“I wasn’t built to follow your rules”

Looking at it from the outside, I might call that a design flaw.  I’m sure she wouldn’t call it that.

It may be that the woman who tossed this line at the hospital security guard, didn’t actually mean it.  As seriously as the sentiment was meant,  the expression of the sentiment gave no leeway at all.  I was’t any part of the action, but I was so close to it that the woman turned to me and invited me to be join in.  Several times.  So I was at the right distance to think about what she might have meant.

Maybe I should say at this point that I have been interested in causal attributions since grad school.[1]  Without any active effort at all, I maintain in my mind a set of categories about what sort of explanation is being offered.  Or more often, is being presumed.

I am used to hearing people say (or imply) that they can not do something or that they will not do something. [2] or that something in the environment prevents them, or that the reward is not great enough, or that they really shouldn’t.  Of all these, the argument from “essential structure” is the sturdiest.  In these days where identity is so fraught and is such a large part of public discourse, “It just isn’t me” is extraordinarily powerful.

That might not be what the angry woman meant, but it is, in fact, what she said, which makes it worth something.

Your Rules

There are two really prominent elements in her statement  “These are your rules, not mine” is the first.  The guard’s point was that they are THE rules.  They were not his, although he had some responsibilities related to seeing that they were followed.  They were the hospital’s rules, and therefor binding on them both. [3]

There is a notable level of alienation connoted by “your rules,” if it implies that I should not be bound by them.  Consider some of the possibilities.  “Your rule says that I can’t ride the bus without paying a fare.”  Currently, it is “Your rules say I can’t ride the bus without wearing a face mask.”

“Not built that way”

This second part of the objection is harder to see clearly, but I think it is more fundamental.  To see how fundamental, you have to see what else it could have been.  I think we can pass over the “built” phrasing as if it implied a builder, who might, presumably, have something to say about how she was built.  But we don’t dare pass over her claim that she could not follow the rules.  Could not.

The argument from fundamental design—or, most often, in adults, from core identity—is that the design precludes compliance.  That means it is not something she could choose to do.  The guard’s orders presumed that she would do what he was asking her to do.  Her response presumed that she could not.  It would be fundamentally incompatible with her personhood to comply with the rule in question.

I don’t think she meant any of that and I don’t think she was aware of any of it.  My reason for writing about it is only that I have gotten accustomed to hearing causal attributions as if they were one of a set.  That means I hear the reasons that are not being chosen as well as the one that is being relied on.

This woman could have said that she did not have the skill to do what was being demanded of her.  She could have said the didn’t understand.  She could have said the demand was illegitimate. [4]  She could have said it was untimely.  She could have said that she would require assistance.

I referred above to my long term interest in the kinds of causal attributions people use.  Here is the point in my account where I get to use that idea.  Ir there are five possible causes that could be given (there are of course, many more) I hear all five of them.  I hear the one that has been chosen and I notice the four that have not been chosen.  And I say, “Hm.  She didn’t use 2, 3, or 5.  I wonder why not.”

This woman did, in fact, say that the demand was illegitimate.  She said that it was a public building and that she was a member of the public.  The guard rejected that on factual grounds (it was not a public building) but that didn’t change things for her and he didn’t expect that it would.  So she went back to her go to attribution, which was “I am not built to…”

My attention to this might be a little unusual.  I maintain that the way reality is created and presented matters along with what the reality “is.”  The explanation this woman relied on—and, I would guess, frequently relies on—matters a great deal.  It shapes the conceptual environment in which we all live.  It is the conceptual equivalent to releasing toxins into the air supply that we all use.

The use of such a pathetically poor attribution might actually be a plea for help although I am sure this woman would say it was not.

[1]  Causal attributions are assignments of cause.  This is what caused that to happen.  The action to which a cause was attributed here was the woman’s principled refusal to obey a rule of the hospital.

[2]  The “can not” form is usually better because it is better accepted.  The risk is that is you keep on saying you cannot do something, you may eventually believe yourself.

[3]  There was a minor, low power, scuffle over whether she, as a member of the public, had a right to be in a public building.  He had to inform her that it was not a public building; it was owned by Providence Health Systems, who had the right to make the rules.  She didn’t care, and he didn’t think she would.

[4]  Had she been a black woman, for example, who was objecting to a rule that was not being applied to whites, she could be claiming an illegitimacy based on her racial identity.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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