Extortion, blackmail a part of everyday life

16:00, Mar 15 2014

If you eat this plum, then you can have that Chupa Chup.

My house is corrupt. Extortion, blackmail, payoffs. These are our currency. We coerce them. Hold them to ransom. Carry out shady deals in the depth of the night. Dole out hush money left, right and centre.

If you don't do your spelling, you can't go on the PS3.

We bribe our children to finish their dinner, practise the drums. To not make a fuss. About anything. And that close friend of the bribe: the threat. We employ that, too. "Never use bribes or threats," instructs the website of that British wielder of the naughty step, the Supernanny. "Instead, let your kids know the negative consequences of their actions." But aren't sticker charts and ladders of doom (as endorsed by Nigel Latta) just fancy names and complicated systems for bribes and threats?

If you get dressed, brush your teeth, and put on your shoes without being reminded, you can have three Oreos in your lunchbox.

Last year a billboard was put up outside the Auckland Fairfax Media offices. It promised a $50,000 reward to anyone who was able to help solve the murder of Jane Furlong, a 17-year-old prostitute abducted from Auckland's seediest strip in 1993. In essence it was a bribe. The police were not calling upon the goodness of someone's heart to see justice done and bring peace to a grieving family. They were calling upon a baser instinct. Upon someone's greed.

If you hit your sister again, you're not getting your pocket money.

Bribery is systemic. It greases the wheels upon which society turns. The promise of riches gained or dangers faced is what spurs people to send chain letters on. I bribe and threaten myself on a daily basis. One more push-up and you can eat that afghan. Write 100 more words and you can stop for a cup of tea. Eat that afghan and you won't fit into those jeans.

If you sleep all night, you can have ice-cream for breakfast.

Even religion maintains its hold with a canon of bribes and threats. Twentyseven virgins await devout Muslims in paradise. Three Hail Marys before bed will purify your heart, mind and body. Worship at the feet of a false god, shagyour husband's cousin, lie to your boss about why you missed work and you're going to hell.

If you don't stay in your booster seat, that policeman will arrest you.

I recently read an article by the excellent Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead, about the American political philosopher Michael Sandel's latest book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. His premise is: "We live at a time when almost everything can be bought and sold. We have drifted from having a market economy, to being a market society." In other words, every human activity now has a price attached to it, and before making any choice our first question is, "What's it worth to me?"

Aitkenhead applies Sandel's thesis to her failure to toilet train her son using chocolate buttons. "Even to a toddler's mind, the logic of the transaction was evidently clear - if he had to be bribed, then the potty couldn't be a good idea - and within a week he had grown so suspicious and upset that we had to abandon the whole enterprise."

If you set the table every night this week without complaint, we'll buy you that hoodie.

Lately our parenting techniques have started to backfire on us. The kids have turned the tables. If you buy me that Monster High Doll, then I'll never make a fuss about picking up the dog poo again! If you don't let me have a sleepover, then I'm not going to tennis! Of course they are fruitless bribes and empty threats. Yet when the child you gave life to promises their undying love, or vows their eternal hatred, it gives you pause


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