Thursday, February 14, 2013

Bureaucracy and Principle

"It takes no compromise to give people their rights...it takes no money to respect the individual.  It takes no political deal to give people freedom.  It takes no survey to remove repression." --Harvey Milk

It has been an exhausting week or so.  My brain has been so busy with things it never wanted to be busy with, that I'm afraid the writing and blogging wheels have grown rusty.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the interrelationship of bureaucracy and principles.  To many, bureaucracy seems petty and insignificant, the very opposite of the actions and ideals that characterize principled  behavior.

I think the relationship is more complex and more fraught than one of simple opposition.

The quotation from Harvey Milk that stands as the epigraph to this post is, to my mind, one of the most compelling statements of the conflict between bureaucracy and principle.  Too often, the machinery of bureaucracy (its compromises, money, political deals and surveys) hinders the promotion of one's principles--the rights, respect, freedom and elimination of repression we want to advocate.

It does so, I think, by advocating a "play-by-the-rules-or-else" mentality.  If you speak out, you'll be labeled "wrong" or "a bully" and people will try to silence you.  If you seek change, you're impractical.  You refuse to recognize the extent to which compromises and political deals are necessary.

You're inconvenient, obstructionist, difficult.  The well-oiled machine can't function efficiently unless it silences your squeaky little protests.

So often, we think of resistance as a dramatic act, but more often than not, in our day-to-day lives, resistance is comprised of a series of small acts or gestures of unwillingness.  They often seem quite ineffective; in they end, they are not.

A refusal to accept the status quo.  An unwillingness to sit by and say, "It's not my problem."  The decision to call things as you see them, even if you get called on the carpet for doing so.

We all fear change.  We all risk losing sight of the big picture.  And yet, as George Eliot once observed, "Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together."  So perhaps bureaucracy can be a mechanism of change, if it is conceived of as a means of promoting progress within a framework of stability.

More often than not, though, bureaucracy functions as a rule-bound means of ensuring collective conformity.

Last week, I stumbled upon the German word, "korinthenkacker."  Literally, it means "raisin-pooper."  It refers to a bean-counter, someone so obsessed with trivialities that she or he literally poops raisins.

I think everyone compromises his or her ideals, some day, in some way.  It's only a question of when and how much.  

But even so, it is always worthwhile, I think, to examine the extent to which we have capitulated and grown comfortable--if only to measure the extent to which we wish we could make things a bit more uncomfortable, to shake things up a bit.

If we stop asking and wondering and speaking out, we risk total conformity.  We risk losing our voices in the din of bureaucratic conformity.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."