Breaking the law…but following the rules.
Every country has laws, even if it doesn’t seem so at times. But, equally, every country has ‘rules’. While you can break laws easily enough, with rules it’s a different story. Laws are what the government officially thinks people should do, while rules are what people actually do. There’s usually a difference, because modern politicians are absolute dicknoses that’ve never seen a real person or have any idea how they think.
Compared to laws, rules are harder to see, because they rely on the acceptance of a society rather than being written down in black and white on a nice constitutional document. But therein lies the rub: You can easily define which laws exist and you can change them with the stroke of a pen. Getting people to follow them: that’s the hard part.
After all, systems are easy to change, but cultures are not. Once people accept something, it doesn’t really matter what the official letter of the law says. Laws don’t make any difference if everyone decides to ignore them.
An example would be using a mobile phone while steering a ton of metal with the power of hundreds of horses. Clearly it’s illegal to drive while on the phone, and you would think immoral too seeing as you’re putting people’s lives in danger. But no! According to the societal rules in Colombia (and most of the rest of the world) it’s perfectly acceptable. The police won’t bother to stop you even though it’s illegal, and your friends won’t see you as a bad person.
The rules often intersect the law: murder is not OK in either sense. But, when we’re talking about killing someone through speeding and/or driving recklessly, the lines are more blurred. In some places, nobody bats an eyelid at drink driving, while in others it is a huge social taboo. Pretty much no-one thinks murdering cyclists by driving like a dick is a problem. Anything involving property is usually a good bet to be the same on the statute books and in people’s minds. Robbery, for example.
In a way, the rules act as a positive force – upholding the spirit of the law rather than the strict letter. That’s useful – Peñaloser’s continuous attempts to enforce laws against the vendedores ambulantes are largely unpopular and it’s been hard for them to have much of an impact. People see street sellers as a basic part of Colombian life, and the official laws can be damned.
Marijuana, too, is rarely cracked down on. There seems to be a rough rule that as long as you are on grass, you can smoke grass. It’s perfectly normal to see kids a stone’s throw from a CAI quietly puffing away on joints without much hassle from the cops. Of course, once the doughnut fund is running low, the cops will venture over for a quick quasi-legal shakedown in order to finance their fun.
There are more worrying sides to this, though. Whistling at women in the street is seen as OK by many men’s (if you’re one of those dickheads, have a word with yourself) internal rules, but that’s drastically different from the feminine point of view. In this way, the rules simply legitimise and perpetuate sexist and machista attitudes, and here’s where the law can help.
Bogotá also has the odd bout of vigilantism, with citizens keen to take the law into their own hands. This is because it’s seen as perfectly fine to beat the shit out of a thief and act as judge, jury and even executioner. With low trust in the justice system, there’s a lot of sympathy for this argument. Even I see the appeal – but that’s not how we should live our lives. There’s a reason to have legal process, and a few guys on the street, or even organised paramilitary groups, aren’t a good alternative.
So it’s clear that the rules of society aren’t always positive. The big ticket item is corruption. It’s clearly against the law, and many people speak out against it, but the trouble is that it’s largely tolerated by the rules. It’s accepted that corruption is just part of life, and as long as this is true, there’s not much point trying to stamp it out.
Tax evasion is a more specific example. It’s almost universally seen as a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I mean, who would want the state to have more money which it could waste building hospitals and schools? Yet it’s clearly illegal. Nonetheless, there’s little public stigma to it, and so people get away with dodgy accounting. They might as well let off in the tax inspectors’ faces, for all that’s done about it.
In every country, we can see examples of the discrepancies between the rules and the laws, especially on topics like LGBT rights or abortion where the lawmakers may be more (or less) progressive than the populous. Remember Super Hans’ rule: the ordinary people voted for the nazis and listen to Coldplay. Don’t trust ordinary people.
Colombia’s laws often promise much – workers are technically fairly well protected – but many are routinely flouted. This is a key way for the oligarchy to retain power. On paper, they’re giving plenty of concessions. The reality that people don’t want to talk about, however, is that they’re simply disposing of union leaders, paying off the cops and getting on with business in a country that prefers to look the other way.
We have the consulta anti-corrupcion coming up. It’s a wonderful suggestion and looks great on paper. But like the JEP, there’s little faith that any of the promises will become meaningful reality.