The power of precedent

​A feature of abusive relationships is uncertainty.

One minute, your partner is scolding you, attacking you, harassing you. The next they’re comforting you, apologising, making promises. It’s impossible to figure out what mood they’ll be in, so you live in fear. You’re confused.

You don’t like it when they abuse you. But it doesn’t happen all the time. They apologise. They’re themselves most of the time. They just have little episodes. It’s nothing to worry about.

The abuse starts off small. It evolves over time. Few would stay with (or fail to report to the police) someone who smacks them on the first date.

It’s only after trust has been won that the abuse begins. It starts subtle. It’s emotional. They are made to feel shamed, humiliated, embarrassed, stupid, worthless. Trapped. And once emotional abuse has been established as a regularity, it’s a small leap to actual physical abuse.

Precedent is a powerful thing.

Imagine someone you care about coming to you with a problem. They don’t know what else to do. They ask for help. You oblige. You make the hard decisions for them. You help them out.

Imagine this same person has another issue. Last time, they came to you and you solved their problem. What are they going to do now? They ask. You help.

This person you care about, once you’ve helped them once, twice, ten times, will come to you every time they have a similar problem.

You’ve set a precedent. They’ve seen that you’ll solve their problems. You’ve repeatedly said yes, so it’s difficult for you turn around and refuse, and for them to stop asking.

Precedent, as related to law, is defined as follows:

​“… a precedent or authority is a principle or rule established in a previous legal case that is either binding on or persuasive for a court or other tribunal when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts.”

​Related to personal conduct, it means that we tend to act how we acted in the past. In similar situations, we’ll take similar actions.

Take the example of quitting at a young age. If, as a teenager faced with something difficult and challenging, you quit, you’ll be more likely do it again. If you establish that pattern through your adolescence, it will likely carry over to your adult life.

Quitting at a young age sets a precedent for quitting as an adult.

But why is it easier to do what we’ve done before in similar situations?

The principle of Stare decisis holds the answer:

Stare decisis is a legal principle by which judges are obligated to respect the precedent established by prior decisions. The words originate from the … latin maxim Stare decisis et non quieta movere: “to stand by decisions and not disturb the undisturbed.””

​Imagine you’re trekking through the jungle. You have two possible routes. The established, clear, well-worn trail, or the thick, dense bush. It’s easier to take the path already cleared than to forge a new one through the jungle.

Precedent is powerful after the first case has been established. It’s iron clad after the one hundredth, near-invincible after the thousandth. The more the pattern is repeated, the harder it is to overturn. This applies for both the good and the bad.

Consider the civil rights struggle in the US. The fight to give black people the vote was often taken to courts of law. But because there was no precedent, it was hard to win. It took a monumental and heroic effort to overturn hundreds of years of precedent.

But once it was? Then the ball stared rolling. Once one case was one, it was easier to win the next, and the next, and the next.

Another example. What did you have for breakfast this morning? Eggs? Fruit? Nothing? Cereal? It’s common to hear breakfast cited as the most important meal of the day. But breakfast is important mainly because it sets up the pattern for the rest of the day.

If you eat something sugary that spikes your energy levels, and consequently, they slump, you’re more likely to seek something that spikes them again.

Or if you check your email and social media accounts as soon as you awake, you’ve just made it more likely that you’re going to be doing that same loop till you go to bed that evening.

Everything we do sets a precedent. If we make a poor choice, it increases the chance that we’ll do the same next time. And every time we do it, it makes it even harder to overturn and correct the error.

But if we are deliberate, if we choose wisely, we can establish a positive precedent. And every time you do that, it makes it easier to do it again. And again. And again.

If you’re encountering a new situation, be cautious. If you’re up against an old problem, make sure that it is reason and good judgement that is guiding your decision, not what you’ve done before.

Precedent leads to decision. Decision leads to action. Action shapes character. And as Heraclitus tells us, “character is fate.”