Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Breaking the Rules

Readers are always assuming I'm a germaphobe. Because my first novel, Isolation, revolves around the dangers of bacterial infection and the possibility that simply touching your own face can cause death, it seems like a no brainer. But it's not the case. I laugh and try not to divulge that my hand-washing habits have not increased one iota as a result of my research and writing. I'm not the person squirting hand-sanitizer every time I shake someone's hand. My intellect rationalizes that I want a healthy immune system which means building up resistance over time and killing all of the germs I come in contact with would counteract the build-up of such stealth forces. While true, I think it's much more the case that habits learned early are habits for life. It's not that my household growing up wasn't clean, nor that my mother didn't teach me good hygiene, she did. It's probably that I was a bit lazy. Or perhaps, though I think of myself as "the good girl," it may be that I was a rule-breaker from the start.

I'm writing today because I found myself pulling a "Trevor." He's the antagonist in my novel. He can't stand rule-breakers. There's a moment in Isolation when he is sitting aboard an airplane. A passenger next to him continues to text beyond the announcements to cease and desist. He tries to get the perpetrator to stop, but when she won't, he rings his call button. Just now, the guy next to me was talking on his cell, even as the flight attendants demonstrated, yet again, the way to attach a seat belt. I'd heard my seat-mate tell the person on the other end that he wouldn't hang up until forced. When the flight attendant walked by, I pointed at the cell phone. The attendant tapped his shoulder, waited for him to end the call, then continued to ensure seat backs and tray tables were in their full upright and locked positions. I thought, "OMG, I've become Trevor!" 

Trevor is not a character I associate with. It's not so much that he's a rule-follower (evidently I share some of that sensibility), it's more that he's an unquestioning one. Most dystopian characters are, unquestioning that is. But some rise beyond the simple routines of daily life and demonstrate that being a lemming can get you perks if you do it very, very well. That's Trevor. He's Winston in 1984, at the beginning, before Winston buys the journal and begins his covert note-taking. Trevor would never covertly record his world, nor do anything else outside the purview of authority. Trevor's ability to follow the rules, to follow the government, to report all infractions, is finely honed. He is hired by Homeland Security for his prowess. He is promoted for his vigilance and adaptability. Rules change more and more frequently as bacterial contagion grows out of control in Isolation and Trevor keeps up, even if the populace at large can't possibly. Trevor enforces rules; he prides himself on being a good citizen. 

And since citizenry comes from the following of a government, he is in fact, a very good citizen. But a good person? Doubtful many would say so. Even when his high school principal agrees to provide a recommendation, which he does with some trepidation, realizing, educated man that he is, that Trevor will be so good at the job of enforcing rules that others don't stand a chance, even as the principal imagines Trevor is a danger, he doesn't allow that to prevent the recommendation, even the principal doesn't question authority. The principal demonstrates perfectly that even those in high positions demonstrate that for a dystopia to work, lemming-like behavior is required. 

The question is: does following rules make you good or bad? 

Or is it that simple? Clearly, it's not. At least not in the mind of this dystopian. Following rules is what we've taught our children. It's the legacy of an industrial society whose assembly lines and educational systems matured together. Now a service economy, rule-following is still a primary value for our masses. But it doesn't build a strong democracy, one that thinks deeply, let alone questions or makes individuated decisions. It's not that I want anarchy, don't leap to the opposite end of the spectrum. It's more that I value a thinking populace. I'm not sure our purpose if we're not thinking. Without thought, we're resource users like any animal. The unquestioned life is common enough, but is that what we seek? Is it our best hope? Does it make of the world a better place?

I think not. I spend my working life encouraging college students to learn to think for themselves, to be critical thinkers as we call it today. That means I teach them to question. Or I try. It's not easy when they've spent 20 years or more following rules. It's not surprising they don't question. Not only education, but their parents have taught them not to. After those early years of asking "why, why why" and being told to go play or worse, being physically or metaphorically slapped down for exhibiting curiosity, most American children stop wondering, stop asking. 

Again, don't go to extremes. Not everything needs to be questioned, not even all authority. After all, some things just need doing. In the midst of a fire there's rarely a reason to stop and ask if it should be put out. (Though ask a resource management specialist about the need for fire in the life cycle of forests, and you'll see that even there, we might have wanted to question occasionally.) But when I'm told that genetically modified organisms (GMO's) are safe, I might want to question the details about what those modifications are, whether they prolong shelf-life or whether they insert toxins into my corn. When I'm told that using 99% bacterial killing hand-sanitizers will keep me safe, I might want to question whether or not regular soap and hot water will do an adequate job most of the time and specifically when it won't. When I'm told to trust the government that it's not colluding with Monsanto in the patenting of life so that seeds are no longer reusable by farmers, I might question what it means to patent life, or why farmers can't reuse seeds, or who profits--always a good question. (Follow the money.)

These are only some of the questions I ask with some frequency and questions tucked into the folds of Isolation. They are premises from our current lives that I question, but mostly the  characters in the novel don't. These are far from the only questions available to thinking people. I'm drawn to questions of food and health. Others may be drawn to questions of growing financial inequalities, or questions of globalization, or questions of climate change. There are smaller questions of course, and they too are valuable: Should I be afraid of swimming alone without a lifeguard present? Will video games or cell phones cause increased arthritis in hands in the future? Is WiFi dangerous at a subatomic level?

It matters not to me what we question. It matters that we question. And that we research and talk and write and explore. It matters that we see ourselves as agents of change, that we not only believe we make a difference, but that we do. Questions leads to action. Not inevitably perhaps, but often. It's hard to know things could be better, more truthful, more interesting and not work to make that happen. 

I don't want the plane to crash because cell phone signals
interfere with navigation, so I will point to the guy with the phone. But I'll also wonder if there's any scientific cause for concern or if it's just habit I'm accustomed to? Can it interfere? What would happen? Others asked such questions because we can now leave our small devices powered up during take-off, but we couldn't for years.
Somebody asked the question, did the research, reported out, and got procedures changed. And I'm happier because of it. I like being able to read on my iPad during take-off rather than having to carry a physical book along with my iPad. Speaking of which, time for landing. Not that I'm going to power down. Thankfully, for now, that question has been answered! 

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