January 7th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

"Because it's the rule!"

A bunch of years ago, one time when I was working as volunteer "security" (we have to put it in quotes here in St. Louis, legal reasons) for a small local science fiction convention, I walked into security HQ to borrow the radio base station; I needed to get ahold of someone on the staff, and my issued walkie-talkie didn't have the range and my cellphone wasn't getting signal. The base station was in use, so I just sat down next to the desk to wait for the current conversation to end so I could make my call. Being tired, I zoned out. But several minutes later, it dawned on me that the same argument was still going on, and that the person I could hear clearly was repeating himself over and over again. So I started paying attention, to try to figure out what was going on. I had a couple of reasons, but a need to clear that frequency briefly and then use the radio myself was way up there.

What was going on at the time was that the guy in charge of the base station was trying, entirely unsuccessfully, to settle a boiled-over argument between two of the other security volunteers. Only one of them had a walkie-talkie, so we were only hearing his side. It took me some effort to crowbar my way into the conversation and find out what the heck was going on. Volunteer #1 was trying to get Base Station to find the head of the convention, or the head of convention security, to not only kick off of security but preferably also evict from the convention, Volunteer #2. This had turned into a shouting match, nobody at all involved had managed to find either of the committee people, and the shouting match was thoroughly stuck in a rut, spinning around in tight little circles. So I pried harder. Eventually, I literally pried harder, taking the microphone out of the guy running the base station's not-entirely-cooperative hands so I could ask Volunteer #1 what in the heck he was accusing Volunteer #2 of doing.

What he explained to me, once I took the radio over and insisted he explain it all over again, was that he caught volunteer #2 hanging out with people from the convention (not even in the convention's rented space, in the halls) without wearing his badge. In the opinion of volunteer #1, this was a problem for many reasons, not least among which was that people knew that volunteer #2 was security, so he was setting a bad example, and by setting a bad example he was making it harder work for us to keep people out who hadn't paid for their memberships. But what really had him ticked off, what had raised the boiling point to the level of "prolonged shouting match," was that volunteer #2, when he had this pointed out to him, stood his ground and refused to obey.

I immediately asked why volunteer #2 wouldn't wear his badge. "I don't know." Ask him? "I don't care why he won't wear his badge! It's in the rules that he has to wear his badge at all times!" Yes, I said, but he but he might have a reason. "I don't care what his reason is, it's in the rules!" Imagine those last two questions and responses repeated a couple of times, but give me credit for trying to stay calm and to keep rephrasing what I wanted to get the point across. Finally, I bulled my way through, raising my own voice a little, and said, "HUMOR ME. Whether it matters or not, I want to know why he won't wear his badge. ASK HIM, for me." Volunteer #1, now getting angry at me, said, "I can't tell you why he won't wear his badge, I don't know!" So I yelled again, "ASK HIM. For me. Please?"

After a brief pause, volunteer #1 said, in a bored and surly voice that made it clear that he resented being distracted by my irrelevant question, "He says he's wearing a $300 rental tux, and he's not going to lose his deposit by poking holes in it for his badge." I immediately responded, "Tell him to drop by the front desk and ask for a length of string, to pin his badge to the string, and wear it around his neck." Longer, somewhat awkward pause. I actually had to ask, "Well?" "Nothing. He says he's going to get his badge."

Sometimes the rules really are the rules. And yes, I'm not unsympathetic to the argument that this might have been one of those times. I could see someone arguing either way in good faith, but yes, the guy running convention security had a rule that even when you're not in convention space, because you're a security volunteer, he needed you to be wearing your badge, with the ribbon that (borderline illegally) says Security, in case he needed to call on you to help with something in a hurry, and yes, to set a good example. Volunteer #1 was absolutely determined to see that rule enforced. But the one thing he wasn't willing to do, not without bullying and arm-twisting, was to work with Volunteer #2 to find out if #2's reasons for breaking the rule could be accommodated by some means other than ignoring the breaking of the rule.

Why not? Because some people, people whom I utterly loathe, have this nasty short circuit in their head that says, "When it says, 'the rules say that I'm right,' that means that I'm right, and you have to do what I say!" What motivates me to hatred towards that, and loathing, is the same thing that motivates me to use the "short circuit" metaphor: at that point, all thinking stops. All listening stops. All seeing stops. All sympathy stops. Everything vanishes from the sensory circuits in the brain, and from the thought processes, and any ability to concentrate on goals vanishes too, and any ability to plan their way around obstacles, and in fact any human emotion other than self-defeating petulance and stubbornness.

Why do I bring this up now? Oh, because of an ongoing local St. Louis news story. Where someone is being just that stupid. And where his stupidity may have fascinating long-term global consequences. Some of you, especially some of you locals, are nodding your head and suddenly going, "Oh, I know where he's going with this!" Well, don't spoil it for the others.