We have been brought up in a culture of bookends and facts. For many of us, growing up or growing older in urban or suburban environments, everything was structured. We watched tv shows on a box that was always the same dimensions, we went to piano or ballet lessons, which lasted exactly thirty minutes or half an hour. We spent time at hockey or soccer practice, all of which was limited to the number of hours booked. When the Internet came along, we started to bookend our relationships, defining them through lists of likes and dislikes, political and philosophical affinities, cultural and identity preferences. Since the Second World War, our lives have grown increasingly structured and orderly.
It seems as though this has brought forth a desire to “know”. We want certainty. Certainty about what we have to learn to pass a professional development or self-improvement course, certainty about getting a job after we finish school, certainty about what is expected from us in a relationship – and, sadly, what we hope “to gain” from our relationships. Trying to know things leads to a life defined by categories and limits. It’s an objectified life, where we categorize our friends, our loves and our environment. This may be reassuring, but in many ways it isn’t human. It’s a little mechanistic. And it changes our perception of the world from the natural human propensity for mystery, adventure, love and wisdom, to a perception based on facts, things, schedules and rules.
Ah, now that’s the rub, isn’t it – rules. You see, in a subjective world of human experience, it is very difficult to impose rules. Rules constrain and limit human behaviours. They thrive on bookended categories that are well-defined in our personal lives. Rules are hard and fast. Rules are not forgiving. Too bad that human experience is not rule-oriented. In fact, people do their best to get around the rules – it’s almost something you can wear with pride.
In a subjective human world, full of interpretation and mystery, rules are not as effective as principles. The difference, I think, is that principles generate behaviours and perceptions, regardless of the context that you find yourself in. Rules just box you in. Principles put the onus on the perceiver to interpret the world critically and then make a subjective choice that he/she can stand by. People are proud to stand by their principles.
Principles require interpretation, and interpretation requires understanding. Understanding requires dialogue and real, loving, empathic human interactions. Machines can follow rules. Only humans can interpret principles in context.
A world of rules needs to build prisons to punish rule-breakers, whereas a world of principles needs to build schools to form character and cultivate a loving attitude.
Would you rather say you took a principled stand, than say you followed the rules?