The novel “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng keeps swirling in my mind these days because one of its basic themes is the conflict between rule followers and rule breakers that we see playing out in America today.
The story features two main characters, both women.
Elena has followed the rules her entire life and, as a result, has built a comfortable life for herself. She wonders what would have happened had she not been such a rule follower. But she believes “rules exist for a reason; if you followed them you would succeed. If you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”
Mia, on the other hand, does not conform to social norms and lives a life of continuous relocation so that she can escape the consequences of her past actions. Mia never regrets breaking the rules. She sees it as necessary to stay true to her heart.
Whether one follows rules or breaks them is based on personality traits, societal pressure and consequences.
The way we interpret rules has some basis in our own personality.
Rule followers like detail and structure. They have a strong desire to avoid mistakes. They like order. A good word to describe this personality type might be “careful.”
Rule breakers can be skeptical about rules. They are willing to take risks. They are comfortable with disorder and ambiguity. A good word to describe this personality might be “free.”
Rules were established as far back as caveman days; for as long as we have been living we’ve followed rules. When rules are properly set and followed, they provide a stable environment and human coexistence and can help to avoid chaos.
But as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. realized, sometimes you have to change the rules. And you always have to be careful about it. As time goes by, new rules are needed or old ones are changed to fit the present state of society.
Societal pressure can also have an impact on whether we follow the rules. People wait their turn in line not because of the threat of punishment but because society expects us to behave that way.
During a game of basketball or football, players adhere to rules because that is the norm.
We throw trash in a trash can because it is expected of us.
Other times, breaking the rules can result in adverse consequences. These consequences are put in place to protect us and others from harm. For example, traffic rules are in place to prevent collisions and injury. To enforce the rules, there are consequences if you are caught breaking them, such as a fine and jail time.
Now, let’s look at California’s mask mandate.
Each state has the authority to set and enforce a mask mandate Not all states have done so. California has set a mask mandate but has not established any specific enforcement, which has left it up to businesses and transit workers, for example, to enforce it.
If we take what we know about personalities and add that there are no adverse consequences in place if the mask mandate is not followed, we can see there will likely be noncompliance by some.
However, when there is a real threat, tightening rules can serve a purpose.
For example, in World War II we sacrificed for the greater good. We rationed automobiles, tires, gasoline, fuel, oil, coal, firewood, nylon, silk and shoes. Americans used their ration cards and stamps to take their meager share of household staples, including meat, dairy, coffee, dried fruits, jams, jellies, lard, shortening and oils.
Sacrificing certain items during the war became the norm for most Americans. It was considered a common good for the war effort, and it affected every American household.
With COVID, we are fighting a different, more lethal enemy. Over the five years of WWII, we saw the deaths of 291,557 Americans. In less than 10 months we’ve seen 400,000 COVID deaths.
Wearing a mask is possibly the simplest thing we can do to fight the enemy in this war.