Wed | Oct 17, 2018

Rodje Malcolm | Rules are rules

Published:Wednesday | November 15, 2017 | 12:00 AM

In 1962, Princess Margaret, representing the Queen of England, opened the first Parliament of independent Jamaica wearing a white sleeveless dress. But in 2017, Jamaican women wearing similar sleeveless dresses cannot enter that same Parliament. Why? Because 'rules are rules'.

In Jamaica, we have normalised absurdity when it comes to some rules regulating public life. Right now, many government offices, public hospitals and even police stations deny access to women who wear sleeveless garments. This denial is not because sleeveless attire poses any risk to good order, is particularly indecent, or raises other legitimate concerns, but is merely because some official created a rule in the past that has now been institutionalised. The enforcers can never actually explain what legitimate purpose the rule serves, but they religiously demand strict adherence. Why? Because 'rules are rules'.

These absurdities transcend women's arms. They pervade our public institutions. Just last week, Parliament prohibited people attending a sitting of the Senate from taking notes because note-taking was apparently against the rules (unless you were a registered journalist). In fact, Parliament security personally barred me from entering the gallery because I had a notepad and a pen which had to be left behind if I wanted to enter. When asked for an explanation, security staff only emphasised that it was one of the rules, so they had to enforce it. Why? Because 'rules are rules'.




Just because something is a rule does not make it sensible. In the same way that people created rules to regulate behaviour, people can also change them. Securing that change requires that people rationally interrogate the bases for the rules they follow to improve them. However, the national discourse surrounding these rules frequently devolves into a stalemate because of common logical fallacies. I briefly discuss one here: the is-ought fallacy.

The is-ought fallacy occurs when someone presents what something currently is (descriptive claims) as an argument for what it ought to be (normative claims). When committing the is-ought fallacy, people readily assume that because things are a certain way, they should always be that way - without ever providing a rational basis for that position. It is the equivalent of saying prior to universal suffrage that because the law only allowed men to vote, only men should be allowed to vote.

This reasoning is illogical because it validates practices merely because they exist, not because they are right. When people cannot intelligently distinguish between what is and what ought to be, their end-results will always affirm the status quo. In so doing, they obstruct the changing of bad practices that have no justification other than their existence as rules, as is the case right now. Far too often, people defend objectively useless rules, such as the no-sleeveless policies, just because they are rules, not because they have merit.

The arbitrary enforcement of many of our rules already illustrates their uselessness. For example, several 'prominent' women wear sleeveless attire in formal settings without any problem, including our politicians, but when some women go to make reports to the police, they are turned back because they dared to show their arms. Cases in the public domain include denials of vaccinations, medical care for sick children, and refusals by other public services. This rule harms some women, and for no good reason whatsoever. It's time for change.

But wait, there's more. When people finally realise that they have no solid reasons to justify whatever nonsensical rule to which they have been strictly adhering, they immediately confuse the contestation of that rule as a total attack on rules generally. They make the wild claim that if society doesn't have rules, we would descend into chaos and anarchy, and as such, we must defer to rules to preserve order.

This brings us to another common fallacy: the straw man. When committing a straw man, people repackage an argument in an exaggerated, distorted, or misrepresented way in an attempt to weaken it and confuse the discourse. It is a frequent feature of our national dialogue that trades in extremes to make points. But despite its popularity, that position is both irrational and disingenuous. Rejecting an archaic and unnecessary rule is not a rejection of all rules. It is a rejection of those that are harmful, without merit, and in need of change.

We have a national misunderstanding of what something IS and what something OUGHT TO BE. The statement "rules are rules" is nothing but a forceful tautology masquerading as a real argument. Bad rules do not deserve our deference. They deserve to be dismantled.

- Rodje Malcolm is a human-rights campaigner. Email feedback to and