Rule of Law vs. Rule of Culture

Rule of Law vs. Rule of Culture
Photo Credit:F Mira@Flickr CC BY 2.0

I live in an isolated community somewhere between hills in the middle of nowhere, only a few minutes of drive from both my university campus and the next township or village. During the day, I am hardly in that town, which looks for me quite different in the evening when I am there more frequently.

Recently I had to go to that village in the morning. While driving through the main street I suddenly had the strange feeling that I somehow got into one of Pieter Breughel’s (the Elder) famous sixteenth century paintings that feature a variety of rural scenes simultaneously happening at one given moment on an ordinary day. They are like mini-stories, each scene having its own narrative. Looking at the whole painting, however, one gets the feeling of being visually lost in it: our sensory perception is not designed to immediately grasp details of a veritable visual chaos consisting of a multitude of actions that take place at the same time – we are not visual multitaskers.

You may be familiar with such scenes and feelings when driving in a car on the main road through a busy village in Taiwan. There is not a fraction of a second in which nothing happens and which would not concern you as driver.

All kinds of things happen at the same time all the time as you drive along the road; drivers before you constantly parking, or trying to park, on the side of the road with no parking site, or just coming out from there, or turning around; people permanently crossing the road from both sides; scooters taking you over from the left or the right, sometimes even simultaneously from both sides; scooters coming towards you on your side, sometimes even taking over bikes which also drive towards you on your side; traffic lights solely offering options, making the crossing of a street even at green light a risky enterprise; scooters slowly moving in the middle of the road, sometimes with four people on them, the driver – always daddy – being the only one wearing a helmet (which provides a glimpse into the real practice of the so-called family values here); vendors selling their merchandise from cars parking on the road side, ‘inviting’ buyers to stop in the middle of that road; pedestrians everywhere on road sides, due to either a lack of sidewalks or their blocking with junk, respectively and so on.

That’s chaos, one would think. Interestingly, life there seems to perfectly work within that chaos. It works because everybody tacitly accepts that things work in this way – and behaves accordingly. It’s a peaceful chaos; nobody is shouting at or disgruntled with others when forced to forfeit legally guaranteed priority rights. There seems to be an invisible hand guiding all those mini-actors in a way that collision is not part of the plan. Nobody complains because everybody behaves in that same rule- or law-breaking way, which even becomes the norm, converting thereby rule-abiders into de-facto rule breakers who haven’t yet understood how things ‘really’ work. Under such circumstances the strict enforcement of laws would make life quite impractical and cumbersome.

Such a creative chaos, I have to admit, has its charms, and sometimes I even enjoy it. Unless you are in a hurry, it can be somehow more exciting to drive under such anarchic circumstances than, say, driving in a typical German village where even the slightest deviance from rules could be perceived as a morally outrageous action. Villages in Taiwan are places where you can gaily ignore existing traffic laws with guaranteed impunity.

And yet one might have an uneasy feeling when looking at the bigger picture underlying such situations. What if things go wrong? What if for instance your car hits a biker who illegally comes towards you on your side? Whose fault is it? Those following own local rules, or those following the abstract law? How would a judge decide?

Judges here, I am told, are quite conservative; they often behave ‘culturally,’ having a cultural view on their own professional métier that somehow honors local habits. Paradoxically, you may get into legal troubles when either doing the culturally right but legally wrong thing or vice-versa.

A society where culture in some cases can trump the law is in fact a less secure place to be in. Things there are not always clear, unfairly privileging sometimes people who know how to play out the cultural card (“That’s our culture!”) against what they would dub ‘legal restraints’ of cultural behavior. Too much culture can cause harm, especially in relations involving power.

Take for example unpaid over-time working, a common cultural phenomenon in this part of the world. Being a boss you might find good reasons to culturally expect your employees to work overtime, for the simple reason that it is you who profits from it. Complaints indicating the illegality of that practice on the other hand would be considered rather un-cultural vis-à-vis the cultural insistence on the local work ethics (“Work hard!") and also of the ideal of social ‘harmony,’ its rationale of course always being interpreted by the profiteering boss. Culture can be, and often is, easily misused for very selfish purposes.

Another example regards public parking spaces in Taiwan. In front of apartment entrances, quite often you see red metal barriers (or flower pots) situated at the ground floor, indicating that parking there is not allowed in general. But we know that many of these barriers are put there by residents living in the apartments, claiming a public space for private purposes. It is culturally understood that one should respect such a habit practiced since ages. But it is legally wrong and morally unfair. Public spaces are spaces equally accessible for any citizen. There are still many other examples here in Taiwan where culture trumps law or modern concepts of justice.

The rule of law is therefore one of the most important political achievements of human civilization. It derogates injustices built upon cultural paradigms by creating public spaces in which people can interact at an equal and objective level, thereby distinctly facilitating the establishment of a fairer society. In advanced democratic societies, the public trumps the cultural. Laws are therefore political, not cultural institutions.

I am an egalitarian. That’s why I am a contrarian in matters of culture. It does not mean that one should not enjoy particular cultural habits. But if they conflict with justice and fairness, then governmental institutions should interfere and let Breughel be a man of the sixteenth century.

Edited by Olivia Yang