Living Outside the Law
The battle for good
I won’t say I became a stoner by default, but it seemed the most accessible of the high school peer groups. I like to think becoming a nerd or a jock were within my reach if only I had applied myself but (in the immortal words of Afroman) ‘then I got high’. I think back fondly on my ratbag years. I’m pretty strait-laced these days but I feel better about it for having all sorts of things in the archives. It’s all in there – the things we survive – I’ve always felt I was the sum of them. It’s why, when I found myself outside the law this year, bending lockdown rules and justifying small concessions it felt uncomfortable and familiar.
There were nights, as a kid, I’d sneak out of home. I’d go to places my parents had asked me not to or hang with friends they didn’t like. Mostly, our mischief was smoking grass. We liked the sensation of being high; the meandering conversations and fuzzy feelings. It made everything seem a bit funnier and the more frustrating and strained my relationship with my parents became, the more I relished the escape and the mild rebellion of it. If my folks were going to be overprotective, I would have to overcorrect the other way. I knew, even then they were doing their best but it still felt like overreach – informed by their own neurosis and a relatable desire to spare me from the outcome of bad choices. I wanted to make my own choices and I wanted their trust, not because those would always be good or because I had earned it, but because it was my life and I wanted to govern it.
I’m sure this is a familiar struggle for parents – the question of how much freedom and when. Navigating a path between negligence and over-protection x every day x the chaos of life x strong emotions and different people, community pressure, current wisdom and the baggage of our past. It’s not easy to be in charge of our own lives, let alone other people’s.
I hated being eye-balled by the cops or interrogated by my parents. Like most people, I think of myself as a good person and like to be treated as one. Even as a ratbag stoner I felt that way. We’re social creatures and it’s nice to be thought of well by the people around us. It’s nice to live inside the law; there was always a part of me that hated feeling like I had to hide things – to sneak around in the dark and keep track of the stories I would tell mum about where I had been and what I was doing. The experience of having her inspect my bleary bloodshot eyes in the entry hall on coming home at night is not one I’ll soon forget. To some extent, I still think of being an adult as the point in life at which other people are no longer entitled to ‘get you in trouble’. Of course, that’s not exactly true but it seems a profound injustice when it happens now because honestly, you’re just another person and who the hell do you think you are…
In my 20’s, gradually, I settled down. With less to rebel against or escape from and more to be gained from a clear mind, ambition, work ethic… I stopped smoking, partying regularly and drinking heavily. I wanted to be reliable, abiding and to live out of the shadow of others thinking poorly of me. It took me well into adulthood because I needed to be free and clear from what my parents demanded so I could decide those things on my own. No one wants to be coerced. I still have moments, very occasionally, when I want to express a little rebellion and do something stupid or unhealthy or reckless but most of the time I just want to be a good partner and a good citizen, a good friend and son and boss… I want to be thought of the way I think of myself and so I must express my goodness through choices and actions we agree to be consistent with what a good person does.
If you were living in Melbourne and under lockdown, you might have grappled with some of this recently. There was a lot to navigate. I remember calling my partner and vice versa to corroborate our stories should we be pulled up by the cops driving outside our 5 km zone. My parents and their friends seemed at times, to be playing it fast and loose with the law, struggling like we all were, with the sudden loss of so much freedom and the stuff that makes a life meaningful. It seemed especially conspicuous in them as the long-time arbiters of a lawful and moral life. I’m not sure I know anyone who followed the sweeping, shifting rules to the letter. Some seemed arbitrary and ill-considered and it was easy to justify small exceptions. Mostly, it was a long time to feel like we weren’t able to govern so much of our own lives – which had me thinking about living outside the law.
It was hard to decide whether to feel compassion or enjoyment watching my parents rebel against what they experienced to be overprotective and irrational governance. They felt justified in their small indiscretions. They wanted to still feel like good people so there had to be something wrong with the rules or the rulers. Power is interesting like that. It’s hard in a home to enforce the rules and harder still, even with a police force, to do it in a community. We consent to obey because we have confidence in the rules and the rulers. When we won’t, because we don’t, we have to live outside the law – covering our tracks and justifying, mostly to ourselves, our actions – how we are still good people. When enough people don’t consent, the people in charge aren’t really anymore. In the last few months in Melbourne, restrictions have been easing, partly thanks to vaccination rates and partly, I believe, because enough of us were enough outside the law that it had to change. It’s not a way to live and it’s not a way to lead.
In Australia, we’ve always chosen interesting heroes. The bushranger (outlaw) Ned Kelly is very much the archetype but there are stories from the earliest days of transportation that echo a familiar sentiment. We were always destined to have an interesting relationship with goodness, law and morality in communities built on stolen land by convicts mostly born into a life of poverty and desperation half a world away. Here governors ruled like autocrats, sometimes genocidal and almost always racist and classist. We’re still, understandably distrustful of authority, especially in Melbourne, which was founded not by the colonial authorities of the time, as most cities were, but by free settlers and the sons of convicts. Perhaps it’s living here, drinking the water in this place that makes me think it is good for us to spend some time outside the law, looking over our shoulders just to know what it’s like and struggling with what it means to be good.
It’s reassuring to me thinking of power in this way, that it’s less about the whims of the person upfront on the day, flawed as they are. I like reminding myself that this is how we do power here, by negotiation, and even the outlaws have a role to play.