Cumberland Times-News

Opinion

December 14, 2013

Time to scrap the charade

More and more, life in America is lived on two levels — by informal understandings and by formal “paperwork” or rules in which people have less and less confidence.

For example, how many of us have signed something without first reading it? How many drive the posted speed limit?

But language is part of being human, and communication — spoken and written — is essential to community. Bylaws, policies, contracts, laws, constitutions — these documents and people’s attitudes towards them frame the world we live in.

Ideally, such community documents are done in good faith and serve a common purpose. In order to prevent misunderstandings or to avoid relying on memories alone, even close family may find it helpful to write down agreements.

At the other extreme, like a truce in war, people who trust each other very little will usually have to carefully write down what each is willing to do (as long as the other side keeps the agreement). Even this requires some small measure of trust and fulfills a common purpose.

People can fall into mindless rule-following, but where genuine community documents are concerned, doing things “by the book” is simply “keeping your word” to another member of your community. Keeping the terms of a truce maintains trust. Otherwise, it unravels and war breaks out again.

Of course, writing up documents can be just an adult version of “playing house.” For instance, “Mission Statements” are notorious for this. Participants may feel better about themselves for crafting impressive verbiage, but — except for PR purposes — will anyone ever use it?

When community documents are not genuine, distrust and cynicism grow, eroding the good faith that is necessary for people to work and live together.

Even worse, some go beyond cynicism. They use community documents to manipulate others, pretending to honor them, but actually using them as a smokescreen for hidden agendas — perhaps even justifying this betrayal of trust as “for the greater good.”

The trusting, who accept the formal documents in good faith, and even cynics, who think they are irrelevant, are thus abused by clever bullies and con artists.

The disillusioned, who are no longer fooled, begin to lose hope in genuine community and may just trade obedience for security and mafia-like “protection.”

This is dangerous. The rule of law is not just following rules. It is where everyone with good-standing in the community, including its officials, remains willingly subordinate to genuine community documents.

When an official acts “above the law,” they may have broken faith, betraying their community.

In that case, the community can respond, like a body fighting off a disease, and remove the offender from office in order to preserve the integrity of the community and the rule of law.

On the other hand, maybe the community never existed or has disintegrated. The community documents are a charade, and the community — company, organization, or country — is just a fiction in the first place.

It is dysfunctional, and it may be best just to acknowledge reality, stop the charade, and get on with life.

If the charade continues and the rule of law breaks down, then authoritarianism grows — rule by force, fear, and favoritism. When that happens, the only way forward is to restore trust within genuine communities — often smaller or at least different.

That can take a long time, require painful break-ups, and usually means scrapping the charade documents to get back to solid ground.

Current affairs can be understood as the struggle between two visions, both promising a better world — authoritarianism versus community.

We had best clean house and strengthen or salvage what communities we can.

David Webb

LaVale

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