Malicious Compliance: When rules aren’t worth respecting but aren’t worth breaking

“I know of no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution.”

President Ulysses S. Grant

I was going to do a post on how David Stern’s insistence on implementing an NBA dress code during official league activities led to a major change in men’s fashion, but it turns out that I’m too late because Rolling Stone wrote on that exact same idea in 2016.* So I didn’t have anything to write about, but I slept well knowing I came up with the idea independently even if it already existed. I really wanted to write about this idea because I find it interesting, but I needed a new angle. I re-read the RS story and realized that there was a lot of talk about the before and after state, the controversy and the result. What the author didn’t talk about was the malicious compliance the players used in protest against a policy they felt was racist, unfair and uncalled for. And it didn’t give enough credit to the guy who really got the ball rolling, and how malicious compliance exists beyond the NBA.

*A simple google search revealed about a dozen other sites which had no qualms writing about it without checking or caring after the fact that the opinion was already out there.

David Stern vs. Hip-Hop

Quick recap: In 2005, the NBA was not in the best possible spot. Kobe and Shaq were about to break up, Michael Jordan was officially out as a player, the Malice at the Palace happened the year before. The best player in the league was probably Tracy McGrady, a massive talent whose potential was sucked dry by a lackluster supporting cast, and the US had just lost in the olympics*. The NBA regular season broadcast tv ratings had dropped for 8 straight seasons (on its way to 11 straight). Meanwhile, people loved the NFL, which was in a golden age. The NBA was trying to get back to its former peak.

People just didn’t like the NBA like they used to.

*Lose might be a strong word. They lost 1 game in the semifinals and got the Bronze medal.

As part of an effort to clean up the league’s image, Commissioner David Stern implemented a dress code for all official league events, including showing up and leaving games, press conferences and all interviews. This did not go over well at first. The policy was perceived as racist, as if Stern was trying to get rid of a “thug” image that him and his octogenarian millionaire friends probably couldn’t stop yammering about at cocktail parties. Allen Iverson, one of the biggest personalities and best players in the league, hated the policy. Tim Duncan hated it. Tim Duncan! The boring, fundamentally sound power forward who never seems to say a word when he doesn’t absolutely have to- spoke up about how much he disliked it.*

*As an example of how long ago 2005 was, Tim Duncan’s quote on the incident aged like the bagged milk that my middle school used to give out- “I think it’s a load of crap. I understand what they’re trying to do with hats and ‘durags and jerseys and stuff. That’s fine. But I don’t understand why they would take it to this level. I think it’s basically retarded.”

Image Credit- Ballislife.com. They do a great breakdown on the feelings about the rule at the time of implementation and it’s perceived targeting of black fashion.

Some big names bought in to the idea. Coincidentally, some of them are the most famous people surrounding the NBA over the past 10 years- some notable examples are LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neil. Am I saying that the NBA orchestrated a conspiracy that benefitted the teetotalers and punished those who objected, like Allen Iverson? No, I’m not insane. I’m just pointing out that the current faces of the league all seem to have complied happily. All of the players complied in one way or another. Some just went along with the policy, while others took it one step further. 

When push came to shove, the players threw on their slacks and button ups. Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and a whole slew of others may not have liked the rule, but are these guys going to quit? Of course not! They’re professional basketball players. It’s anyones dream job! Well, maybe not basketball specifically but they’re being paid millions of dollars to do what they love. Marcus Camby, one of the most famous dissenters who asked Stern for a stipend in order to comply with this new rule, made 7 million dollars the year the rule went into effect. For the first few years of the ban, most of the players just threw on a suit or button-up shirt when they had to and grumbled to themselves while they went on playing. They basically accepted it for the first few years.

LeBron James on Draft Day 2004 vs. current day.
I don’t know anything about fashion, but good lord. My dude is in white on white on white with wingtips standing in front of a sears family portrait background. Those pant legs are so thick it looks like he’s wearing the bottom half of Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor costume. 

Enter the Troll: Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook made a big splash when he came on to the scene in 2008 out of UCLA. He was explosive on the court, a threat at anytime on both sides of the ball and could throw down just as well or better than others in the league who were significantly taller than him. He was one of the most fun players to watch in the NBA, and that remains true today. But in 2008 he was second fiddle to Kevin Durant on a small market team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Though his play was electric, what he came to be known for, at least outside of the basketball world, were his post game conference outfits.

Look at the image above. Does it fit David Stern’s code? Technically, I guess. Westbrook is not just complying with the dress code here, he’s maliciously complying. What did the rules say? Botton ups, slacks, no headgear but glasses. He is bastardizing every letter of this rule. The spirit of the Dress Code rule was to make the NBA look professional (and some argue to look whiter). Whether you believe the intent of the dress code was racist or not, it was definitely old school- Stern wanted post game press conference dress to look like IBM or NASA Mission Control in the 60’s. The rule had been in place for 4 years or so at the time of Westbrook’s rise with little issue beyond the initial uproar. But here comes the new kid- a new kid who doesn’t respect this rule at all. I can’t get in the mind of Russell Westbrook, but this doesn’t look like a protest of a policy he finds racist or appalling- I think he believes the dress code was just stupid. He’s mocking the rule.

I’m having to make a lot of assumptions here. Like I said before, I can’t get into the mind of Russel Westbrook and know that he was trolling the rule. I can’t produce an ounce of evidence that David Stern used the dress code to specifically target Allen Iverson because Stern didn’t like him as the face of the league. But because the rule was weirdly specific and poorly written, it seemed targeted at a very select group of players. I think Allen Iverson’s curse was being too good while refusing to change. At the wrong time.

I think Russell Westbrook’s gift was being good while refusing to change, but at the right time. And he thought the rule was stupid enough to deal with it in his own way and be noticed. Westbrook’s satirical/mocking approach to the dress code along with the respect he garnered for his play made him a bit of an icon for a time. Russell Westbrook has more Instagram followers than James Hardin, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant, Shaq- he only has less than Steph Curry and LeBron James. He has a unique style. Sam Anderson from NY Times Magazine did a great piece on Westbrook (link below) and describes him as “moody, stubborn, loyal and fiercely private, a control freak and a perfectionist”. His teammates called him “A different dude…weird…bizarre…not normal.” If anyone was going to start a revolution in men’s fashion, it’s not a regular guy (in mind, not basketball skill) like Dwayne Wade. It’s Russell Westbrook. It’s the guy who walks the fence between two camps, eccentric and crazy, but his success and genius lands him decidedly in the former.

It was, I thought, an interesting outfit.
But there was one more piece, and it was the coup de grâce: Over his jeans, Westbrook pulled on a kilt … Why are you wearing a kilt? someone asked.
“Why not?” Westbrook said.

Sam Anderson- New York Times Magazine

Link to New York Times Magazine Profile on Westbrook. Highly Recommended.

Levels of Malicious Compliance

After Westbrook’s mocking of the rule and his success as a player, others joined in and irony/satire gave way to legitimacy- and now we’re back on track of the Rolling Stone article mentioned before. But let’s leave the NBA behind for now and focus on Westbrook’s approach. How do these instances of malicious compliance show up in everyday life? For the non-millionaires? In thinking of examples of this type of protest, I thought a lot of myself as a kid in dealing with rules I didn’t like. Kids deal with all sorts of rules. And at the time most of them seem pretty stupid.

Since we started this off with a discussion of dress codes, let’s keep it there for a little longer. People growing up have all sorts of rules about what they can and cannot wear imposed on them, especially as children, so it’s a fairly universal experience to discuss. We’re going to look at a few of the ways that people resist rules, framed in different levels of compliance and defiance. Malicious compliance is already defined as “the behaviour of intentionally inflicting harm by strictly following the orders of a superior knowing that compliance with the orders will not have the intended result”. But “harm” is a broad term, and I feel that there are different levels of what we would refer to as malicious compliance. I’ve made up some definitions to fit these different levels below:

  • Subversive Compliance
    • When you bend a rule but don’t want others to notice, you just want to get on with your day
  • Malicious Compliance
    • When you bend a rule so far that you want others to notice. In some instances one might accept that the rule won’t be changed, but the need to point out the absurdity overpowers the fear of being reprimanded.
  • Subversive Defiance
    • When you’re in “the right” in at least one regard, but are willing to bend or break a rule specifically to be noticed in order to showcase the issues of it to any and everyone. An honest attempt to get the rule changed.
  • Malicious Defiance
    • When you simply break the rule because it is absurd or unfair/immoral and don’t really consider the consequences for one reason or another.

These levels of protest seem to come forth when there is a mixture of fixed hierarchical control, few alternatives for those being “ruled” over and a high likelihood of being caught/punished for breaking the rule. And nobody feels more unjustly ruled over than kids, even if it’s mostly because they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Delusions of Adversity

It’s fair to say that most kids have no frame of reference. I was not allowed to wear jeans to school as a kid and it was the worst injustice I would ever face in my life, at least until I realized that my mom was intent on making me wear a jacket and tie to church every Sunday. We had uniforms in middle school and it felt like a tragedy worse than death. On my high school baseball team, the longtime coach didn’t like baggy clothes, so he only offered us more form-fitting* clothing for our official practice gear. You know, real adversity.

*To be fair, tis was the mid-2000’s. Even the form fitting stuff was fairly roomy

But in all of these instances I was powerless to really change anything- or at least I felt I was. Whether I was fighting against my mom’s dress code, my school’s uniform policy or my baseball coach’s prejudice against shorts with an inseam shorter than 4″, there was very little I could do to change the rule. So I learned to operate within the rules but on the boundaries of compliance. I didn’t respect any of these rules and some of them were so outrageous to me that I wanted the rulemakers to know it. Below are four stories about the various stages of passive-aggressive rebellion I engaged in fighting against the man as a naive kid.

Subversive Compliance– My friends and I hated wearing collared shirts, khakis, belts, nice shoes and tucking in our shirts to middle school. We thought the dress code was air tight, but in 7th grade we found a loophole. We learned that when you wore a sweater you weren’t required to wear a collar AND you didn’t have to tuck in a sweater. Win-win. So my friends and I wore a sweater every single day of 7th and 8th grade*. After this breakthrough we did whatever we could get away with. Khakis? Hell no- beige chinos. Dress shoes? Nah, black sneakers. We did whatever we could get away with.

*This got weird in May and September considering we were in the south and it was oppressively hot at times.

Now it was important that we didn’t want anyone to notice we were kind of bending the rules, we wanted to remain happy with our comfortable outfits. If we pushed it too far, we we’d be worse off than before, so we kept our cool. Some kids pushed it too far when when they started popping collars (RIP year 2000). There’s nothing in the rules about how my collar has to be, I just have to have one. Some kids wore 3 collared shirts at once and popped them all. If your rule is stupid- well, I’ll show you stupid!. The popped collar fad was soon banned because it couldn’t help but be noticed. Though sometimes that’s what you want.

Yikes.

Malicious Compliance– On my high school baseball team in dealing with our coach’s hatred for baggy shorts, none of us intended on looking like Larry Bird in 1980*. But it’s not like our high school had a backup baseball team with a coach who had different dress code rules, so there was very little we could do. Luckily, the seniors let us in on a secret to get around this rule: even if you’re a scrawny high school freshman, just get all XXL workout clothes and they’ll be plenty roomy**. Our clothes were baggier than they ever would have been if my coach hadn’t tried to control us on something we felt was so utterly stupid. And our coach saw the results of his rule by design of our little mutiny. He kept threatening to change the policy the next year, but he always forgot. And plus, we claimed that we got bigger clothes so we could “grow into them” in the coming years.

*Though with the long hair trend of that time and our desire/inability to grow facial hair, all we were missing from a Bird cosplay were the shorts
**My mom had to sew in a smaller waistband to my sweatpants and shorts.

I didn’t agree with these rules being placed on me, but there was nothing that could really be done, or at least nothing worth paying a price for. The cause of not wearing a collar or tucking in my shirt was not worth suspension, detention or any other school punishment, but I would be damned if I let the man push me around*. Though it’s funny to laugh at my younger self and kids in general about their delusions of extreme adversity, I think many of us do this a lot when we disagree with the spirit of a rule but knew we’d get caught if we didn’t follow- and it just wasn’t worth it. But sometimes it was worth it.

*12 year old me sticking it to the man- as long as I didn’t get in trouble

Subversive Defiance– I never really liked going to church. One reason for this was that I, unlike all of my Sunday school classmates, had to wear nice clothes. My mom’s rules must have been the inspiration for David Stern’s NBA rule- strictly business casual. Slacks, nice shoes, button-up and a tie. Nobody likes to be the overdressed person in the room. I felt particularly like a moron sitting in our little circle talking about the guy who got swallowed by a whale in dockers and an oxford cut with a tie next to a kid in flip flops and a batman t-shirt. I hated wearing a tie. Without the tie I could at least roll up my sleeves. I thought the tie rule was the most absurd part of my mom’s dress code and I took it off whenever I could. As a result, I wore a clip-on tie to church until I was 15. Not because I didn’t know how to tie a tie- which I did and believe I still know how to- but because I didn’t want to wear a god damn tie*.

My distaste for the rule only grew as I got older, I got fed up and wanted to outwardly protest. For almost a year I wore a clip on Santa Claus tie regardless of the season. It was something the my mom noticed by my design. I thought the letter of the law was unjust and I wanted to show her how little respect I had for it. Maybe I hoped others would witness or notice my struggle. Maybe it was my way of showing a bit of personality while wearing my mandated sunday uniform. But in the end, I pushed too far. The rule was amended- “no clip on ties, you’re too old for them”- and the only regular ties I had were regular patterns. I didn’t care enough to go spend my own money on a christmas tie, so the protest ended. I gave up. The man had beaten me, but at least I gave it a shot.

*But most importantly I could also rip it off and clip it back on at any time it suited me, i.e. whenever she wasn’t around

I’m going to forego a story about malicious defiance because it’s pretty much self explanatory- when you don’t agree with a rule and aren’t worried about the consequences, you just don’t follow it. Speed limits, sharing HBO GO logins, the drinking age, jaywalking, pirating music- they’ll never catch me. Or if they do it won’t be so bad. Who cares?

It’s funny to consider which rules we care to follow, which ones we don’t and which ones we simply just can’t let go of. Malicious compliance happens when we just can’t let a rule slide, whether by force or moral imperative. It needs to be exposed or mocked until the rule makers see the error of their ways.

In the Real World

These protests manifest in childhood because kids are subjected to rules they hate all of the time. You understand as you get older why some of them are put in place, but a kid’s genuine feeling of pure injustice mixed with powerlessness is an interesting microcosm to understand how as adults we deal with or attack some of our world’s greater issues.

Subversive Compliance– Two men from Minnesota, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell wanted to get married. Problem was, it was 1970, and that kind of thing wasn’t allowed. But technically, it wasn’t illegal, either. There was no law on the book saying two men couldn’t get married (the old “Air Bud” Defense). The couple tried to get married but were denied a license based on the clerk’s personal beliefs. So, in order to fulfill what they wanted, Jack Baker changed his name legally to “Pat Lyn McConnell” and the license was approved in another county because they assumed “Pat Lyn”, who was absent, to be a woman. It’s important to note that these two men weren’t just laying low, they were activists in their own right, and simultaneously they were fighting to have same-sex marriage legalized. But in the short term, they skirted the system on a technicality to get what they wanted.

Malicious Compliance– Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report was one of the most clever and entertaining satirists of our time*. He brought forth real issues, skewered them to the point of pure absurdity where you had to do a double take on some real sources to see if he was making all of his content up. He didn’t need to, there was plenty of material to be pulled straight out of reality.

*Though there’s an argument to be made that satire is largely ineffective when it’s only entertaining

Before the 2012 election, Colbert (in character) announced his candidacy for president. As a presidential candidate, he was able to set up a Super Pac, thanks to the fresh Citizens United ruling. He brought on a real campaign lawyer to his show and had him explain exactly how Colbert could use his influence to raise millions of dollars from anywhere he wanted, and then funnel it into a 501(c)(4) and use it completely anonymously for whatever purpose he chose. Colbert (presumably) really did want things to change, but he had to make people aware of the problem first. The law was too confusing to people, so he spelled out the absurdity of it. A story in the Guardian revealed that Colbert ended his fake presidential run with almost $800,000 in real money left in his super pac. In the end, Colbert had set up a 501(c)(4) and then closed it down, sending the money to a secret, new 501(c)(4) which legally could not be traced. Sadly, like most acts of malicious compliance, this clever satirization led to awareness but not to change.

A more common case for malicious compliance to be used is at work. “Work to rule” is the practice of doing only what you are contractually obligated to do, or only what is enforceable, in order to harm production of the organization which is keeping you down. Slaves did this in antebellum south. Soldiers will perform a “white mutiny” and only follow orders to the letter, without adding any common sense to slow down progress. French railway workers are not legally allowed to strike, but they have the power to stop trains from running when they deem it “unsafe”. Teachers in Kentucky wanted to protest the reduction or elimination of their pensions in 2018, but they weren’t allowed by law to strike any more for the year and protest. So thousands of Kentucky teachers mysteriously came down with the flu on the same day and were self-prescribed a trip to the state capitol to cleanse them of their illness.

All of our doctors said we need fresh air that can only be found at 38°11’12.8″N 84°52’31.1″W

Subversive Defiance– A common theme of these long form examples is that they don’t work most of the time. Passive aggressive movements rarely work, especially when done by an individual- they’re much more powerful in groups, which is why the “work to rule” example is so prevalent. Subversive defiance, as we defined earlier, states that the defier wants to be technically right while making their opposition angry at the same time in order enact change. The stakes are a bit higher at this point and tact is important in your planning or else you’ll fail. But if you lack tact or you don’t intend on changing anything, it’s essentially a passive aggressive adult temper tantrum. And if you were going to throw one of these temper tantrums in the highest deliberative body in the land, maybe everyone you worked with would hate your guts.

There are two ways one can filibuster: you can talk endlessly about the topic at hand, preserving the sanctity of debate and keeping the voice of the minority alive or you can be a douche and stand up there reading green eggs and ham. The former is a respectful, last ditch effort to make the case for something you truly believe in, while the latter is simply a dick move. This is especially true considering that senators don’t even have to physically filibuster anymore, they just have to say that they intend to. The talking part is purely for show. If you get up and sputter out nonsense you’re protesting the process, not the topic. You’re slowing down the vote because you disagree with what’s happening, you lost and you think it is stupid. It’s bastardizing the spirit of the rule to get a point across. Where malicious compliance is basically a “well, technically…” argument, it leans to the side of actually trying to win the argument instead of simply proving your point. Subversive defiance only works when you’re pointing out that the rule is unjust. I don’t think Dr. Seuss rhymes did anything to prove injustice.

In an effort to keep this post apolitical, I have hidden the identity of this unknown senator.

When has subversive defiance ever worked? Well, for starers, it’s probably good to have history and morality on your side. A good historical example of this are the famous 1960’s lunch counter sit-ins and demonstrations in the south during the civil rights movement. While federal law stated that school segregation was illegal, the protestors were aiming to get other segregation rules, which still existed, rewritten. The protestors believed they were morally and ethically correct, and that the reaction from these orchestrated protests would increase public sentiment towards their movement. They thought out a tactful strategy to gain support by showing the absurdity of the law, and the inhumane reactions of those who stood to maintain it. They turned out to be right.

Conclusion

So what’s the best way to protest when you’re powerless? It depends on what you want. There are plenty of ways to keep your head down and learn to live with your new rules. The NBA players did that from 2005 until Russell Westbrook started blazing fashion trails. But if you want to enact change, you have to be careful and tactful. Without a specific goal and a realistic path to arriving there, you’re just being a passive aggressive complainer. Russell Westbrook got away with it and even excelled because of his particular genius and his platform. My clip-on santa tie crusade wasn’t going to win me any fans no matter what and it ended up being a temper tantrum that said more about me than it did about my mom’s rule. I didn’t start a new fashion trend, I failed to get what I wanted because I was more concerned about being right than making right.

But there’s a lesson to be learned from the other side of this as well. Whether you’re the commissioner of Basketball or the parent of an 7 year old, if you see the people you’re in charge of pushing the limits of your rules without officially breaking them, try considering your rules. Are they fair? Have you explained your rules well? A misunderstanding of the rule or the purpose of a rule is always blamed on the role of the communicator of said rule. What’s the spirit of this rule and is there a better way for it to be written? The way a rule is laid out is extremely important. Most small acts of defiance stem from the fact that people think certain rules are stupid. They don’t respect them. But at the same time they probably think the rule maker is pretty situated on their high horse and the cause is so small it’s not even worth truly fighting for. But these small infractions against one’s sanity add up, and they lead to greater and bolder acts of defiance. And soon the rules you put in place to keep people in line end up being the very thing that pushed them away.