“[He is] someone who does not hate the system, but has a deep and abiding love for it.”
– Rainn Wilson on Dwight Schrute
In a season 4 episode of the US version of popular sitcom The Office, Dunder Mifflin branch manager Michael Scott, played by Steve Carrell, visits a job fair at the local high school looking for a young person to join the branch as an intern over the summer. At the same time, Jim Halpert, second-in-command, takes an out-of-office day to go golfing with a prospective client, hoping to entice him into buying his paper from Dunder Mifflin.
This leaves Dwight Schrute, “assistant to the regional manager” and bootlicker supreme, as the most superior member of staff at the branch office. Notorious for his unwavering work ethic and commitment to the rules, Dwight struggles, in the absence of the authority of Michael and Jim, to convince the rest of the office to stay and continue working. His desperate attempts to strong-arm his coworkers into staying include flaunting his bureaucratic superiority in Michael and Jim’s absence, and threatening to “tell on” them to Michael should they walk out.
Gradually, the rest of the office leave, whether by flagrantly disregarding Dwight’s claim to authority, or by sneaking out during opportune moments. When Dwight speaks with Michael on the phone to tell him that the only employees remaining are himself and his uptight female counterpart, Angela, even Michael ridicules him, asking “Who cares? I’m not there, Jim’s not there, why should they have to be there?”
Nonetheless, like two characters in a Samuel Beckett play, Dwight and Angela stay and continue working.
There’s security in being able to identify an order in things. There’s security in identifying yourself as being in compliance with that order. And there’s even more security in being someone who can enforce that order upon others.
One of the defining characteristics of our current era is a grand reconfiguring of the social order. In social media, think-pieces and academic writing, this is articulated in contexts of privilege, erasure, visibility, power, class and so on. For those who are willing or able to embrace the far-reaching consequences of this restructuring of the way we understand the ebbs and flows of access in society—or those whom these systems have operated against, and for whom the “breaking” of these rules is not one of conscious rebellion, but simply a consequence of their existence—the emergence of a new way of thinking that aims to rebalance the scales in a society that has largely benefited particular groups of people isn’t just welcome, it’s long overdue.
But for some of those people whom that deeply-unbalanced system has favoured for so long, to discover that your success and achievements might not be built on meritocracy alone can be a traumatising thing. Especially when many of these constructs—performed masculinity, heteronormativity, capitalist hierarchies, for example—are, in some ways, a matter of following rules.
If you’ve grown up as someone who was taught to follow the rules, to listen to your superiors, obey their commands, don’t do these drugs, don’t cry, don’t hug him like that, you might attribute some of your success or comfort to your ability to follow those rules.
So what if you wake up one day, and you can see people who smoke weed living happy, productive lives? Or straight men wearing “effeminate” clothing, or opening up about their emotions to other men, and not suffering negative consequences as a result? Or people of colour climbing employment ladders and succeeding, gaining access to areas of employment or social circles that were previously the reserve of people like you?
To be confronted with such a new reality might cause someone like that to ask themselves if, just maybe, all that time they’d spent playing by “the rules” was for nothing? In the case of masculinity, perhaps all those times they avoided exploring their sexuality for fear of being ostracised by their peers, they were actually doing themselves harm, or those times they resisted sharing fragile emotions, instead bottling them up, they were only making things worse.
Extend those decisions into the years, and then the decades, and it could throw you into an existential crisis. Nevermind working in the same unfulfilling job for 30 years—what if you were confronted with the notion that you might have spent 30 years living as an unfulfilling “you”? What can you do? Take drastic measures to try and reconcile yourself with newfound spaces for liberation… or resist.
It’s often said that reactionary ideology is often built upon fear. For the most part, it’s fear of the other; black people, gay people, trans people, immigrants, young people, and so on. But I wonder if some aspects of it are equally built on fear of the self. The reason so many of these systems of power have persisted in society is because those who have benefited from them have invested themselves in sustaining them, not just because they fear the other, but because they cherish the way it validates the self.
The dismantling of traditional notions of gender, sexuality, social order and so on, articulated in the right context, can be one of the most liberating things anyone can experience. When you come to understand that elements of your identity are a social construct, you’re free to define those things whichever way you want. Being taught to question the rules doesn’t even necessarily have to manifest in notions of rebellion. It can just be the acknowledgement that they never even existed in the first place. Maybe you watch the structure fade into dotted lines, then disappear completely, and realise you don’t want to change a thing. That’s fine.
But that notion of pure liberation terrifies some people. Think of evangelical Christians who believe that, without the 10 Commandments, society would have no morality, as if the only thing holding humanity back from pure carnage is a set of vague laws written centuries ago. But to believe such a thing is to believe that humans are not capable of coming to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be slitting each other’s throats of our own volition.
You can see a similar model of thinking in a lot of reactionary thought surrounding contemporary discourse. If homosexuality is acceptable, or if we recognise the fluidity of gender and the humanity of transgender people, then all society will collapse into an indoctrinary project for those groups. If people of colour are given equal treatment and rights in society, then white people will be erased. If we don’t have these rules that circumscribe my safety and humanity in society as the utmost priority, then we will surely devolve into social chaos.
You were born and raised. This much you knew. There were two genders. Monogamy was the key to a happy life. Racial hierarchies and class structures kept everything in order. To quote Fox News’ sadly-departed carnival barker and intern-groper extraordinaire, Bill O’Reilly: “Tide goes in, tide goes out: Never a missed communication.”
Just as those rules define your place within the world, they define the way you understand the world operating. So you followed them. Some by choice, some by fear, and some by simple social flow. So to watch them being challenged, dismantled, even dismissed, might suggest that all those times you spent playing by the rules were ultimately for the benefit of nobody. Not even yourself.
So what can you do? Cling to the rules. Because in order for you to accept the structure of the new, you might have to relinquish some of the structure of the old, and with it, yourself.
None of this is to say that there aren’t, obviously, a multitude of explanations for the rise in right-wing and reactionary ideology right now. As I said at the beginning, much of it, for the most part, is borne from straightforward fear and loathing of the other, and the maintenance of a social order that has, for centuries, worked to benefit one group at the expense of everyone else.
But on the other hand, it seems telling to me that, at a time when so many of these concepts of dominance, subjugation, hierarchy and “rules” are being scrutinised, there has been a reactionary revival of old ideas of Jungian archetypes, the need for some to be dominant and others to be dominated, of power and force as the only language worth using.
What a surprise that so many of these archaic ideas appeal to groups who have been at the top of the ladder for as long as anyone can remember. How curious that, at a time when their preordained superiority might be called into question, there has arisen a cacophony of voices who champion the unfaltering importance of following the rules.
There’s just too many Dwights, and not enough Jims.