Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thou Shalt Not ....

Why is it that so many pieces or advice, instruction, or moral guidance appear to be couched in negative language? “You shall not ….” “Don’t be dishonest.” “Never bet against the house.” You can probably come up with plenty of other examples, from your grandmother, your religious leader, or your best friend. Some of the most popular advice in the world is expressed in terms of what not to do.

The other side of the phenomenon is the fact that telling someone to do something positive doesn’t seem to have the same impact as telling someone to stop doing something negative. Telling someone to “Be nice!” is less effective as “Don’t fidget!” This is because being nice is wide-ranging, generic, and largely open to personal interpretation, whereas not fidgeting is very immediate, clear, and specific, an instruction that allows for little nuance in meaning.  As an instruction, “Be nice!” is a broad searchlight and “Don’t fidget!” is a laser.

Is there something in that specificity of identifying wrong behavior that allows for a greater respect and wider leeway for personal freedom? If we know what not to do, or where you cannot go, doesn’t that give us greater liberty and confidence to wander and explore within the allowable limits?

Back when I was in high school, there was something that my mother said which has stuck with me. The family had just moved to a brand-new house in a brand-new subdivision. The houses were right next to each other, and our backyard flowed into the backyard of the house on the street behind us. Fences had not yet been built anywhere. On the first evening when our family of seven occupied the house, my mother mentioned to my father at dinner: “The first thing I want you to do is to build the fence around our house. Otherwise I won’t feel free.”

At the time this struck me as a contradiction. How was it that a fence could make you feel more free? Fences are there to limit movement. They enclosed a space and hampered freedom, or so I thought. However, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the fact that fences, rules, principles, limitations, and specific prohibitions usually arise in order to protect or enhance genuine freedom, instead of limiting a false perception of freedom. The best and most creative freedom rests within appropriate limits.

The simplest example of this, also involving a fence, is of a children’s playground in a very busy city, or on the roof of a tall school building. When there is a fence, kids play right up against it, even leaning on it, or resting on the ground with their backs up against it. When there is no fence, the kids play more towards the middle of the playground, not venturing too close to the edges for fear of being outside of the zone of security. Their perceived and actual freedom at play is enhanced by a clear border, one that was pretty much unassailable. Knowing how far you can go better allows you to go as far as you can go.

The Ten Commandments actually define a breadth of liberty. As G.K. Chesterton noted: “If there are only Ten Commandments, it means that there are only ten things forbidden: and that means that there are ten million things that are not forbidden.” It's still true today. Google’s corporate slogan is a negative, “Don’t be evil”, which leaves a lot of room for being and doing good.

So there is wisdom in this age-old practice of the censure of wrong behavior. There may be many such statements which are petty, or vindictive, or wrongly focused. But in terms of the big things, you could do worse than simply stating what shouldn’t be done.

Don’t believe something without trying it out.