rules and broken things
August 22, 2002 09:22 AM

Kerri's post for this week's We Have Brains: Can someone live by the rules of others and express him/herself effectively. . .as a feminist, an activist, an opinionated person?


I've been thinking about this one for the better part of the week. I have to say, it has completely spiraled out of the control of Kerri's question. Not only could I not give a direct answer - I couldn't even produce one vague and rambling answer. Don't say you haven't been warned.


part one (the relationship part)
This is how I feel about me. I don't feel stifled. I don't feel like anything external has put me in a box. I've never stayed in a confining relationship. No, not never.


During high school, for about two months, I dated a boy who had some abusive qualities. He was. Well, he was a little creepy. He coated all his conversations with me in this demented romanticism. He was all about me. I don't know whether he ultimately turned out to be an abusive person, but I had difficulty trusting someone who constantly thought I was so amazing. It was creepy. I left. I had to wait a whole month to formally stop dating him, because he was in some other country and couldn't get letters with any regularity. So, I guess it actually lasted less than a month. As did every other relationship that followed (with one notable exception).


I don't have much tolerance for anything that claims to need me so much. Or for people who won't voice their own desire, who turn their desire into pleasing you. I think people are lying when they don't admit to being selfish.


I could be wrong.


I also know, though. That the inside of a malfunctioning relationship, a malfunctioning life, does not always resemble its outside face. Especially when breaking is gradual. Rarely do relationships start out as broken as my adolescent one.


So, yes, not seeing the outside of your relationship, I can imagine it's fairly easy to still live a life that promotes independence and creativity while confined in a too-tight love, even to externally fight domestic violence while living in a violent relationship. I suspect that might just be how women survive such things.


part two (the whose rules part)
There are rules. There are loads of rules. People mostly follow them. Anyone who says s/he lives by no one else's rules is not taking a holistic view (or is, perhaps, a bit megalomaniacal). We share a huge set of common societal rules. One hundred percent no rules equals anarchy equals people peeing in the orange juice bottles at the grocery store. The grocery store and the orange juice bottle are, themselves, governed by a whole set of rules that dictate their expected appearance and function.


[The former was a key assumption of the rest of this rant. If you can't see the logic, you're probably not going to get the rest of this; please go back to whatever you were doing.]


Here's the catch, though: we are so accustomed to following this agreed set of rules that it can be difficult to distinguish between those and other external rules. If I accept that a piece of paper can be exchanged for a Slurpee, it is a logical step along the next path to accept that purple hair is not appropriate in my workplace. At the same time, my following - or rather, my willingness to join the majority and follow, this majority is key - the rules is what makes them rules. And all of the rules taken together become this construct: society.


And so we get "societal pressures" and "the way society is today". We are, each of us, complicit. They are our rules and our society.


Sometimes the rules and the rules-that-aren't-entirely-rules pinch. Sometimes you want to ignore them.


That doesn't mean we each don't feel obliged to squeeze just one more person onto the majority elevator. I would certainly be happier if I could wear my pink kitty shoes to the office and tell people when they were being stupid or bossy. I would also be happier if the roof came unhinged and I could work with the sun on my head. But I get on the elevator anyhow.


part three (the purple hair part)
The great irony of my life (I think) is that I was so exhausted by the sameness of pre-teenishness that towards the end of my adolescence I felt so little pressure to conform, yet I have all these notions of adulthood as an ocean of conformity.


This ocean is part fact and part my construction of things as they seem.


At times, the ability of humans to conform amazes me. It can be beautiful. It can also be depressing. At the line of depressing (drawn in nice little grey boxes drawn around computers in our offices), it becomes unbearably weighty. It becomes me being in disguise.


Of course, I'm not in disguise. I don't lead a double life of grey boxes and pink kitty shoes. [Remember, this is my construction of things as they seem.] I choose to save the shoes for times when difference won't distract me. For when I don't want to swim. But at the office, I choose to swim.


I choose to swim because of the purplehaired valedictorian.


When I was younger, there was a purplehaired valedictorian. A gaggle of kids (girls, I'm sure) circulated a petition to unseat the purplehaired valedictorian. She did not speak for the majority. But her role was not to speak for them, but to speak to them. So the hair, and the valedictorian, were left on their seat.


The purplehaired valedictorian considered this a minor triumph, but was dumbfounded by the whole petition concept. And the purplehaired valedictorian spent a lot of time that year on her campaign to convince people that different didn't mean less capable.


It may or may not have been time wasted, but it absorbed almost all of her self-righteousness. People ignored her other arguments (which were much more interesting) because they were so focused on this issue on her head.


Eventually, she stopped saying anything important around people who weren't freaks like her. They talked about everything, but they whispered in corners.


And in the end, even if she did triumph, most people didn't really generalize it past her. Kids who wore lots of black and didn't have the purplehaired valedictorian's grades and smart mouth were still thought to be strange. Even dangerous. And many years later the same things were happening to the same sort of kids. The purplehaired valedictorian didn't appear to have accomplished much of anything.


For those of you who'd like it decoded. The lesson of the parable of the purplehaired valedictorian is that sometimes distancing yourself from your audience (by appearance, behavior, whatever) prevents your actions from being digested.


part four (the simple part)
This much is simple. Living is negotiation.


Any point at which this becomes untrue - say, you allow someone else to dictate everything you do, you refuse to tell others what you want and need - is a point of failure. But not only of you. It doesn't make you broken. At least not all the way.


And anyone who isn't all the way broken can still be a strong, opinionated thinker. At least in some part.


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