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Wooden Horse

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To govern simply by statute, and to reduce all to order by means of pains and penalties, is to render the people evasive, and devoid of any sense of shame.

Analects of Confucius

The other day, Mrs H and I were talking about people we know of our generation and their adult offspring, many of whom are now middle-aged.

What strikes us as odd, is how many of those offspring are making a mess of their lives, at least by our standards. Not a huge number of people and not disastrous messes by modern standards, but it is still remarkable how big a mess people can make of their lives.

Of course, a favourite media story is the person making a mess of their life. TV soaps and celebrity gossip are full of it, so this is fairly familiar territory for most of us. Yet we pretend that the adult world is basically well-adjusted even though it quite clearly isn’t.

Apart from endless anecdotes I’m not sure what we can say about it, but it does lead a chap to wonder if there is an effect created by too many laws and regulations, too much hectoring communicated too effectively, too frequently and too insistently. Maybe too much official emphasis on pains and penalties has made us evasive.

As B.F. Skinner said long after Confucius – punishment leads to avoidance behaviour. Well, it would, wouldn’t it? What are people avoiding as governments aim to reduce all to order by means of pains and penalties?

One obvious answer to that is self-awareness – hence the messed-up lives. We’re almost toying with a G.K. Chesterton kind of paradox here, but emphasis on personal empowerment has risen strongly during a marked decline in just that – personal empowerment. Maybe our modern emphasis on personal empowerment is the Wooden Horse, the escape attempt.


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