Don't Trust Anyone Who Says They'll 'Get Tough' On A Problem
There are a lot of phrases in politics that we can see right through thanks to their obnoxious frequency. For example, when a politician relentlessly goes on about "traditional values," you know their dick pics are piling up on at least one intern's phone. But one cliche people still fall for is a politician's promise to "get tough" on some problem or another. This two-word phrase is almost impossible to argue against (who wants to be weak on an issue?), yet almost always means something bad is about to happen. You see ...
"Getting Tough" Can Only Ever Mean One Thing
First, here's what "getting tough" doesn't mean: doing whatever it takes to fix a problem as quickly and effectively as possible. What it does mean is that we are going to deal with the problem as harshly as possible, even though that is rarely the most effective solution. It's not a promise to fix something, but to inflict harm.
So when Donald Trump praises the Italian prime minister for being "tough" on immigration, we know exactly what he's referring to: stricter border security, harsher treatment of anyone crossing said border, and more deportations. In short, A) what we're already doing but MORE, and B) more cruelty. If policies like that mean some children end up dying or being abused, that's just the price of "getting tough."
And if we believe that there might be a better solution than jamming kids into places that look like the basement from Silence Of The Lambs? Too bad, we've already predefined what "getting tough" on immigration means, so any alternative that any politician even begins to suggest is therefore the opposite, i.e. "weak."
Nowhere is this more glaring than the time-worn concept of "getting tough" on crime. Larry Krasner, the new district attorney of Philadelphia, explained this in an interview: "[T]hat narrative ... which is if there is a crime spike, then the progressives are out, doesn't seem to apply to conservatives. Somehow, all that they do is respond to a crime spike by saying what they've always said, which is, 'We're gonna be tough on crime.' And they're okay."
In other words, we only know how to talk about fighting crime in one way: by declaring that we need to get "tough" on it. And if we do that and crime still increases, then clearly that means we need to get even tougher. We've backed ourselves into a corner where the only acceptable rhetoric for addressing the problem automatically means one thing, so we only ever try one thing. Relevant Simpsons screenshot:
The irony is that anyone like Krasner, who wants to eschew traditional "get tough" measures for a more rational and effective approach, is in fact doing something extremely tough: standing up to deeply embedded dogma that causes us to lash out at anyone who fails to follow the same crime-fighting blueprint as the Punisher.
Both Sides Love The "Get Tough" Bit
This is hardly a liberal vs. conservative thing. Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign was calibrated to combat the perception that Democrats were too "weak" on crime. He routinely blasted George Bush for not being tough enough on crime, and he passed a sweeping bipartisan crime bill in 1994 to cement that reputation, which included $9.7 billion for prisons, a mandatory life sentence for three-time offenders, and an expansion of death-penalty-worthy offenses. It was the equivalent of shouting, "A SMALL PENIS, HUH? WOULD A DEMOCRAT THIS TOUGH ON CRIME HAVE A SMALL PENIS?"
The effects of the bill have been roundly criticized, with even Clinton himself admitting that he regretted some of it in 2015. But the point here isn't what the deal did, but that Clinton (correctly) identified the Democratic Party's perceived weakness on the issue and responded by doubling down on being "tough on crime," relying on rhetoric and legislation that wasn't really distinguishable from that of his opponents -- more prisons, longer sentences, making prisoners suffer, etc.
Likewise, foreign policy discussions are virtually nothing but vague debates about toughness, regardless of who is in charge. The average American almost certainly doesn't grasp the detailed specifics of tariffs or sanctions on countries we absolutely can't name the leaders of, but what we do know is that we want our president to be tough about it. Tough on Russia, tough on China, tough on North Korea, you name it. What does getting "tough" entail, exactly? No one gives a shit as long as it involves some kind of vague notion of harm and/or intimidation. It's definitely not a matter of smarter diplomatic relations that work toward some kind of mutual benefit.
Obama's deal with Iran? Not tough enough, scrapped it. Trump meets with Kim Jong-un? Wasn't tough enough on him, based on how he was roundly mocked on social media. Trump sure talked tough, with all that "unleashing fire and fury" stuff, but when it came time to meet face to face? Didn't start World War III AT ALL. Weak. WEEEEAK.
And we already know that liberals apparently want a president who angrily sneers at Putin throughout their entire meeting, because that's tough and presumably effective-esque. We also know that there is no such thing as a transaction in which both parties benefit -- like, say, if one country wanted food in exchange for money, and another country wanted money in exchange for their food. No, everything is a war, everyone is either a winner or a loser, and the winner is the one who got TOUGH.
Popular Culture Isn't Helping This Shit
Pop culture is fun because it shows us the world the way we wish it was -- which by definition means the world isn't like that, but then the fantasy becomes so pervasive that we come away thinking it totally does. We want to believe that even complicated problems can be solved by the right amount of punching, so 95 percent of our movies and TV series show us a world in which that's how it works, and then we all grow up expecting the same out of real life. The caveman part of our brains wants "getting tough" to work, so we sit around and tell each other it does.
That's why blockbusters routinely feature plots that contrast out-of-touch, say-everything-but-do-nothing bureaucrats with our protagonist, a badass DOER who finally takes some motherfucking ACTION. Braveheart? He's tired of these wormy nobles squabbling over useless shit like "laws" and "treaties." He knows that bursting into a guy's bedroom, smashing his face with a mace, then jumping out the window onto a horse is the only way anything ever gets done in this world. It's literally how Amazon was founded.
Every cop movie is about one guy or two partners breaking orders from their chief and the entire corrupt freakin' SYSTEM to get RESULTS. Air Force One is the story of a president who FINALLY gets shit done, breaking Russian Gary Oldman's neck with his own parachute straps. At the end of The Untouchables, Elliot Ness is about to arrest Frank Nitti, then has second thoughts and triumphantly chucks him off a roof instead. All of this is way more satisfying and way more immediately gratifying than, say, a movie wherein some DA breaks down a line graph of the taxpayer cost per inmate of nonviolent offenders.
Making laws is boring. Seeing the effects of those laws is boring and abstract and takes forever, and it looks awful in widescreen. Big rooms of government officials talking about problems is always movie shorthand for "talkative cowards who are too afraid to take REAL action." Thus, it really is hard to imagine a group of politicians or UN ambassadors talking about reducing carbon emissions as "being tough" on anything ... even though in reality, they're standing up to some of the most powerful groups that have ever existed on earth.
At Some Point, The Cult Of Toughness Serves Only Itself
Maybe the weirdest and worst part of all this is that even if we offer hard evidence that you can, say, more effectively fight crime with better schools, jobs, and mental health services, that would still get rejected by a certain chunk of the population because that's not "getting tough." In other words, getting tough is its own goal. It's like the crime-free future of Demolition Man, which is treated as a dystopia because in the course of creating their peaceful Utopia, they'd lost their toughness. Who wants that?
It's a dumb, destructive, self-sustaining cycle in which we all congratulate each other for giving in to our most mindless impulses. This is a problem, because it turns out we live in a complex world in which it's actually common to encounter problems that cannot be resolved with a thrown brick. We need to untether ourselves from this inherent bias in our discourse whereby we've all collectively accepted that the only sign of political courage is a promise to do more of the same, but angrier this time.
If you think you're so tough, get a set of watercolors and prove it.
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