Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
I’m all messed up. I thought I understood the idiom “a carrot and stick” approach, but apparently the rest of the world has a different idea. See, I’m practical. I visualize things. I try to think of real-world applications and functions, and also the historical perspective. In short, when I think of a “carrot and stick” approach I try to imagine how a person might put it to use.
(I do have some pet peeves where language, usage, and idioms are concerned. I’ve been known to write haiku about them too.)
What the rest of the world sees — it would appear — is something like this, put bluntly: I offer you a carrot; if you won’t take it I start hitting you with a stick. Now you’re compelled to do what I want!
Here’s what I see, going back to an agrarian model, possibly from tsarist Russia: a lowly farmer has a wagon and a mule. He loads his wagon with produce to sell at market, but the damned mule, upon being hitched to the wagon, refuses to walk. Mules are stubborn, you see. Merely hitting a mule with a stick won’t do. Nor will offering the mule a mere carrot, which he will simply consume while standing there. Nothing accomplished. Ah, but our farmer is a shrewd peasant, a wily one. He thinks of a way, combining stick and carrot, that will get the mule to pull the load. He ties the carrot to the stick on a length of rope, then fastens the stick to the mule’s head so that the carrot dangles a few inches in front of the its snout. Low/behold, the dumb beast begins to walk, hoping to snag the tasty carrot only tantalizing inches away. Plus, the farmer gets to ride in the wagon.
The other way — the reward/punishment way — a farce of competing actions takes place. The mule takes a bite or two of carrot but will not walk. The farmer strikes his rump with the stick, causing a lurch and the loss of some produce from the wagon. The mule stops walking until another morsel of carrot touches his tongue. Progress is halting, and the farmer can’t ride in the wagon because he’s busy administering his moralistic deserts.
I think my interpretation is more sensible, but I guess the only way to know for sure is to ask a mule.