It is incredible, the insights one gets into the planetary political puzzle, in those rare moments of paying attention to world news that one has between looking after two kids, a house and a veggie plot.
Obama’s stick-shaking, attempting to drum up support for air strikes on Syria (because killing Syrians will definitely teach Syrians to stop killing Syrians) on the MORAL issue of ‘crossing a global red line’, and therefore the MORAL issue of us lovely civilised nations to show them how it’s done, is a case in point.
Journalists have described it as a threat of punishment. It’s a word, in this context, that instantly makes me think of Lenny Henry’s comedy sketch about his mum being so tough on behaviour “she could discipline whole nations. ‘Iraq, put Kuwait down!'”
Not wishing to make light of the situation, which could clearly tip the Middle East – and therefore a whole lot of US and European vested interests (and boy are there a lot of those) – into unholy disarray, let me just say that I cannot help but see political leaders as small boys in shorts and mud-streaked T-shirts, guiltily hiding slingshots behind their backs while the sounds of splintering glass resounds around us.
They might seem more like shape-shifting lizards from another planet, but really every leader in the world was a naughty schoolkid once, who picked his nose, wet his pants on many occasions and probably did godawful things to frogs in his spare time.
So this idea of punishing a rogue nation isn’t lightyears away from basic parenting practice. Don’t we wish we could tell our prime ministers ‘How would you like it’ when they slash welfare, health or education spending? See, the principle is exactly the same, no reductionism whatsoever.
To return to my point. There are many parenting experts (no, not the sort who tell you to leave your screaming baby alone in a dark cupboard til they learn to self-soothe) who are now advocating moving away from a punishment/reward system of parenting. This is on the basis (and I think it’s a sound one, if difficult to practise) that a) it doesn’t work in the long run, and b) it doesn’t teach children WHY they shouldn’t do what you don’t want them to do, or why they should do what you want them to do, which is itself the reason behind a).*
Think about it for a moment. If someone, let’s say, your spouse, or your boss at work, were to randomly yell at you, “Stop doing that! What the hell are you playing at? No. Just no. Now go sit on the naughty step for five minutes” would it a) rile the hell out of you and make you want to yell back at them, b) encourage you to comply while you work out how to get back at them, or c) prompt a military ‘Yes, sir/ma’am!’ and your immediate obediance, never to repeat the offence in question?
Banksy says “boo”
Children are crystal balls of human nature. What is so wonderful and so infuriating about them is that we see ourselves reflected back at us, whether we wish to accept the lesson or not. It takes a very big kind of a person to be able to recognise that it is their own impatience that makes them freak out at their childrens’ impatience, their own lack of discipline that has given their children a template for their lack of discipline, their own rudeness to others that has taught their kids to be rude.
Yet on a political scale, this same principle seems to be conveniently overlooked. Obama is quite happy to call out Syria for using chemical weapons while maintaining hundreds of suspected terrorists in inhumane, tortuous conditions for up to a decade without trial or even a shred of evidence against them, in a military base so notorious it has to be sited outside of the US on an island accused of acts of inhumanity to its civilians by America itself. The hypocrisy is so glaring it seems that surely nobody is taking Obama’s threat of punishment as a sign of his genuine humanitarian goodness. Call me a cynic, but I smell an agenda.
Meanwhile, what’s there to do at the Cave but carry on cleaning up mess, separating fighting children, finally withholding the promise of ice-cream if better behaviour is forthcoming…in short, doing exactly what I am preaching against. The trouble is that punishment and reward are the easiest weapons we have to hand for conflict. The alternative to the domestic equivalent of sanctions – “No dessert” – means sitting down and talking things through, which is liable to bring up all sorts of reciprocal hurts, grudges, old grievances and a decent dose of hypocrisy being called out. And regardless of the ache of going through all of that, most people are just too rushed off their feet to have time to work through it.
But as any parent tired of punishing their child for the same thing for the hundredth time understands, it’ll only work as long as it takes for the foiled child to come up with something worse. In the case of a humanitarian crisis already about as bad as it is in Syria, that is not a logical consequence anyone wants to invoke.
* See Happy Children by Rudolf Dreikurs, or Positive Discipline by Janet Nelsen for this line of parenting philosophy