Justice Rising: Remember How to Break the Rules

The legend of one Yale professor’s advice: break a rule every day.

| Spring 2016

There’s a story about Yale anthropology professor James C. Scott that I’ve retold often. In this story, the professor has a ritual. Every fall, he addresses his freshman class of anthropology students, explaining to them that, “the world is changing. It’s becoming more unjust, more unequal, more corrupt. You might be able to pinch your noses and live in this mire for now, but there will come a time when a rule is laid down that you cannot abide. Something will happen that strikes to your moral core.

“My worry, ladies and gentlemen,” James Scott continues, “is that when that rule is written, you won’t know how to break it. You will have become so complacent, so inured, so used to doing what you’re told, so used to swallowing your bile that, when the time comes, you’ll be powerless to stop a world that has come to rule you.” The class is hushed.

“My advice to you,” the professor continues, “is simple: every day, break a rule. Cross the road where you shouldn’t. Plant something where it doesn’t belong. Take from the rich and give to the poor. Do something to keep yourself sharp. These are skills that you’ll need not just when the government imposes Draconian laws. They’re skills that help you fight the Draconian laws that are already on the books.”

It was only a small disappointment that, when I was able finally to meet Jim Scott, he told me the story wasn’t true. Well, even if he doesn’t say it to his students, I’ve said it to mine. And they seem to understand the force of the call to break rules.

Rule-breaking isn’t just a clever way to prepare for some future counter-insurgency, some sort of psychological survivalist calisthenics. The most potent parts of breaking rules are these: They’re a way to take a step back and see how many decisions are already made for us, how many rules we follow without thinking and, ultimately, a gateway to imagining what our social rules might look like.

We live in a capitalist society. To imagine something different, think about the cardinal institutions of capitalism: private property, finance, the state, the gendered division of labor.

4/11/2016 2:10:41 PM

"think about the cardinal institutions of capitalism: private property, finance, the state, the gendered division of labor." Bullshit. There is only one defining attribute of capitalism: Private property, including the means of production. Finance, etc. follows, though feudal monarchs also needed financiers. The gendered division of labor started breaking down when decent contraception became available. It's really sad to see partisan journalism, on either side, indulging in such intellectual dishonesty.