Protecting the Noncompliant

Woman with her arms crossed over her chest, noncompliant in her attitude

A Longing for Respect

On my morning walks, I often pass by a van parked in our neighborhood. Occasionally, the man who lives in it is awake, and we chat. He’s survived outside for years, having lost his home when he lost his last job. Because he gets food stamps, he eats okay, but his phone hardly ever functions, and he scrounges money to buy gasoline. Who knows where he gets the cash to buy the meth he depends on “to keep warm”?

The other day, I found him pacing beside his vehicle, looking disgusted. He told me that someone had snuck into his van while he slept and stolen the forms he needed to apply for unemployment and disability. He said he called the police, I don’t know how, and apparently they showed up. When they heard his story, however, they laughed at him.

I suppose that might have happened that way. The police are not known for being kind, and it’s easy to chalk up what this man says to drug psychosis or an organic mental illness. It seems they tried to take him to a shelter or to a “straight-jacket place.” His ranting was little hard to follow. What was clear, however, was that he wanted to be treated with respect. He wanted the right to determine his own future. He’d been at shelters, and he didn’t like them. They had all these rules, people were rude and dismissive, and some were downright abusive. He’d been to institutions, too, and the experience had not been good. He wasn’t going back there.

Photo by Jason Hafso

Rules and Regulations Require Compliance

If you’re poor and needy and looking for help, you will come up against institutions with rules and requirements. Either you comply with these rules, carefully meet the requirements, or you get nothing. Either way, you have to put up with professionals who think they know better what you need than you do. Few of them understand how humiliating it can be to wait on long lines, to submit to disbelief, to answer invasive questions about your life, just so you can get on a list to maybe get help down the road.

This is the state of our nation, however. To receive assistance, you must accept these terms. This man didn’t want to do that. He wanted respect. Even if he ended up shivering at night, he wanted the freedom to make his own decisions. He was one of those noncompliant types who reject one offer after another. Perhaps he felt like a victim. Maybe he wanted to keep using drugs. He certainly was filled with fear and resentment. Like the rest of us, he has baggage, and that baggage keeps him trapped in his pain.

But it’s not just his baggage that gets in his way. Society is hard to navigate when you’re poor, disabled, of color, female, old. We have an illusion in this country that it’s possible to succeed on your own. Of course, this isn’t true. No one reaches the top without the aid of those who have gone before, and those who help us now. Yet we do not judge the wealthy for their noncompliance. If they assume that rules were not made for them, we do not chastise them.

Whose Rules and Regulations?

The man living in his van does not think this is fair. He wants to manage his own life, and he doesn’t think he should be denied help or police protection because of it. It may be hard to credit his description of the crime, but that doesn’t mean he should be laughed at. He longs for affirmation, for the police to see his dignity. Those forms – whether they exist in the concrete world or not – represent for him his way out of his misery. They prove he has value. He wanted those officers to understand, to care, and to assist him on his own terms.

It’s the rare professional, official, do-gooder who understands this. Those who take care of others believe they know what’s best. We think people shouldn’t get handouts for free, that there has to be some accountability. So we create barriers, and when needy people don’t want to comply, we feel rejected and hurt.

Well, that’s what the poor feel when we offer things they haven’t asked for and refuse things they want. But if we’re the helping professional, and we feel disrespected, we’re not going to try and put ourselves in the place of the poor. There are reasons, often good ones, that people don’t do what we want them to. But we’re still likely to see them as ungrateful, undeserving, and noncompliant. Then we use shame or coercion to get them to do what we want.

Protecting the Noncompliant

That may be because we want to control other people. In an opinion column during the early days of the pandemic, Jennifer Weiner described how we resort to shame. She used the example of people who refused to wear masks in public. In her article, she wrote that, instead of shaming others to try to make them do what we think is best, we should be the kind of person who “protects the noncompliant.” [1]

What does she mean by that? Should we protect those who don’t follow the rules? What about people who break laws, who resist social niceties? And what kind of protection are we talking about?

Weiner is talking about people who use shame to coerce. We often try to control other people when we feel unsafe. In an effort to make ourselves feel comfortable, we argue, chastise, even punish. Our tirade might make us feel better, but if we’re hoping to make the noncompliant comply, we’ll probably be disappointed. We might take to “judging a random guy on the sidewalk,” as Weiner puts it, but that “random guy” is unlikely to respond very well. [2]

But shouldn’t we do something? After all, by the time infected individuals finish spreading their germs, one maskless person could make hundreds of people sick. Some of them will die. We can’t have that. So why “protect the noncompliant”? How can that help society?

Labeling the Noncompliant

“Noncompliant” is, first of all, a judgmental term. When we talk about “noncompliant” children or patients or inmates, we turn them into the “problem.” We don’t consider that our rules, treatments, or attitudes might play a role. Nor do we stop to consider the reason for people’s resistance. Maybe the child or patient or inmate is worried, frightened, or simply has a different agenda than we do. Their concerns might not seem rational to our mind, but whether they come out of childhood distress, different cultural understandings, mental illness, mistaken assumptions, or anything else, their reasoning makes sense to them. It helps if we take time to understand it.

Indeed, unless we do take that time, unless we care enough to look and listen, we won’t be able to support healthy change. Nor are we likely to convince someone to wear a mask, unless that person is susceptible to social pressure, in which case their face would already be covered. When we try to control someone, they tend to dig their heels in harder.

Respecting and Understanding

What if, instead, we sought to learn about these “noncompliant” people? What if we were curious about their thinking? We might discover we hadn’t communicated clearly. There might be a language or cultural barrier getting in the way. Perhaps the person has an underlying mental illness or addiction. They might not have the education to understand the terms we use or might lack the capacity to make effective decisions. Although it might seem these “noncompliants” understand us and even agree, in reality, they could be totally confused.

At other times, someone might understand perfectly well what we’re trying to say, but not agree. We all want to be treated with dignity and common decency. We seek to determine for ourselves what is right and what is not. Even if we are experts in our field, we are not expert in the other person. Each of us deserves the right to choose our own path, even if some legislator or self-proclaimed protector of the social order thinks our choice is wrong.

Sometimes we don’t want to offer such autonomy to patients, the poor, the stranger who won’t wear a mask. We judge them undeserving. We feel angry because their actions affect us, and at times, the impact is significant. Noncompliant people can traumatize others. Should we ignore this danger? If not, how do we respond?

Freedom and the Noncompliant

Different societies, and the sub-cultures within them, will answer this question differently. In the United States we value freedom more than some other countries do. Within the United States itself, different communities have different understandings of the meaning and value of freedom. Some emphasize equity and justice, while others believe freedom is something we earn by being of the right religion, race, or class.

Even so, America is the “land of the free.” We have shown ourselves to be willing to accept horrible costs, even torture and death, to remain autonomous and self-determined. I’m not just talking about soldiers and rebels who face great odds in the defense of our freedom. I’m talking also about the children whose lives are lost to gun violence and parental abuse, to those who have died from the coronavirus when masks might have saved them.

According to Stephen L. Carter, in his book about the necessity of civility in a successful democracy, Enlightenment thinkers believed we needed to protect individual freedom because, if we are coerced into doing right, then our right actions are a sham. Thus, we are not free.

“The ability of people to choose wrongly,” he writes, “was a cost, not a virtue, of freedom.” [3] At times, this cost seems unthinkable, but don’t imagine that totalitarian, communist, or authoritarian societies have less abuse and murder because they are less free, if indeed they are. Free or not, humans everywhere do despicable things. They also do altruistic and compassionate things. We cannot have the one without the other.

The Right to Do Wrong

So we need to allow people the right to do wrong. We need to protect the noncompliant, the rebel, the dissident, the nasty. If we don’t, one day we may find we ourselves are labeled “noncompliant.”

It’s a little like that quote by the Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, who wrote:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller, 1950s [4]

We each have our own version of the enemy. In America today, we have become polarized. Politically and socially, we vilify those we don’t like. We call them noncompliant. Labeling someone “Republican In Name Only” is one way Trump supporters call out the noncompliant in their midst. Democrats use cancel culture to do a similar thing. But we need to protect the rights of all of us to disagree, argue, protest, regardless of what side we’re on, even if we don’t like the other person’s language.

Woman with her arms crossed over her chest, noncompliant in her attitude
Photo by Priscilla du Preez

When Not to Protect

Not that we should allow people to do anything they please. Some people get caught up in the game and will do anything to win. Others are downright evil, enjoying the thrill of maiming or torturing or ravaging. If so, nothing we do or say will change them. We can listen all day long, be compassionate and kind, and those who care nothing for others will not be moved.

Therefore, we need limits. Some laws make sense. They shouldn’t all be broken. That’s why we have a police force, why we put people in jails, even why we shun or shame them, because some behaviors are not acceptable, at least not in free society. God might accept everything, but we are not God.

At the same time, judgment doesn’t help. It might feel good at the moment, and if we’re witty enough or cruel enough, we can make people “comply.” We can poke at their insecurities, beat them senseless, throw them away, taunt them until they cry, and this might look like success. Our fans will love us if we destroy the ones they have chosen to hate.

But that does not make society safer. It does not keep us free from worry. Nor does it make it right.

The justice of a formal courtroom is imperfect. How much less perfect is the justice dispense by an outraged citizen, by vigilantes, or by self-proclaimed arbiters of righteousness. By protecting the noncompliant, we seek to avoid such excesses.

The Less Traveled Path

This is not an easy road, this one of acceptance and nonjudgment. Nor does not guarantee that all will turn out as we desire. However, we are more likely to build a truly equitable society, one that is compassionate, just, and free, if we look, listen, and love rather than punish and humiliate. Instead of trying to coerce compliance, we need to invite it.

This requires truth-telling. We have to be honest not just with others, but also with ourselves. Why do we do what we do? What drives us? What do we hope to accomplish?

Instead of reacting, we need to but consider our options and choose the wisest one. We need to look inside our hearts and minds, recognize our feelings, notice our thoughts without reacting to them, and seek the underlying pain in our fear and resentment. If self-loathing hides beneath our vainglory and self-righteousness, love will be difficult to offer others, but we can learn. We can heal and change our ways.

But how can we love people who harm our planet, who oppress the poor, who harass the homeless, and who think their self-centered tantrums are promoting the cause of freedom?

The Reality of Love

First, love does not absolve us of wrongdoing. It doesn’t tolerate destruction or oppression. It names these wrongs, but gently and with compassion. Love invites us to change.

At the same time, love understands that truth is not simple. We are not always right. To love means to listen, and to listen requires humility. Sometimes we are blinded by our pain and do not see what is in front of us. That is why forgiveness is so important. If we practice this process of loving acceptance with those we already care about, eventually we will be able to forgive even the noncompliant.

While words spoken out of anger and hatred only fortify resistance, love allows a heart to change. Out of a changed heart comes changed behavior. As Mary Pipher wrote in her book, Another Country, “we grow to love what we care for and hate what we abuse and ignore.” [5] Thus, if we choose to protect the noncompliant, if we choose to care for them, we will learn to love them. Then, because of our love, the beauty hidden beneath the noncompliance will show itself. “We mend what we value, and we value what we mend,” Pipher writes. [6] Learn to value those we fear, those we hate, those who refuse to conform.

This is the power of love, to mend, to reveal beauty, to enhance value. In this way, love can change our culture.

Of course, love will not solve every problem. Not everyone is touched by love. Maybe they won’t talk to us; maybe we’re not skilled enough. Sometimes, it’s best to walk away.

Changing Society

That doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. Weiner suggests that, instead of calling out a misbehaving individual, we seek to change the systems that allow and support the harm done. In her article, she’s acknowledges that, when the coronavirus was new, our lack of care, our unwillingness to wear masks, to stay home, to respect boundaries, endangered others. But all of this was made worse by corruption within business and government, by our lust for immediate profits, by our racist and sexist laws. Instead of chastising and penalizing individuals, then, Weiner encourages us to demand those in power to use their power responsibly.

Whatever we do, though, if we do it out of anger, we will only spread more anger. We can force people to behave differently if we have a big enough stick. That’s why we think punishment works, because, for a time, at least, people will do what we demand if we are more powerful than they are. But that will not create change. When we are gone, those we have manipulated will resort to their old ways.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change laws when we can and protest when necessary. It doesn’t mean we can’t hold responsible those institutions and people in power who have done wrong. For all its patience and forgiveness and long-suffering resolve, for all that it is kind and humble, love is firm. It demands reciprocity. It is stronger than we think.

Love is also patient. It must be, because the change that comes out of love, the change that lasts, takes a long time. We look, we listen, and we love, and one day, we may find that society is a little kinder, a little better, a little more whole.

Healing Our Communities

I don’t know if the gentleman I pass on my morning outings will ever find a home. My love and respect, in as much as I have it to give him, will probably not change him. But perhaps if he understands that he is beloved, that even if he doesn’t comply with the rules and regulations of professionals and officials, he is still worthy, he might, at least, learn to love himself. One reason he longs for the police to respect him, for me to see him as competent and whole, is because he does not believe that about himself. Not yet. When he does, he may find that compliance is not so terrible, after all.

Systems and structures can be onerous, oppressive, and judgmental. Getting caught up in them is hard and can be humiliating. But if we recognize the beloved inside ourselves, we can cope. We can play the game according to the rules. Then, when we have succeeded in finding a way out, we will be able to help change the oppressive systems, because it is important to protect the noncompliant. It is important that we build a society where the noncompliant are free to be themselves, and where their freedom to cause harm is limited.

Though we cannot avoid all pain and suffering, we can minimize it. With love, we can help both the professionals and the noncompliant discover their essential nature, care about themselves, and thus, care about others. With love, we can heal our communities.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Weiner, Jennifer, “The Seductive Appeal of Pandemic Shaming,” The New York Times, April 15, 2020, A23.
  2. Ibid.
  3. From Carter, Stephen L., Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, New York: Basic, 1998, 80.
  4. This version of Niemöller’s words is found at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “First They Came . . .,” Wikipedia,…, accessed 3/27/21.
  5. Pipher, Mary, Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, New York: Penguin, 2000, 221.
  6. Ibid.

Photos by Jason Hafso and Priscilla du Preez

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved