only by artificial Power, and Reason enfranchised only by Authority."
In his inspiring book “The Gift” the poet and writer Lewis Hyde examines this na├»ve but still widespread notion and contrasts it with his own research on gift exchange and, in this example, an anarchist perspective:
"The anarchist begins his politics on a different note and comes to a different resolution. Anarchist theory is like an aqua regia applied to the state and its machinery to see how much might be stripped away before people begin to suffer more than they do under law and authority. The anarchist begins with the assumption of man's good nature, contending that law itself is a "cause" of crime."
Hyde quotes James Joll’s 1979 essay on the anarchist movement which discusses anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s ethnographic work which contradicts Hobbes unfounded claims from an empirical standpoint:
“The primitive tribes he observed seemed to have customs and instincts which regulated their social life without the need of government or laws. For Kropotkin, primitive society, so far from providing an example of Hobbesian conflict and of the war of all against all, showed rather that cooperation and 'mutual aid' were the natural state of man if left uncorrupted by government and by laws which result from the 'desire of the ruling class to give permanence to customs imposed by themselves for their own advantage', whereas all that is necessary for harmonious living are 'those customs useful for society. . . which have no need of law to insure respect'.”
Hyde concludes the chapter opposing Hobbes
once again
“It is this double conceit – first, that passion will undo social life and, second, that coercion will preserve it – that anarchist philosophy and the traditions of gift exchange call into question. The former imagines and the latter stand witness to a social life motivated by feeling and nonetheless marked by structure, durability, and cohesion. There are many connections between anarchist theory and gift exchange as an economy – both assume that man is generous, or at least cooperative, “in nature”; both shun centralised power; both are best fitted to small groups and loose federations; both rely on contracts of the heart over codified contract, and so on. But, above all, it seems correct to speak of the gift as anarchist property because both anarchism and gift exchange share the assumption that it is not when part of the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears.”
In recent times Anarchy has become synonymous with chaos and civil disorder and much of it's insight has therefore been obscured, but the discerning belief that human beings are essentially good is one from which we have a great deal to learn. Whereas, if we continue to propagate the Hobbesian view, that the only way to manage our social relations is by extending the rule of law into every quarter, then George Orwell's bleak vision is even closer than we had ever dared to believe. Certainly rules are necessary in many instances to protect people from injury and danger; the Highway Code for instance or Health and Safety measures (though these can also be raised to ridiculous levels of absurdity), but there are many walks of life where an over emphasis on rules simply infringes freedom, debilitates creativity and smothers the delicate value of what I have called The Social Gift.

We need as few rules in the educational context as possible - especially in an art school. The belief that it's important to institute conspicuous regulatory measures, no matter how nuanced, seems to me to be both retrogressive and antithetical to the true nature of high-quality education. Education should aim to instil the very best in people, which means that education itself should uphold the very best principles, including genuine trust and mutual respect. If we choose to employ impoverished ad-hoc solutions like ground rules then what underlying message are we really promoting? But if we must regulate our fellow citizens (students) in our higher institutions of learning, let's use guidelines instead and leave ground rules to the ghosts of meaninglessness or cast them adrift on the sea of unnecessary, humorless and ill-conceived errors.


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