For many people, it’s all about being tough as the only means to get results. Assuming a tough stance is for them the best way to command respect, display decisiveness, and reduce uncertainty. On the other hand, being “soft”, “fair”, “willing to compromise”, and “understanding” is often to deny reality, demonstrate insecurity and, in the end, accomplish little. Just “tough it out” and success surely will follow.
The toughness prescription has numerous applications. Authorities, for example, need to “get tough on crime” and “lock ‘em up”. Armed civilians, expanded police forces, the death penalty, maximum sentences, limited probations and pardons – that’s how to fight crime. In prisons it’s solitary confinement for hardened criminals with strict discipline and few privileges for all other inmates.
On the international scene tough words and firm actions work best. During the Cold War those “soft on Communism” got nowhere while the advocates of strength and toughness brought down the Russian empire. NATO, the Berlin Airlift, military buildups, nuclear stockpiles, intercontinental missiles, President Kennedy’s strong response to Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis – such toughness won out in the end. Diplomacy is effective only when accompanied by credible threats whether in the form of strong condemnation, sanctions, embargoes and, along with allies, rapid military mobilization. In foreign relations, the law of the jungle often prevails with the strongest and toughest getting their way.
Back home “tough” advice has long been associated with child rearing debates. “Tough love”, we’re assured, is best applied in most situations. Children ought not to be regarded as equals; their wishes, their objections need not be taken into account. Strong parental guidance, especially from fathers, is essential, together with a willingness to discipline youngsters who challenge their authority (“Spare the rod and spoil the child”). When it comes to schooling, tough standards must be prescribed and maintained. Homework is necessary for scholastic progress. Social promotion and grade inflation must be eliminated and disruptive students removed from classrooms. Tests must be frequent and challenging. Teacher authority cannot be compromised.
Tough policies must prevail in economic matters as well. Stringent, even painful austerity, measures should be undertaken to reduce the national debt and higher interest rates imposed when inflation threatens. Wage restraint needs to prevail in order to ensure American competitiveness and corporate profitability. Restricting, even eliminating, labor unions must be considered because they challenge the authority of management and artificially inflate costs and prices. Entitlements (including government programs and worker benefits) must be contained because 1. Costs are spiraling out of control, and 2. Recipients lose their incentive to work.
Tough types have always been with us although their numbers are likely rising in these uncertain and threatening times. With “toughness” they seek to reject and counter the many changes – economic, social and political currently rippling through our society (viz., the rise of women, minorities, gays, drug use, secularism, together with shrinking job opportunities, foreign competition and political polarization). Talking tough helps you draw the line, simplify complex issues, cling to “common sense” solutions, and oppose rapid and disruptive social transformation.
Acting tough certainly has its appeal and represents a stance long celebrated in America (“When the going gets tough, the tough get going”.) But does toughness actually resolve differences or merely encourage everyone to “stand their ground?”