Everything Not Forbidden Is Compulsory

When I first passed this sign yesterday morning on the way to class, I thought it was an instruction in etiquette: “Don’t sit here because this is a table, and sitting on tables is rude.” Silly me.

I didn’t have to walk far before I realized the ubiquitous signs were far more insidious as arbiters not of civil behavior but of social distancing.

But then . . .

Really? Exactly there?

But it got worse. The makers of signs are also the purveyors of mendacity. These computers are not out of order. It’s just another trick to make people obey the arbitrary seating rules. (But someone made a mistake, I’ll wager!)

I don’t know if I am more depressed or outraged. I do know that my first thought as I processed these images in my brain was the literary passage whence I took my title. In The Once and Future King, T. H. White’s masterpiece about King Arthur, the future king (called Wart as a child) has asked Merlyn to turn him into an ant. He finds the ant colony a perfect example of a society whose language offers only two possibilities in any situation, “done” or “not done.” Although he tries to do his duty as an ant, Wart cannot fit in, cannot understand a society in which the individual lacks free will and places no value on happiness or freedom–a society in which right and wrong are determined not in a moral sense, but in the collectivist sense of work accomplished. A sign above the ant colony expresses the basic tenet of all totalitarian societies: EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY.

I will end with another quotation hanging on the office door of one of my colleagues: “Make Orwell fiction again.”

Please.

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