10 September, 2012

why did the policeman run the red light?

one of the enduring mysteries to me used to be why the same policeman who stops and fines people for breaking a signal, would himself, even when he is in uniform, run a red light openly
how many on a two-wheeler, again?

i always explained it away by saying that it is because he has a sense of entitlement that as an officer of the law, this is something that is a perk he enjoys and no one dare stop him. prima facie, this explanation looks sufficient. but a deeper thought and some more observation proves that this is not really enough to explain several other behaviours seen around the country by various other people

what are these? for example:

  • a domestic employee of mine was trained how to set the table, to lay the beds so as to provide for a clean, comfortable sleeping experience, to organise my wardrobe, to keep our shoes clean and clothes pressed, to wash my underclothes daily and so on. but when it came to his own eating habits, his own bedding, his own clothes and shoes and wardrobe, he continued doing what he was used to in his remote village. but if he ever observed even a slight stain on my bed-cover, unnoticeable even by me, he would replace it and wash the offending bed-cover!
  • a computer programmer with several hundreds of hours of training on coding and thousands of hours of practice on a syntax that has to be extremely rigorously followed for the program to work, when it comes to writing a letter to his bank, makes a dozen spelling and grammatical errors
  • an ISO process expert who is a thorough professional when it comes to structuring, implementing, monitoring and auditing very complex processes sometimes puts two teaspoons of sugar in his tea and sometimes a spoon and a half. in his own wardrobe, his white shirts and mixed with him coloured ones and most times, he cannot find his car keys, since he has no fixed place for them in the house

there are dozens of more examples. you may have observed several of such dichotomies in your own life...and attributed it some superficial reason, as i did, for a long time. but i think there is a better (and more generic) explanation for this
no overlap

all these people separate their professional lives from their personal ones and though there is a good thing or two to say about it, the inadvertent effect it has is of the person in 'employee-mode' not being able to take away good lessons from his/her time on duty and apply to their private life

let us take the policeman example. when he stops a vehicle for breaching the signal, he is simply doing it because he considers it his job to do it. read that line again. i repeat: he considers it his job. he does NOT do it because he thinks following the law is a good thing, or that it is unsafe to run a red light, or that the vehicle (and the driver) is putting their own and other peoples' lives in danger, or they are disturbing the smooth flow of traffic

it's just a job!

he does it ONLY AS A JOB. now, this explains his behaviour on his own motorcycle better. when he is on his own vehicle, he knows his colleagues will not fine him. he also knows he cannot get caught. and he goes ahead and drives right through the red. this is not as much of an arrogant sense of entitlement as it is of a complete and total disconnect between his job and his private life

now, if we apply the same principle to other examples, we see how this can serve as a generic explanation, not requiring one justification for the policeman's behaviour and another for the domestic employee's and another for the computer programmer's etc

the trick, for any corporate (or government, or society for that matter) is to be able to teach its people that the rules and regulations are meant for something and are not just a set of processes to be followed regardless of context. it must emphasise that wise people have given it a thought, that these 'rules' have been researched, debated, tried and tested and are known to ensure good things and prevent bad things from happening. they should not be treated as a check list to tick boxes without understanding what the spirit of the 'rule' is

an interesting (and recent) example is of the under-19 world cup winning captain of india, unmukt chand. his college refused to allow him to appear for his examinations since he could not fulfill the required attendance criterion. the college principal went on air touting high moral ground about how these rules applied equally to all, regardless of their station in life, their achievement or indeed, the reason for missing classes. what he forgot was the essence of the compulsory attendance requirement rule: that students should be in college when they were supposed to be in college and attending classes, and not wasting their time, or worse, indulging in activities not appropriate for them, like, say, taking drugs, or whiling away their time that could be better spent in productive activities like studying. it is also an outcome of the expectation of the parents of these (mostly) minors that the college take responsibility of their ward while there and that they not be allowed to indulge in things that are harmful to them. it also ensures (or at least is meant to ensure) that the final exams are not treated as a pig-out-and-vomit exercise by students who study only in the last few days and use the rote method

now, about the last part, i have no doubt that the rote method of learning(?) and regurgitating in exams has been a sort of backbone of indian education since the days of nalanda (according to me) and lord macaulay (according to others who love blaming the raj for everything). to assume that forcing attendance on students will resolve this problem is like blowing at an advancing hurricane and hoping it will change course
"um, excuse me, but i was busy winning this!"

about the first two, when it is apparent that unmukt was not whiling away his time but actually productively using it to win the world cup(!) for india (with, i am presuming, his parents' consent), should it not be possible to put the attendance 'rule' in context and allow him to take the exams, since at the end of the day, whether he passes or fails depends purely on how well he does in the actual papers?

but then, what is the reason the principal of such a prestigious institute could not put this into context? it was because he never paid attention to, nor perhaps did his teachers explain how to, the actual meaning and INTENT of the rules and what they hope to achieve by applying them. he is as much a victim of the same disease that afflicts us all when we do one thing in our jobs (applying rules that, to us, seem just sentences strung together, to be applied in certain cases, as specified within the same sentences) and another in our lives (living it as we deem right, with no reference to all the formal learning of the same 'rules' we use so rigidly during half of our waking lives)
rules, laws and directions

so, the next time you see a policeman break a traffic law, do not blame it on corruption or a sense of entitlement or arrogance. look around and see how many of us civilians break the same traffic law all the time. and then look at the same policeman as part of the society we live in. and you will be able to relate why he does it. he does it because he is also one of us, not knowing why it is unsafe and dangerous to break the rules of traffic that are there for our safety and to help lubricate the smooth flow of traffic, but only knowing these as strings of words and sentences that he has to apply to offending motorists when on duty to issue them tickets, extract fines, or demand bribes, depending on where he stands otherwise...and that, my friends, is another blog post!