The virtue of disobedience

The virtue of disobedience

“Self-driving cars ‘too law-abiding’ to be safe” – headline in the Straits Times 19 Dec 15. “Following the rules without thinking causes accidents” – the headline they might have used, but didn’t. The story is hilarious, the meaning couldn’t be more serious. ‘Rules are there for the guidance of wise men and the slavish following of fools,’ – one of the early lessons for which I give thanks daily.

A Singapore Member of Parliament met me for the first time some while back. She asked me “Tell me in a nutshell what your business does.” “We teach people to disobey,” I replied. Initially she was shocked. A few hours later she contacted me again. “You are quite right”, she said. By then she had worked out that I wasn’t advocating anarchy but a sensible approach to rules and guidelines. Without thought they can be dangerous.

So what are the rules for being disobedient? Clearly, since I have said no rules should be slavishly obeyed, they can only be suggestions. They amount, in summary, to thinking. Not about what you want to say or do but about what the person you are dealing with will understand and respond to. They involve a whole lot of emotional intelligence, something sadly lacking for many reasons. Why is emotional intelligence not on all parents’ agendas?

First, many parents lack EI. It is one of those skills very much learnt from those who bring you up. Parents, grandparents, teachers, bosses all demonstrate EI by example – or don’t. I had a boss once whose mantra was “don’t get mad, get even”. For a while, I thought it was smart – until I realised that ‘getting even’ was a pathetic acknowledgement of the other person’s superiority to me. So I converted it into “don’t get mad, get better”.

Second, EI is thought to be an inherited gift. But it is related to innate intelligence and to that extent some of it is in the make-up of every individual. Unintelligent people often don’t understand the common sense value of emotional intelligence. That doesn’t mean that they are not emotionally intelligent. Quite the contrary, those with less intelligence often display better understanding and empathy with others because their view of the world is not permanently fixed on their own problems and opportunities.

Emotional intelligence is understanding and reacting positively to other people. So it is an essential ingredient of making disobedience work. You cannot disobey all the time and it is stupid to disobey over small matters. Choose your disobediences carefully. They must be issues of practical importance, they must involve some principle but must absolutely not be solely about a matter of principle. The more the principle involved is reflected as substance, the more effective your disobedience will be.

During WWII my father worked for Churchill. From time to time he would disagree with what Churchill was planning to do. He told me that if the war lasted five years he could have three disagreements with the Prime Minister, no more. As far as I know he really only had one major disagreement. That was over sinking the Bismark, the top German battleship. My father thought that removing the escorts from the North Atlantic convoys to achieve this was too high a price since it involved the death of thousands of sailors. After the war my father said he thought Churchill was right. Sinking the Bismark changed the course of the war.

All disobedience needs to acknowledge that the other person may, after all, be right.

Laws too gentle are seldom obeyed; too severe, seldom executed.
Benjamin Franklin, statesman, author, and inventor (1706-1790)