The Authoritarian’s Bind

For there is not a single righteous one on earth who only does good and refrains from sin.

— Ecclesiastes

Tight? Or loose?

Sometimes it isn’t the errors that matter, but how harshly they are enforced and penalized.

Be mindful.

Especially when the rules are discretionary, ambiguous, or unwritten — which is always the case to some extent — observe the behavior of others with care, both those with authority and those without.

They will highlight on your behalf the various paths through your domain, tracing the lines of potential through to safety, advancement, power, resistance, or whatever other patterns may be found.

Choose your path wisely, if one is available.

When faced with a direct challenge, authoritarians will respond via tautology: “The law is the law.”

For them, this is preferable to admitting their profound ignorance.

But if you look closely, you will see that their law is not the law.

Often they will claim they have no choice but to be harsh, but you will still see countless examples where they choose otherwise, yet pretend not to.

Usually on their own behalf.

“The law for thee, but not for me.”

Such systems are brittle, fault prone, and subject to decay, but they can last surprisingly long before their inevitable collapse, especially from the perspective of those trapped within them.

“Herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

— From The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

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