Breaking the rules not quite so cool

Ludwig van Beethoven was considered a rule-breaker. Photo: ODT Files
Ludwig van Beethoven was considered a rule-breaker. Photo: ODT Files
Life is short but breaking certain rules might make it shorter, writes Paul Tankard.

We can take other people's T-shirt messages too seriously, but we can also take them not seriously enough. On the way to work this morning I saw in Starbucks (through the window: I wasn't in there) a young woman wearing a T-shirt with the message, ''Life's Short: Break the Rules''.

A message that - accepting her premises - would be at least equally reasonable, I quickly realised, would be, ''Life's Short: Learn the Rules''.

Some people who break the rules are edgy innovators in science and the arts. They are the blue-sky thinkers who are leading the way and going forward, working with huge government grants in high-tech digital environments.

Or they can be highly entertaining. All over the world, at Fringe festivals, they are challenging stereotypes and pushing the envelope with R18 presentations.

They think they're rule-breakers, like Galileo or Beethoven or James Joyce or David Bowie. Perhaps I'll get back to you on that.

But for every one of those principled or calculated rulebreakers, riding the wave to the future, there are 20 people to whom the now boringly conventional valorisation of rule-breaking gives a licence to live lives of dangerous illogicality and irresponsibility.

By a happy coincidence, I'd heard about one of these exciting and cutting-edge rule-breaker dudes on the morning's news. He's in the middle of a gig in Auckland, at the High Court.

One day in April last year (allegedly) he smashed his girlfriend/de facto's head with a rock. But what got him into the courts and the news was that a week later he was showing off at home with a new toy, a double-barrelled shotgun, and shot her dead. After which he immediately starting wailing, ''Sorry babe.'' And they weren't even fighting, a witness said.

He was exercising his right - or, if the T-shirt was accurate, his obligation - to break quite a few rules: there's the rule about looking after the people you love. And the rule to be careful around guns. And the rule about not doing things you immediately regret. And the rule about not murdering people.

Most rules are based, in the end, on observation. We had to observe the universe for a long time in order to figure out that it's a rule that water boils at 100degC.

Or that gravity impels bodies of different weights to fall at the same speed. The rules about not stealing or murdering people derive from the same source: accumulated millennia of observation that, given the nature of the world and people, this is how things work.

Life is short: the T-shirt was right there. And few of us are going to have the time or the wit or the energy or motivation to work out even a fraction of the rules from scratch. We'd be far better off to growing into the bodies, relationships, culture and world into which we've been born, and learning the ones we've got.

To do that, I studied arts at one university, and now I teach in the humanities at another university, in order to assist young people to do the same. I do that in the hope that they don't fall prey to the waiting chaos, and then inevitably, like that chap in Auckland, start spreading its stupidity, pathos, animal passion and destructive violence into the lives of others.

Life's short, and breaking the rules, or breaking the wrong rules, or breaking them indiscriminately, is likely to make it even shorter.

Probably most of us, if we're able to read a newspaper, don't need telling this. For us, the take-home message of the fatuous T-shirt might simply be to beware of slogans, including the slogan ''Beware of slogans''. And to watch out for the people who think that it's all just slogans and that there are no rules: that's not right either.

-Dr Paul Tankard is senior lecturer English in the department of English and Linguistics at the University Of Otago.

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