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Angels and Demons

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 13 April 2021

This is not a critique of Dan Brown's best-seller, or of the film of the book. Rather it is an exploration of the twin forces that drive us, and drive any collectivity to which we belong. It is connected to the paired notions of 'tough-minded' and 'tender-minded'. It comes from a lengthy discussion I have been having with my elder son on our Saturday drives in the bush. And it provides a useful lens through which to view our politics and the society we are part of.

I'll start with tough-minded and tender-minded, categories that the 19thcentury American psychologist and philosopher William James originally applied to philosophers. Well over a century later, the terms can now be used about anyone. What do they mean? Well, it's plain enough from the words. Tough-minded people like 'facts', and they are materialistic and pessimistic. The tender-minded rely on principles, and they are idealistic, dogmatic and optimistic. They are also likely to be religious, whereas the tough-minded are not. You've probably come across these terms anyway - they are in common usage today. In politics their use is obvious. The tender-minded agonise about our failure to get on with one another. 'Why can't we sort out our problems with China?' they will say, as though there must be a recipe for such a sorting-out. The tough-minded will look at the numbers, and come to favour one China policy or another, according to how they see the data. They will be gloomy about the prospects.

The tough-minded see self-reliance as crucial in the shaping of one's life, and when they are successful they rather look down on those who have not done the same. The tender-minded quickly see how circumstances beyond anyone's control can affect their capacity to do well, so they are always looking to 'government' to sort things out. For the tough-minded, 'government' is often the problem and rarely, if at all, the solution to anything. Labor has more than its fair share of the tended-minded, the Liberals a comparable share of the tough-minded.


And we ourselves are usually a mixture, which takes me to angels and demons. Nearly all of us, nearly all the time, want to do the right thing, and help others, if we can. That's the angel side. But threaten us, or our family, or something we hold dear, and we will resolutely fight against the threat. The demon side will come out. We are capable of both, and so is our society. We Australians don't admit refugees unless they come from approved refugee camps. We turn boats around. Why are we being tough-minded here? Because uncontrolled immigration is seen as a threat to our society. So we have stern governments, opposed by a lot of tender-minded protesters who focus on the problems of the refugees/would-be immigrants and not on the real difficulties of running a sensible immigration system. Actually, we do take in a lot of refugees, and far more, given our population, than most other countries. That suggests two things, first, that both sides of politics see the need to help, even if in a tightly controlled way. There is not much difference in practice between Labor and Coalition governments in this area. Second, no country has an open-border immigration system. Even Germany's Angela Merkel has admitted that her inclusive policy towards refugees was a failure.

Now Australia is a prosperous society with a strong basic wealth that almost all share to some degree. For that reason very many Australians want to help others, and are able to do so. We have a high proportion of volunteers in our society, and by and large they work to help others less fortunate. Of course, if they've had a death in their family from an unknown cause they may well volunteer their time and money to find that cause. The point is that a decent level of shared wealth brings out a lot of tender-minded behaviour. If your country is dirt-poor, however, most people are scrabbling just to stay alive and feed their family. I have attached a video of trains running through suburban alleyways, tiny passages, rail alignments that would be impossible in Australia. We have no need of such railway lines, and would not allow them if somebody wanted to build one. To observe these trains in action is almost shocking. I don't know which countries they are in, but they illustrate the point: you need a decent level of shared wealth in any society to encourage tender-mindedness. Poor=tough.

Well then, you say, what is to be done? Both the tough-minded and the tender-minded would agree that raising these people out of poverty is an important first step in giving them a decent society, where their basic needs can be met. The tender-minded see the real contributor to this process as being government, or the UN, or some other entity that could have the power and the resources to effect the change. But the governments of poor countries don't have much money, and in the case of the trains, finding a pathway, so to speak, for transport is just more important for the generation of wealth than getting rid of the slums and putting in sensible urban planning. There are a lot of poor countries, and not much in the world's piggy banks for slum clearance and urban renewal. There's a lot of hand-wringing here, along with the angel of mercy.

For the tough-minded that's the way life is. Yes, these poor people need all sorts of things, but Australian aid is not the solution. In any case, we know from experience that giving financial aid to poor countries means that a lot of money disappears into private pockets. Better let the locals sort it out themselves. In any case, they are no threat to us. The difficulties multiply. Shouldn't we be starting with birth control, so as to control their population? Some people are opposed, and maybe birth control is not part of the local culture. Just providing them with food isn't going to deal with the underlying problem: they are short of almost everything that contributes to a good life. For the tough-minded, it's their problem, not ours. Here you see a bit of the selfish demon.

These contrasts are built into our political system. Where do they come from? Some argue that the tender-minded remember the grooming of their mothers, while the tough-minded were shaped by their fathers. But plenty of women are tough-minded, and what about tough principals of girls schools? There are many stories about how they shaped their students to be independent, self-confident and courageous.

All in all, it's a fascinating but utterly complex aspect of our politics. Readers might ask themselves where they sit on this spectrum (if you can sit on one). I am generally tough-minded on matters economic, but tender-minded on most questions in the social realm. That makes me a funny mixture. What about yourself?

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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