Kindness. The only possible method when dealing with a living creature. You’ll get nowhere with an animal if you use terror, no matter what its level of development may be. That I have maintained, do maintain and always will maintain. People who think you can use terror are quite wrong. No, no, terror is useless, whatever its colour – white, red or even brown! Terror completely paralyses the nervous system. – Mikhail Bulgakov.
Before you ask, I must say I have no idea of what Bulgakov means by the colour of terror. Maybe it is a peculiarly Russian idea, and I would be very grateful if someone can explain it to me. However, I think a number of members of our species could do a lot of good to some other members of our species if they took Bulgakov’s advice. Corporal punishment has been officially a crime in many parts of the world for a few years but, this nature of tough love is something we’ve quietly imbibed, leaving behind notions of a more literal lashing in childhood to a psychological one that seems to permeate and be passed on through an entire life. It is even called something remarkably catchy like tough love which, apart from being a great title for a biker romance film, also seems to imply that it is an act of love. We’re not including BDSM here because despite the various levels of toughness to it, its basis is consensual. What happens with tough love, usually between a mentor/parent figure and a protege/child is that there is no question of consent. It is terrifyingly drilled into the benefiting participant’s head that such treatment is a) necessary and good for them and b) is only being done to them because the benefactor cares.
Both are true. Desirable results have often been achieved because of the tough love exercise and the benefactor surely cares, to be so invested in harassing the recipient. However, physical results do not necessarily create emotional satisfaction. We have a rather simplistic valuation of accomplishment in our modern lives. That somehow moving from one acceptable checkpoint to another until all has been achieved qualifies one to be called a decent human being who has made good use of their life. No one takes into account how that physical achievement maybe inversely proportional to its emotional ramification. Unless you can make a biographical book or film about it which our culture of Reality TV likes to gorge on. Because nothing sells like a sob story built around success, which somehow is psychologically more relevant than more plebeian sob stories.
I believe the recent film Whiplash is on this subject. I haven’t seen it but, the little I know suggests the often relayed notion of a young gifted person, a musician or a protege figure or especially an athlete, only excelling at his or her craft through the gruelling discipline of their mentor who may also be talented but neither had the extra amount of talent required nor the opportunity to achieve on the same level. This is my main objection with the tough love system, as it is especially touted by some people who also happen to be the primary caregivers of the younger person, parents ( though not in Whiplash ) and thus should be expected to be kind some of the time. The emotional blackmail works on two levels in this arrangement. The parent constantly blames the child for not appreciating their comparative better luck and privilege and the child, in turn, has to be empathetic towards the parent’s younger self without expecting the parent to empathise with his or her own current state. The parent does not even see this as a failure on his or her own part. But, then again, humanity in general has a great lack of understanding when it comes to failure, let alone coping with and overcoming it. It prefers not to acknowledge it or leave it aside as quickly as possible. Especially because a failed person faces stigma and prejudice like any other.
The problem lies in the fact that the practice of tough love isn’t an individual, micro-level, characteristic in a person, who imparts it on someone who is fortunate or unfortunate enough to be the vulnerable half of the relationship. It is macro, which we as a society, a collective, allow justifying it as preparation for the real hardships of the world. Which renders all talk of kindness, empathy, compassion and love useless and hypocritical. As I’ve suggested, there are people who believe they benefit from this practice and say it works for them even emotionally. But, for the majority of people, breaking them down doesn’t make them stronger. It makes them even more fragile and vulnerable. In turn, they might feel more anxious than usual or overcompensate and carry on the practice when they find themselves responsible for someone even more vulnerable. It takes a lot of kindness and love to bring these people back, if at all. So if you have ever been on the receiving end of tough love, be kind towards who you are responsible for. You will be a better person than your mentor ever was and help create a decent one in turn. That is real love, tough or not, for yourself and for the one you care.