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Living a little outside the box

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JUNE 09, 2014

How’s this for a morality system: In ancient Sparta, boys were not punished for stealing — they were punished for getting caught. After all, if they did it well enough that nobody noticed, what damage was done? I apply the same philosophy to most things in my life. If something is against the rules, but the rules can be broken without anyone noticing or getting hurt, break away.

I used to hate when my friends broke the rules of games we played. What was the point, I thought, if we ignored them? The challenge was not in discarding limitations but in finding a way to succeed within them and use them to our advantage.

For a while, I applied that philosophy to almost everything in my life. I was courteous to my parents and did well in school, all because it worked! I was good at playing by the rules, and the rules supported me in turn.

But forbidden fruits are the sweetest, so I started testing boundaries. I used the freedom gained by my parents’ trust in me to start exploring. I never broke rules excessively or destructively, and I always made sure to cover my tracks. The results were perfect. My educational, social and family lives never faltered, and I was having great new experiences and expanding my horizons. It was a win-win situation.

This is not to say that rule-breaking in itself attracted me. Some rules were good rules, I knew — don’t plagiarize, bring weapons on airplanes or do meth. It was pointless rules that bothered me, especially when they prevented me from doing what had to be done. It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission, but it’s even better to break rules that don’t require asking for either. I still tend to play games by the rulebook, but I’m now willing to change the rules if it improves the game.

That has become the philosophy I take with nearly all aspects of my life. As long as breaking a rule won’t endanger anything, including and especially my freedom to break rules, and as long as the result of breaking it will be more productive than following it, I say go for it.

Much of our world is governed by bureaucracy — including, to a large degree, this school. Many rules are in place not for efficiency but security — that is, not because they better the world, but because they keep things bureaucratic. This very newspaper only exists as it does because of rule-breaking — because while it was run through UC Berkeley, it published an incendiary call to arms during the People’s Park riots. The university retaliated, firing the editors, and the newspaper responded in turn by withdrawing from the school and becoming an independent organization. The bravery of those journalists and editors who stood firm in the face of overwhelming official pressure affirmed the mission of the paper and of journalism as a whole: to express important messages without fear of censorship or punishment.

The written word is perhaps the best medium for this constructive rule-breaking. Martin Luther used the printing press to rebel against the Roman Catholic Church’s greed. Vaclav Havel was repeatedly incarcerated for his scathing satires of Soviet Union bureaucracy and totalitarianism. Arab Spring activists used Twitter to bring forward forbidden information. Edward Snowden is the most recent and probably best example of this, turning against his government in an act seen as noble by those whom it benefited and treasonous by those whom it exposed. Many rules exist to preserve the existence of whoever created them, and often the best way to stay in power is to muffle the voices of all those who would contradict you.

This is why it’s important not to turn our eyes away from the boundaries presented to us. It would be folly and chaos to destroy them entirely, but chipping a hole in a wall and peeking through is sometimes the only way to see what’s on the other side. Creative destruction is an important part of any innovation — old systems that can’t be updated have to be torn down and built anew. We see this concept everywhere: The modern novel couldn’t exist until “Don Quixote toppled the restricting tradition of chivalric romance; Lower Sproul will be 10 times better after its redevelopment. Our country, though certainly not a perfect democracy, wouldn’t even be close to its current state if we hadn’t broken the rules of the British empire. Google foments creative destruction in fields from cable monopolies to insurance. There are still many things to change. The income gap has to be eliminated — our system of bubbles of wealth within vast impoverished wastelands is terrible and getting worse. We must find ways of living sustainably with increasingly few resources, or we will face extinction. These fractures will not be healed by patching them up. Instead, we must grow new bones.

Contrary to the old saying, rules are not meant to be broken. They’re meant to hold things up and keep them working, unless those things are not working properly. So test locked doors, peek under tarpaulins, talk to strangers and write the truth. You never know what you might create.

Jacob Straus writes the Monday column on progressive issues. Contact Jacob Straus at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jacob_straus.

JUNE 09, 2014