On Rules and Authority

I am still digesting cultural differences between Nepali life and my own. I chat back and forth with several of my friends in Nepal on a pretty regular basis. Today one of them posted in Nepali on Facebook and I couldn’t discern it except for the four-letter words in English that were sprinkled throughout. I asked for a translation. Turns out he was nearly broadsided while driving in Kathmandu. The offending vehicle was a police officer, no less. The first thing I thought was, wow, I hope my friend isn’t in trouble. Because if I had nearly broadsided a cop, I know my butt would be in a sling. I asked for details and tried to discern his position. First I tripped over his anger, then his naturally self-effacing Buddhist demeanor.

The key, in his mind as he explained it, was that the officer was on the wrong side of the street and in the wrong to have been there. I asked if he was in trouble due to the incident. “No, he was wrong, not me.”

That reply was nothing like an American reply so I let it sit and digest for a minute. There was a short skirmish of words between the officer and him, and then they parted and went on their ways. The Facebook post reflected his frustration at the officer plainly being in the wrong and causing him distress as a driver and embarrassment as a Nepali citizen for the incorrect actions of authority. He said several times how embarrassed he was to be Nepali, for the way the police man, as an agent of authority acted. Government and four letter words, rules and four letter words. All caps.

I attempted to calm him as we typed back and forth, but the fact that the officer was in the wrong weighed heavily on him. I replied that here, in the US, if we called the officer wrong, we’d most likely end up in a heap of trouble. Tickets, fines, court dates, perhaps worse. Our police are always right when on the roads. We don’t question it, right? We fear them when they race up behind us with lights twirling, hoping to hell it isn’t us that he is after. Wrath at high speed.

Then I had to turn this over in my head. Is it something we take for granted that our police are given the right of way? Is that for the better? Or does it set us up for problems? Yes, you can always rely on rules. The fact that our government vehicles always have right of way is pretty simple, but Nepal doesn’t work that way, and perhaps rightly so. Mary Beth and I had watched in disbelief as an ambulance with siren and lights, crawled down a Kathmandu street in front of us, no one yielding the way.

The government is seen as terribly corrupt and the police are seen the same way. There are a lot of blatant government injustices. If they (and the police) were given blanket right of way, where would the balance be? The way I read this, the people take it upon themselves to keep the police in check. On the other hand, if the right of way rule was in place, then there would have been no question in the first place, even if the officer was in the wrong. Even if he had broadsided someone in the process of being wrong. Under our own rules, the officer is given the benefit of the doubt from the beginning. And this only leaves the civilians, you and me, out there on the roads, to be wrong.

I thought about asking and explaining the differences in the two systems as we chatted, but it would have been fruitless. Their rules get in their way and they challenge them. Our rules get in our way and we defer and pay the fines. Yet somehow, here, we call that freedom, and what exists in Nepal, they don’t.

1 thought on “On Rules and Authority”

  1. What a juxtaposition, huh? I wonder how our cultural expression of authority (police, gov’t, FBI, etc) will undermine us some day. After all, Hitler had authority too, did he not? How did he get so many people to follow his orders without question? Stalin–he killed millions too. Many innocent people had no trial, no jury, no voice. Yet the authority was respected enough that HUNDREDS of men and a whole society looked the other way. Hmmm…makes one uneasy, if you think too hard on it. Society customs, or society perception of authority?

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