Norms versus Rules
“I would not want to be the police for this policy.” Someone wrote recently about my blog post on fun tables.
And it made me realize that I had not blogged about one of the most important aspects of community life. Which is the stratification and interrelation of our agreements and how it is that they are enforced.
At Twin Oaks we have basically three levels of agreements:
To become a member, you have to sign to ByLaws. These are the defining general agreements we make with each other. They include general text like this:
Together our aim is to perpetuate and expand a society based on cooperation, sharing, and equality:
A. Which serves as one example of a cooperative social organization, relevant to the world at large, and promotes the formation and growth of similar communities;
and much more specific text like this:
All assets not loaned or donated to the Community shall be left inactive from a management or investment point of view, except that, at the Community’s discretion it may allow a member to reinvest or manage assets, if it is to the Community’s advantage that this be done.
The bylaws are fairly short, perhaps 8 pages or so. They are the highest level of agreement the community has. As an incoming member, you are supposed to have read them and have some familiarity with them.
Twin Oaks has a lot of written policy. There are two large three ring binders full of instructions on how we have agreed to do things. There is detailed information about how we should conduct an expulsion. There is the complex zoning of our nudity policy. We carefully describe our prohibition of live television and restrictions on cell phones. There is also some slightly silly policy like the restriction of transport of nuclear waste through the community. No one is expect to read all our policies.
None-the-less written policy is important at Twin Oaks. It is a central pillar in our decision making process. And we spend a fair amount of time discussing and debating what makes good policy. With some regularity, members will say “I went back and looked at the policy and it was quite clear.” I personally think well crafted policy has been important in the success of the community, which is now heading into it’s 49th year.
But what happens if you break a policy? One of the things you will see very little of in our policy is consequences for breaking policy. Unlike laws, where the punishment for breaking them is clear, mostly it is a bit up for grabs what happens in the community when someone violates policy. If you violate the cell phone policy, someone is likely to simply tell you that they are annoyed by your behavior, perhaps remind you of the policy and then we are done (this happened to me the other night). If you violate the restriction on firearms, you might find yourself looking at expulsion.
There are no police at Twin Oaks. At least none with special powers. Any member can remind another member of an agreement we have about a behavior which might be problematic. If they don’t feel comfortable confronting the member they can go to the Process Team or the Planners (our highest executive body). It is possible nothing will happen with the complaint, we simply ignore some number of small problems. When something does happen, most of the time it is a simple reprimand and a request to stick to our agreements.
The lowest level of agreements we have are norms. We don’t write norms down. Norms are intentionally called norms rather than rules, because generally speaking there is no consequence to someone violating a norm (unlike rules, where there is generally a punishment from breaking a rule).
All of the fun table agreements I discussed in the earlier post are norms. We don’t have any written agreements about protocols for how to sit at which table and what they can talk about. As much as we like policy, even for us this would be over the top.
So what about my digital friend who wants to know about policing agreements? Why do these norms get followed if there are so little in the way of consequences for violating them?
The real answer is that we mostly gently police each other, and much of it is unspoken and self policing. We are crafting a dynamic binding social contract. When I was reminded to be discreet about my cell phone use, it was at it’s base a request from my fellow communard to not include them in my habit.
In the larger society a fair case can be made that for laws and rules to hold sway, they need to have punishment teeth to back them up. In the tiny culture of community, we can spend more time working on our agreements and less time worrying specifically about what happens when they are not followed, because our softer social controls will encourage us to abide by them without police or punishment.