Changing the Rules in the Middle of the Game

May 11, 2015

It’s the 9th inning of a baseball game. The home team is losing by three runs as they come to bat in the bottom half of the inning. They score two runs to narrow the deficit to one but then make their third out. Game over, right? The visiting team begins to celebrate.

Not so fast. The manager of the home team is talking-to the umpire. A moment later, the ump runs to the middle of the field and announces to the crowd that, because the home team manager made such a compelling case, he has decided award the team an additional out, maybe more!

The visiting team is apoplectic. This is insane. It makes no sense. The manager for the away team is spewing, hot, expletive-crusted rage at the umpire. “You can’t change the rules in the middle of the game!” he shouts.

And the manager is right, of course. The teams knew the rules coming in. Changing them at the last minute to benefit one team over the other violates the agreement, both tacit by virtue of tradition and explicit by virtue of the rulebook, that there would be nine innings and each team would have three outs per inning.

This works just fine when talking about a baseball game. The problem comes when we take a simple truth — You can’t change the rules in the middle of the game — and bluntly apply it where it does not belong.

Get Pithy With It

A statement like “you can’t change the rules in the middle of the game” makes for a satisfying aphorism. Aphorisms save time by simplifying complex arguments using straightforward wording that aims to present a clear truth. They’re intended to leave you nodding in agreement, to make you feel as if you could not possibly contradict such common sense. A good aphorism often feels obvious in hindsight. Here’s a relatively famous one from Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back:

Yoda always with the widsom and stuff.

Yoda always with the wisdom and stuff.

Yoda says this to Luke, and does so with such plain conviction, that it seems incontrovertible. Of course, we think, trying doesn’t matter. Either you do a thing or you don’t. As a writer, hitting upon such effective phrasing is immensely satisfying. It’s often what we’re aiming for — to hit you with a pithy observation that knocks you back with its blunt wisdom.

Life Is Not a Game

But aphorisms cause trouble, too. Their very nature oversimplifies, and when applied to any issue with real complexity, they can serve to distract, to misdirect. Instead of supplying basic truth, they become a tool for dismissing dissenting opinions without engaging in their merits. “You can’t change the rules in the middle game” does exactly that, and seeing it used is driving me nuts. 

Don't tread on me.

Don’t tread on me.

A somewhat recent use in Minneapolis was the one that put me over the edge, though it has less to do with this specific example than just hearing it one too many times. The city is trying to get owners of surface parking lots to comply with existing ordinances requiring how these lots are maintained, and it’s not going well. Owners of the lots are pushing back against the city, and one lot owner said “You simply can’t change the rules in the middle of the game.”

When it comes to any sort of debate about public policy, taxes, or other “rules of the game” in our public life, this argument holds no water. Life is not a game, and yet I see this statement used with such frequency that it’s reached a point where I have a difficult time not immediately disregarding the position of the person speaking it. It’s a favored rhetorical trick of someone with a stake in the status quo, and I suspect, it’s often used when the speaker knows their position might not hold up to much scrutiny.

In the Minneapolis instance, there might be a legal reason that particular rule cannot be changed at present, but in the broader view that rule absolutely can be changed. How and when changes are made or implemented is open to debate. Whether a change is good or bad is open to debate. But crying that changing the rules is itself an unjust act does not make sense.

Changing the Rules Is What We Do

Saying that we “can’t” change the rules is a terrible argument because it’s something we do all the time. Cities raise or lower fees. They change what kinds of buildings can be built in which places. If you are, say, an accountant, at some point in your career you probably had to do more continuing education and maybe now it’s less. Or vice versa. Deciding how to make these changes is a primary function of elected officials, condo associations, professional organizations, and countless other types of governing bodies.

People often hate change, and I suspect the taste for this argument begins with that. Falling back on a concise aphorism as a defense for keeping things as they are is easier and faster than considering whether we’ve been wrong about something all along.

But if we think about some of the important changes to rules we’ve made in the “middle of the game,” it becomes clear doing so can rise to the level of a moral necessity. The outlawing of slavery sure as hell changed the rules. Women’s suffrage as well. How about child labor protections?

These are, I assume, noncontroversial examples now, but at the time you can be certain they faced some version of the “changing the rules” argument. Cries of how such changes would bankrupt businesses, disrupt established ways of life, and violate natural order are all variations on that theme.

If your reaction is that it’s a pretty big gap between laws on sprucing up parking lots and whether little Timmy will have black lung by the time he’s 12 from working in a mine, you are not wrong! Those two things are orders of magnitude different!

And that’s the point. Using an argument like “you can’t change the rules in the middle of the game” is intellectually lazy. If we get in the habit of using it when the stakes are lower, I fear we become that much more comfortable pulling it out when they’re much higher. I’m hoping the reverse is also true. If we eliminate the temptation to use clever aphorisms for keeping things as they are, even on relatively low-stakes issues, we can instead learn to defend our beliefs with better arguments or be willing to change them when they don’t hold up under examination.

Would you like to tell me why all of the rules should be left alone, especially since it’s the middle of the game? Then leave a comment below by clicking the little speech cloud button thing below.

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