Tit for Tat

 

Even though 87 percent of Americans consider themselves Christians, few dogmas are as pervasive or have as much influence in our culture as the aphorism, “If you do this, you’ll get that,” where that may either be a reward or a punishment—a carrot or a stick. Popularized by psychologist B. F. Skinner, behavior modification can be traced back historically to the law of retaliation — “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” — which is a perversion of an ancient Hebrew commandment prohibiting unrestrained vengeance.

So seductive is the “tit for tat” paradigm that we willingly entrust to its care our children, their education, our economy, labor-management relations, our social welfare system, our criminal justice system, our political process, and even our foreign policy.

Our basic strategy for raising children, teaching students, and managing workers, according to Alfie Kohn in his excellent book Punished by Rewards, involves dangling goodies (from candy bars to sales commissions) in front of them just as we do with the family pet. Kohn shows that “while manipulating people with incentives seems to work in the short run, it is a strategy that ultimately fails and even does lasting harm.” The more we use artificial inducements like money, grades, and other incentives to motivate people, the more they lose interest in what they’re being bribed to do.

Our entire economy is based on a complex set of incentives and disincentives administered by the high priests of Corporate America who manipulate and control millions of consumers and employees. Through high-tech media we are told what to buy, how much to pay for it, and when to replace it. Like Pavlov’s dogs and B. F. Skinner’s mice, we respond to the positive reinforcements served up by Corporate America—pretending all the while that we are super individualists still in charge of our lives.

 

Although managers trade heavily on the use of work incentives, labor-management relations in America have always been among the most confrontational and mutually destructive anywhere. Both labor and management employ a macho, zero-sum mind-set at the bargaining table in which each side perceives the other’s gains as a corresponding loss for itself and vice versa. Tit for tat is the rule, not the exception.

Many well-intended programs of our moribund social welfare system often breed dependency among recipients, reward immoral and irresponsible behavior, and punish innocent victims.

The underlying principle on which the American criminal justice system rests is revenge. Although the rate of violent crime is down in the United States, we still have the world’s highest homicide rate and the second highest incarceration rate—over 1.7 million people in prison. Over three thousand defendants await electrocution, hanging, shooting, or lethal injection on death row. How many more people must we imprison or execute before crime is brought under control in America? Are there no alternatives to our barbaric, bloodthirsty lust for revenge?

The American political process is firmly grounded on the tradition, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Since most of us think the same way, behave the same way, vote the same, watch the same TV programs, and visit the same Internet web sites, we are easily jerked around by politicians who use expensive media campaigns to pull our strings. We call this democracy.

Nothing better illustrates our commitment to tit for tat than our foreign policy. American demands for reparations by Germany after World War I played right into the hands of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. World War II paved the way for the Cold War, since Stalin had unresolved issues with Germany and Japan. Our 45-year policy of confrontation towards the Soviet Union cost us nearly $13 trillion.

For nearly 40 years the most powerful nation in the world has been trying unsuccessfully to teach Fidel Castro a lesson. How many more times must we bomb Iraq before Saddam Hussein learns his lesson?

To help keep the Arabs at bay, we provide Israel—one of the few countries whose zest for revenge exceeds our own—with nearly $5 billion annually in military aid.

As one of the most violent nations in the world, our attraction to war and military solutions to problems is nothing new. Our penchant for intergroup violence—ethnic, racial, agrarian, frontier, religious, and industrial—is without equal. Americans have always turned to violence when provoked by either domestic or foreign enemies.

Not surprisingly, America’s foreign trade policy rests entirely on quid pro quo. However, the United States is unique in its use of trade sanctions to impose its political will on countries such as China, Cuba, North Korea, and the former Soviet Union.

But trying to sustain a national carrot and stick philosophy is a lot like trying to play God. Playing God is difficult business, since it involves assuming a great deal of responsibility. As Christians, maybe we have become increasingly uncomfortable with an ideology which is so antithetical to the teachings of Jesus Christ who said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” not “Do this and you’ll get that.”

Maybe that’s why so many Americans are so anxious, so unhappy, so cynical, and so stressed out about so many things. Perhaps it helps explain why in spite of unprecedented economic prosperity, 57 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, 67 percent think the United States is experiencing a long-term moral decline, and less than 49 percent of the electorate turned out for the 1996 election.

Perhaps our angst stems from the fact that we want it both ways, and we haven’t a clue as to how to reconcile tit for tat with the Golden Rule. Therein lies the rub.

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