I have been thinking that if it is true that one can give a dog a bad name and hang him, why can’t the converse be true? After all, repeating something over and over reinforces the impression — and it surely can work both ways. Also, how about substituting ‘person’ for ‘dog’, for the proverb is after all about humans and not dogs.
When a mother proudly tells her visitors, ‘Arun always shares his toys with others!’ it could make even the usually surly child happily share his toys because his mother believes he is sweet. Mustn’t he prove her right by sharing his toys?
Or, ‘I know you are going to finish your eggs in no time, not like that child we saw in the train who was troubling his mother so much!’ – could have the brat stop playing with his food, as he tried to recall the disobedient kid in question before gobbling up his breakfast in double quick time.
I guess such tricks mostly don’t work with even very small children these days, as children these days are smart enough to see through the praise. Some are even defiant enough to say, ‘No, I am a bad boy! I won’t share my toys/eat the food!’ – they have enough bad role models to admire and follow.
Psychologists would tell you that bad behaviour often denotes a craving for attention. This applies not just to children but also adults – especially those in public life – only the ‘attention’ here gets translated into ‘publicity’ which keeps them in the public eye. And in order to achieve this end they would go to any extent. A controversial statement before the release of their movie, a rumour about a scandal involving the hero or heroine, a sensational ‘breaking news’, tantrums and wild allegations as is being done by a certain losing politician in Delhi.….
Anyway, I am digressing from the topic in hand.
Coming back, there are some parents who constantly pull down their children in innumerable ways as a woman I used to know. Even while introducing me to her young boys, I remember her saying, ‘Aunty has two sons and both of them are brilliant. And look at you!’
I felt most embarrassed and angry – especially since I had not even told anything about my sons to her. And here she was destroying the confidence of those young boys or at least making them feel small in front of a stranger. Perhaps she thought she was motivating them to perform better. Even assuming they were not great students or whatever, this could have had the opposite effect. They might just decide that since their mother thinks the worst of them, there was no point in doing well!
If such is the case with children, adults are worse. They turn criticism into an excuse to be insufferable. I know of many people who say contemptuously, ‘I am a bad person, and I can behave as badly as I want! So there!’ They clearly are not under any pressure to prove their good credentials to the world and so glory in their notoriety. As I said, such anti-heroes often become popular and role models for children. Also, often rudeness is confused with honesty. So such people also take refuge under the guise of ‘honesty’ while behaving despicably and shooting their mouths off. The latest ploy is the bandy the term FOE (Freedom of Expression), never mind it creates loads of actual foes for them!
By demonizing and attributing all sorts of bad intent to a person’s words and actions, one is actually giving them the freedom to be those very same things. There is no motivation for the bad dogs to reform, for no matter what they do, they will be demonized and vilified and might even end up turning into criminals.
Of course this is not to say that offenders and corrupt people have become that way because they have been labelled as criminals and corrupt. Many are naturally that way and giving them the label of a ‘bad dog’ so to speak, just gives them the freedom to act as one.
Coming back to the question I had put at the outset, if condemnation can elicit a defiant reaction, don’t you think a reverse reaction is possible by giving them a good label? Of course, this can often be difficult, even impossible.
- ‘Even children can see through false praise;’
- ‘It is not possible to praise someone who is an acknowledged crook;’
- ‘Unless we point out the faults of the person, how will he reform?’
….all valid arguments. But by and large most children both small and big react positively, trying to live up to the virtues attributed to them. Of course, it is important to pick out a virtue that is worth praising, and believe me, all of us have loads of virtues if we just cared to look for them. No one is all virtuous or villainous. Why not focus on the good, and ignore the bad unless they are hardcore criminals? Experiments in jails even with such criminals have turned up encouraging results.
To prove this is possible, I am sharing this story about the South African tribe of Babemba. It employs a unique method to reform anyone who has committed an offence. The Babembans genuinely believe that the person has just strayed from his inherent nature of goodness and needs to be reminded of it.
So the whole village assembles in the square and surrounds the offender. And for two days everyone – including children – take turns to recall and recount every good thing the person has done, every virtue he has.
Now imagine the effect on that person sitting in the middle. He knows and the entire tribe knows he has committed an offence, and yet here they are – the entire village praising him! Ever so often we tend to forget the good deeds we might have done, and at other times we might have dismissed something as being a trivial thing. To have someone not only remember that and share it with the entire village can be a humbling experience. It can not only humble but also shame him to see how well he is regarded and how badly he has behaved.
So at the end of it all, after being bombarded by such positive feedback from the villagers, the person comes to the realisation: ‘But I am good!’
And with that kind of affirmation, he or she can’t continue being bad, can they? And the Babembas have brought back another person to his true nature of innate goodness. Is there any wonder then that the offender reconnects with his inner core of goodness or divinity and repents and reforms?
Come to think of it, isn’t this what our vedas say? That there is Divine in every living being and that when that Divine is exalted the life blooms and thrives? That we should look for it in every being? That the not-good in the being can be overcome by addressing this Divinity?
There is so much wisdom in our ancient cultures that we would do well to tap into them and incorporate them in our daily lives.