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“The exception blesses the rule; the exception proves the rule.”

I said the preceding to someone lately, and their reaction was: “I’ve never understood that.”  The concept is so clear to me, that my first reaction was: “Well, he’s stupid. He’s dense.”  Then I thought some more.

In Science, any exception, no matter how rare the exception is, any exception destroys the rule.  If you found someone who lived twenty years without eating any food, you would disprove the “rule” that it is necessary to eat to live.  If you combined two parts Hydrogen with one part Oxygen (H2O), and did not come up with water, you would disprove the rule that 2H plus O combines, every single time, to make water.

In the Social Sciences, in human behavior, rules are constantly broken.  No rule is absolute everywhere.  That wouldn’t be a rule, that would be a Scientific Law.  all of us have a blurry line between those two: Rules & Laws.
I have a theory (a generalization, a rule of thumb): married men will not go dancing without their wives.  I go Folk dancing and Contra dancing.   I meet many single people, and I meet many women there without their husbands.  I cannot think of a single man I dance with who is married, and shows up without his wife.

I’ve spoken to perhaps a 100 people about my theory, and in perhaps six cases, people have contradicted me. “That’s not true, Henry. I know so & so (George? Harry?), who comes dancing without his wife.”

“Well,” I say, “That proves I am right.  You had to think hard to come up with an exception.  You did not disprove my theory.  In fact, the fact that you only came up with one example, and you searched hard to come up with that example, proves that, in general, as a rule, men do not go dancing without their wives.

Their answer? “No. Your rule is wrong Henry. I found an exception.”

In Science, you would be right. In Life, you are wrong.

Let us go back to the idea that the exception often “blesses” the rule.  The exception often makes it clear a rule exists.

I was trying to prove a rule about Contras (a form of dance).  My rule was -- everything is to the Right.  Every unnamed direction (Star? Corner Lady? Pass through?), every unnamed direction is to the Right: Star by the Right; Right Corner Lady; Pass Right shoulders.  One seeming Big unexplained exception: Circle? If the caller does not say "Circle Right" you always, always, Circle to the Left.

My Friend explained that circling Left goes by the rule of Right: the seeming exception conformed to the rule; it made me more sure in my belief that a rule exists.   A Circle-Left turns the same way as does a Right Hand Star - clockwise.

There is another big exception to my rule, everything to the right.  In almost all cases, a man stands with a woman to his right.  In the case of something called a “Proper Contra,” one half the couples have a man with a woman to his left.  I thought & thought about it, I realized that this “odd couple”  -- lady to the man’s left -- created a wonderfully “proper” formation: all the men are next to each other in one long line.  All the women are next to each other, in the line across from the men.

What does all this mean?  Is that why these are called “Proper Contras”?  Or is that why the other formation (man, woman, man, woman) is called improper?  Most wonderful of all: the exception to the Rule of Right (Woman to man’s left), is so exceptional, all such dances come under a different heading: Proper Contras.

The exception often explains the rule, and to that extent I appreciate it when someone listening to my theory points out the exception.  But please don’t be cantankerous when doing so.  I am not a scientist forwarding a Scientific Law.  I am a Humanist with a generalization that is supposed to inform both of our thinking.  And please think before you flat out contradict me.  Remember, exceptions by no means disprove a rule.

If I take the time, if I have the gall, to present my point of view, my generalization, it’s because I’ve given it some thought.  Or, everyone is right from their point of view (which often means -- based on the evidence they have been able to marshall, they are ready to make this generalization).  Before you disagree with someone, try to see how they could have arrived at such a point of view.  If you can’t see how they’ve arrived at such a generalization, ask them to explain.  If you still disagree, it is your duty to present your reasons for disagreeing, your evidence, your exceptions to the rule.  But we should all try to do so in the spirit of cooperation, trying to understand.

When it comes to wisdom, to theories, to life -- there are no winners and losers -- only cooperative or contrary people.

Copyright 2001   Henry Morgenstein

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