"Tough times, tough people": the hidden fallacy

The USA, the majority culture on this board, is in some tough times. I think we can all agree on that. Many of us, in tough times, find meaning and guidance in the simplicity of old adages:

  • Tough times call for tough people.
  • When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
  • Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.

IMHO, however, people can, and do, often misunderstand and misapply the lessons of these truisms. Instead of understanding the trope at work - the subtle double-meaning of tough - they get the message that there is only one meaning: that the people should be like the times.

That’s the dilemma posed by the supposedly simple word tough. Tough can mean resilient, enduring, indomitable - or it can mean unforgiving, punishing, brutal.

Let’s follow the line of thought with a few of the old adages and see how fallacious it is. Here is what you get with only one meaning of tough:

*- Unforgiving times call for unforgiving people.

  • When the going gets brutal, the brutal get going.
  • Punishing times never last, but punishing people do. *

Here is what you get with two meanings:

*- Unforgiving times call for resilient people.

  • When the going gets brutal, the enduring get going.
  • Punishing times never last, but indomitable people do. *

Mere semantics? Not necessarily. Look at how people behave in a society like ours, which is so sworn to self-reliance, competition, and the market as the measure of all, and any of us can see examples of how tough times turn some people indomitable and others unforgiving. We’re deeply confused, and maybe - just maybe - it’s about those mere semantics: what we “know” it means to be tough.

An example is the popular phrase tough love. Does it mean resilient love, enduring love, indomitable love? It might imply those things, sure. But it’s used and understood quite differently. Not quite unforgiving love, brutal love, punishing love - at least not consciously. But a love that is not afraid of seeming brutal or punishing or unforgiving. A love that puts body and mind before heart and soul.

Such a love may be indispensable in situations where a loved one is hopelessly snared in addiction or criminality or their own brutality. I don’t question that. The danger is that tough love is the simple understanding of toughness: toughness with one meaning, not two. And all such understandings are seductive, and have the power to mislead. All potentially call us to believe that the solution is more of the same.

Think of that as a series of logical implications. Unemployed? Blame someone, or yourself. Depressed? Beat someone up, perhaps yourself. Beset by difficulties? Assume their full weight, without thought to your limits or what is best for you - or demand someone else do so.

No, of course no one would consciously admit to such advice. Even those who did would equivocate if called on it. But subconsciously - very near the surface of things, I think, in unforgiving times - is that call to be not just strong, but hard, hard enough to break things and draw blood.

The questions: Do we give in? Must we? When, and why? Or is the resilient and indomitable kind of toughness - the passive side, if you will - what is really needed?

I suspect too few people would even see both meanings of tough, let alone ask such questions.

What was the question again?

Say you’re unemployed and self-pitying. Do I impress the need on you to keep on keeping on with those resumés and fast food gigs, putting the keynote on self-respect and caring for yourself as much as possible? Or do I impose guilt and consequences because I care more that you’re breaking the rules of society than I do about what’s best for you - or maybe I don’t see the difference?

I actually don’t agree. A 9.6% unemployment rate isn’t desirable, exactly, but things really aren’t that bad.

Maybe, maybe not. But clearly many people think they are, and are acting accordingly. There is free-floating hatred and contempt for the unemployed, the underemployed, Gen Y, immigrants, etc etc - much of it masked as tough love. Is it honest? Is it helpful? Do we need more of it, or less?

The words I least associate with the word “passive” include “resiliant” and “indomitable.”

Are you actually proposing that we change sayings that have been around for years? Should we make it against the law to use those phrases?

Banning speech doesn’t work. But can you see how they might be seductive or misleading?

Nor do I. I said “if you will” - some won’t. Not a problem.

I do believe that some people can feel righteous about being cruelty because they associate toughness with the more outward (active?) qualities, such as punishing and being unforgiving.

I guess. But what would you like us to do about it?

What I like isn’t the issue here, but what will make people act more civilly and constructively to each other.

I believe speech is an act - that it has meanings that have consequences. I want us to have enough decency and sense to understand that we shouldn’t be mean-tough when what we really ought to do is be brave-tough.

I agree with the OP, except that I wasn’t aware that the aphorisms were widely misunderstood–that the different meanings of “tough” weren’t clear to most people. Possibly I have been giving too much credit; it wouldn’t be the first time.

There are always going to be simple-minded people. The difference today is that they’re smarter than ever - and still dedicated to simple, one-dimensional ideas. Such people are dangerous, especially when they begin manipulating the language to dumb down issues, debate, or culture.

I don’t know. And I’m not sure how widespread this problem is. (I never really thought about it before.) Like you said, we can’t ban phrases. We could try to educate people, but that seems like an uphill battle. There will always be jerks.

I suppose we could take them on one jerk at a time.

Each one teach one. Not a bad idea. The decent folks will have to pull their weight and then some, however. They’re badly outgunned in the public sphere, because people like noise and harsh words, not kindness and critical thinking.

If anyone’s interested, I posed a similar - and much terser - dilemma in this thread over a year ago. Some thought-provoking points were raised.

I then completely forgot the whole thing ever happened. Thus, this latest thread.

Compared to what some people have gone through–in generations past in the US, and in other countries right now, actually–we have it pretty easy. No way would I call this tough times.

I thought that was a good OP - certainly highlighted something I hadn’t thought about before.

It seems that we do default to mean-tough instead of strong-tough.

Isn’t the only option to lead from example? How does behavior look when its strong vs. tough?

I think real quiet strength is easy to ignore when hardasses are around yelling and kicking butt.

Even people who say they want to get down to “hard reality” have a fetish and need drama they will never admit to. They want to feel the smack and scrape, the hurt, or more often, they want to know that others feel it. Plain old fuddy duddy reality doesn’t teach a lesson. It’s got to be a slap in the face that scarifies and shames.

Leading from example ought to be the only option, but people are easy to scare, and once they scare, they tend to need more of it.

So - total non-issue? As long as we don’t have 25% jobless and McCarthy witch hunts and rioting in the streets, we shouldn’t wish for any better?

I know we aren’t in GD and you qualified with “IMHO”, but cite? Maybe I’m just seeing the world through my narrow lens, but I don’t there are many intelligent people who think one should be “mean” or “brutal” during rough times. I just assume that people have the same view that I have: that tough times call for strong, thick-skinned, resilient people.

I don’t see it as a dilemma as much as just another way the English language is weird. I would also argue that there’s some subjectivity with these words. Someone’s “resilient”–which has good connotations–could be someone else’s “stubborn”–which has bad connotations. Someone’s “brutal” could be perceived as “no-nonsense” by someone else. It depends on one’s perspective.

Tough times can also turn people into weaklings and self-defeatists, as well as those other bad things you mentioned. I guess I don’t see what’s the point in “pointing” that out.

But I’ll be the first to admit that philosophical discussions, particularly parsing about word-meanings, go right over my blockhead.

When I think of tough love, I get this image of someone shaking a wayward loved one by the shoulders and crying, “I love you to pieces, but this shit has got to stop right now!” Yes, it’s harsh…one shouldn’t use words like “shit”. Shaking someone by the shoulders can cause whiplash and can be considered borderline violence. But if that loved one is jacking up your credit to feed their drug habit, burning down the house because of adolescent foolishness, crashing cars and damaging property that you end up having to fix, and acting like a jerk to everyone, including you, what would you do? Embrace them with loving arms and say, “It’s alright, baby. I’ll take care of you.” Give us an example of how you would approach an actual “tough love” situation.

I really want to get what you’re saying here. But I just don’t. Break it down for me a little bit. What are we supposed to be doing? What are we doing wrong? Do you think people are being too mean and accusatory to the unemployed? I guess I see condemnation of laziness and self-defeatist attitudes (which often come across as whiny or overly-complainy), but I don’t see a lot of people going around blaming unemployed people for their situations. Not in this economy. It’s times like this when people who have gotten laid off and can’t find work get the MOST sympathy, because everyone else has either just experienced the same thing or is freakin’ afraid the same thing might happen to them.

People who are unemployed and show no interest in getting work have NEVER gotten any sympathy. And they never will. That’s not because the world is “tough” or “mean.” It’s because the well of sympathy is finite, and only a mother could love someone who voluntarily chooses a life of dependency and infantilism.

Is that a cruel thing to say? I think it kinda is.

But I don’t think people have been more cruel now than they were, say, five years ago. Do you think we’re in “meaner” times now?

If you are feeling real bothered about this, I would recommend doing something to up the “nice” factor of the environment around you. Thinking about how mean everyone is doesn’t really change things. Ghandi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Think of ways you can “be” and strive to become them.