It has become the current fashion in politics, government, education, and international relations to draw “red lines” in an attempt to control the behavior of someone or something. At the present time our media is obsessed with drawing red lines around our schools, terrorists, North Korea and Syria. I don’t have a problem with meaningful controls on government, people, education or nations but I do have a problem with how we publicly draw “red lines.” We need to determine before, not after, the drawing of a line if indeed, “one red line can ever fit all” and possibly, although seemingly a lot to ask of our politicians, even consider the consequences of drawing that “red line” before it is drawn. It appears to me that too often we are doing the exact opposite, drawing ‘red lines,’ then changing our policies to fit them. Zero tolerance canards that afflict our society such as changing classical book titles to make them politically correct and not mentioning certain words while ignoring egregious behaviors are, as is the careless drawing of “red lines,” if not doomed to failure, doomed to a future filled by sterile environments where nothing new can easily grow.
Now it seems that nations are talking, pointing their fingers and drawing “red lines” around education, Muslims, Christians, and even nuclear weapons/nerve gas. Drawing hard and unmovable international “red lines” that attempt to affect or control other sovereign governments, no matter how evil that government may be, will most certainly lead to a lesson in the real time application of the “ law of unintended consequences.” .The act of publicly drawing, “red lines” around other nations or people is itself a little like touchdown dances in football games, because it is almost always the arrogant or the uncaring who draw the lines and do the dances. Apparently believing that they will always be the winner and always be in charge they feel free to publicly grind what they have attained or believe into the faces of others
Consequentially, in many cases the consequences of not paying attention to consequences can have serious consequences (sorry it got out of control for a moment). Iran, The Euro, The American Fruit Company, The American Civil War, North Korea, the war on drugs, test love, silence on Hitler all come to mind.
In most cases political and governmental “red lines” eventually become wedge issues, not open to compromise and therefore not open to continued thought and revision. Guns, abortion, corporal punishment, deficit spending, taxes, open meeting laws, immigration, Etc. are examples of things that we can no longer apparently discuss in civil discourse so instead our politicians resort to drawing “red lines” in Sharpie around the issues.
Three things almost always happen when we start drawing hard and unmovable lines. I learned this lesson from 8th grade students over the years. This is applicable nationally because I have come to believe that behavior of 8th grade students is often an almost perfect allegory for the way our government works so I’m thinking what works for 8th graders might work for politicians.
There are three things that will almost always happen when we draw absolute lines or create zero tolerance rules:
1. Someone who is largely or even completely innocent will trip over a carelessly drawn red line and the class (world) will then watch to see what you do about the infraction and judge your fairness and consistency based on how you handle it.
2. Someone who just doesn’t care about lines or the punishment that comes with crossing them will intentionally stomp on one, look you directly in the eye and dare you to do something about it and the class (world) will then watch you to see what you do and judge your strength based on your response.
3. Those who originally drew the line, when the consequences of enforcing it, or the political costs become clear, will re-draw the line in another place proving that the line never really existed in the first place and the class (world) will then believe that they must evaluate carefully your credibility.
There are other problems besides these that are associated with publicly drawing zero tolerance “red lines” but the end results of any of just these three and the others associated with thoughtless line drawing will in almost all cases be unfortunate.
Do I believe that some lines must be drawn? Absolutely but if they are drawn as absolutes then they must be absolutely enforced and as Shakespeare tells us, “Ay there is the rub.” Unfortunately in our world “red lines” drawn on a map, created as a dare, or politically motivated are quite like speed limit signs on the interstate highway system. Somebody is going to cross that line and in many cases defiantly. But there is a difference between speed limit signs, nuclear weapons and nerve gas. When you back someone or a government into a corner with a “red line” there are only two ways for it to end. Either the ‘red lined” party will acquiesce after making face-saving appropriate noises and accepting meaningful bribes or they come out of the corner in the only way they can, by attempting to or actually knocking you down and stepping on you. This is just as true of governments as it is of 8th grade students, if you don’t leave a face-saving way out for governments or 8th grade students there is only one possible alternative.
If we must draw lines they can be drawn privately between governments, believe it or not, in our society “open meetings” are possibly the worst possible method of solving serious problems. Policy created in open meetings tends to end up looking like a camel when they intended to design a horse. Our governments and leaders would be well served by learning to draw gray dotted lines , just as many excellent teachers do, by whispering in a student’s ear a clear list of behaviors and consequences without shaming them, challenging them publicly or “red lining” them into a corner.
Public line drawing will not change behaviors or solve problems, If life were a game of tennis, “red lining” would be an overhand smash at the net into the face of public opinion and as such must always be considered suspect no matter how profound the apology or justification given to the bloodied opponent or the fans in the stands.
I understand that some things deserved to be “red lined” because they are so dangerous and disruptive that we cannot tolerate their continued existence but I also believe that as Asimov tells us , “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” and I believe you could replace violence in that quote with “red lines,” and in too many cases today maintain its accuracy.
And yes I understand that I have just been guilty of ‘red lining”, “red lines.”