The Case for Being Tough

Is being intolerant of bad behavior an underappreciated virtue?

Posted Jan 14, 2020

Flickr, CC 2.0
Source: Flickr, CC 2.0

Previous posts in this occasional series on values and virtues include one that invites readers to place themselves on 12 continua, and one each on virtues that are tough to live by: discipline, hard work, and responsibility.

Today’s post integrates those three: It makes a case for toughness. It's potentially applicable in the widest range of contexts, as I'll try to demonstrate.

Of course, a strong argument can be made for erring toward kindness rather than toughness. For example, much of human failing isn’t purely volitional but is at least partly the result of constraints such as genetics, upbringing, peer influences, socioeconomics, physical health, mental health, and yes, luck. So, it’s understandable that kindness tends to be, at least among the educated, touted over toughness. We praise the gentle, the merciful, and the person who modulates their on-the-merits toughness in light of the aforementioned factors. We may not always walk our talk, but kindness is what tends to get venerated.

But perhaps under-considered is whether being tough on others and on yourself can be a defensible foundational principle; that is, justice over mercy, prioritizing high standards and imposing substantial consequences for unreasonably not meeting them. Here’s an admittedly not-dispositive case for that. This post's core purpose isn't to turn kindly readers into tough guys. It's merely to encourage fuller-dimensioned identification of your foundational principles, including those that go beyond conventional wisdom.

Of course, toughness shouldn’t descend to meanness nor to excessive demands or punishments. Here are examples of where reasonable toughness’s advantages may be under-considered:

Irresponsibility. Nearly everyone is disappointed if not downright annoyed when people don’t respond to their email or voicemail. Yes, the recipient is probably busy and yes, that unanswered message probably isn’t the person’s highest priority, but it is irresponsible and rude to not respond, say within 24 or at most 48 hours, even if only to say, “Swamped. Get back to you in a day or two.” Of course, every situation is different, but it’s often wise to be tough although not mean with such a person. After say 48 hours, you might send an email with the subject line, “Following up.” The text might simply read, "I sent this two days ago and am disappointed you haven’t responded.” Not only does that make clear that you feel you deserve more respect, it sends a message to the person that may encourage more responsible behavior with you and with others.

Another example of irresponsibility: A person promises you something, perhaps by a certain date. But s/he fails to keep the promise. “Nice” people tend to ignore that and say, for example, “It’s OK, I understand.” But both to prevent the person from doing it again with you and others, you might say, for example, “You promised you’d do X by Y date. I’m disappointed. Is there anything I’m not understanding?”

One more example of irresponsibility: a domestic partner who refuses, if only passive-aggressively, to hold up their half of what the partnership requires, such as income, parenting, and other domestic responsibilities. The partner who accepts weak excuses pays too big a price to their own life and reinforces the other partner’s irresponsibility.

Light sentencing. We denigrate judges who mete out maximum sentences as “hanging judges.” Too often, that denigration insufficiently considers the tough judge's benefits to society. Given the 68% three-year recidivism rate, keeping convicts off the street longer saves innocent people from violent crime, financial crime, and dangerous drugs. Can a community be better off with a meth dealer back on the street sooner?

Too-lax parenting. Of course, expert consensus is that corporal punishment is always wrong. And some children are so compliant by nature that being tough on them is foolish. But for the average and especially for the dangerously misbehaving child, firm limits with consequences is usually a wise antidote to likely metastasizing bad behavior. Most obvious is the teen who is abusing drugs. The wise parent is tough: Of course, the foundation should be set by trying to understand the basis of the abuse; for example, the teen feels that life isn’t worth caring about. Also foundational is discussing your hopes and fears for your child. But that usually need be supplemented by toughness: setting firm limits, which may include random drug testing, firmly enforced restrictions for bad behavior and rewards for good.

Ignoring poor performance. Whether it’s a family member, coworker, supervisee, or home repairer, kind forgiveness may well encourage future bad behavior. Sure, there are times to let things slide, but often, it’s wise to express disappointment in a person’s poor work, and in the case of a supervisee, after a few chances to improve, to terminate the person. The chances of improvement are usually smaller than of finding a more worthy replacement. And when you replace the person, everyone benefits: the more worthy person who gets hired, the coworkers who get to work with them, and the customers who, if only as an indirect result, get a better product or service. Even the terminated person benefits: Letting them slide only reinforces their bad behavior and discourages the person from finding better-suited work.

Another example is grade inflation, which has dramatically accelerated in recent decades. This, of course, punishes students who truly deserve a good grade and rewards those who don’t. Also, that may be a root cause of procrastination: The student waits to study or to write a paper until the last minute and lo-and-behold, gets a good grade and so subsequently waits until the adrenaline-fueled last minute. Soon, slipshod, last-minute work becomes the person’s norm and s/he suffers the professional and personal toll of being a procrastinator.

Dishonesty. We live in a marketing-laden world, rife with hype, manipulation, deception, and withholding of material minuses. Maybe that's one reason we seem to be accepting a larger degree of dishonesty. For example, a salesperson hypes a product, we buy it, and it doesn’t live up to the hype. We too often just shrug. A tough but fair approach would be to return it along with a complaint about the salesperson to his or her boss. As with the previous examples, that sends a message that dishonesty has consequences. To ignore it is to reward the salesperson: They have unethically taken a step toward the sales quota.

More serious dishonesty is when romantic partners agree to be monogamous and one cheats. That's so prevalent as to often be seen as normative. But cheating's price is high. It’s not just that it’s sex, nor the risk of sexually transmitted disease. It's that an affair often reduces the partner's willingness to work on the relationship, indeed it threatens the relationship's existence. I’m not saying that cheating is automatically a reason to end a relationship but a tough response, such as “end it or we’re done,” is often appropriate.

Even far less consequential, dishonesty often shouldn’t be tolerated, lest it continue or worsen. I recall a guy who regularly showed up for pickup basketball and he would often insist that his team’s score was higher than it actually was, and worse and dangerous, he'd deliberately foul players, knowing that in street-yard basketball, there’s no penalty (free-throws) for fouling. I want to be honest with you. Looking back, I wish I had been tough on him early on, nipping the problem in the bud. I should have pulled him aside, called him on it, and told him that if it continued, I’d embarrass him by calling him out in front of all the players. But I kept quiet and just chalked him up to being one of life’s small iniquities.

The takeaway

Again, of course, undue toughness is as indefensible as is undue laxity. But because society, especially educated society, tends to, at least publicly, value kindness over toughness, I offer this as a counterpoint. So, do you want, in at least one context, to be tougher? Or even to make toughness one of your foundational principles?

I read this aloud on YouTube.