What It’s Worth.

The Handsome Sidekick and I have been doing some painting and renovating this week. This involved removing our bath, repainting the bathroom and part of the dining area, and a whole lot of mess. It also meant that we’ve had to ask our Offspring to be patient. Sometimes they’ve had to wait an extra half-hour for lunch, or have wanted our attention when we were busy moving something. I’ve pleaded with them, praised them for waiting (not that) patiently, and tried to infuse them with enthusiasm for playing on their own outside–something they’re usually more than happy to do when I’m not rinsing out paint rollers, but which in this scenario becomes utterly inconceivable. When all else failed, I’d offer a reward: takeaway for tea, or being able to play a computer game, or chocolate or sweets.

They’ve been quite happy to take all these bribes (let’s just call them what they are, after all) but at the end of the day, it only works for so long, especially with the youngest two Offspring. After a time, the promises and the treats mean nothing. They just want Mummy and Daddy.

As I finished off the last of the paint before a late lunch, I thought about how we use compensation to make up for what we don’t or can’t give. Compensate… I found myself thinking about the roots of the word (Latin, if you’re interested, meaning to weigh together).  We compensate for something bad, by giving something ‘good’. It’s supposed to even the score and give balance. But there are so many times when it doesn’t. How can it? Our Offspring will accept some form of sugary compensation, but it’s not what they really want.

Is compensation ever what we really want? I often wonder about the sums of money given to those who have been falsely imprisoned, or harmed in some way. Out of court settlements, for example, are almost always monetary in nature. Financial compensation can be offered in lieu of an apology. But there is nothing which will bring back the years lost in prison or the injured body part. So why do we do it? Is there something else we could offer? Money seems so… nothing, compared to what we’ve lost.

I asked the Handsome Sidekick what he thought. ‘Well, it’s about deterring those who would do the harm in the first place, isn’t it? If we just allow them to apologise, then the people making business decisions might not take the risks as seriously.’

So we hit them at their bottom line. The chance they’ll have to pay if they get it wrong is a good incentive not to get it wrong. But as much as I think the Handsome Sidekick is probably right, I find that sad, if only because I think it cheapens the value we can have for things which can’t be bought.

However, money makes the world go round, after all. It’s hard to live without it, and generally speaking, having more of it makes life a lot easier. So I can understand why people would accept a pay-out, when the alternative is to have no money, and still have lost that for which they would be compensated. Yet what if we were to stand up, and simply say, ‘no’? That all the money in the world is not enough, and instead, we would demand that policies should be changed, or that attention should be paid to what went wrong in the first place?

As I prepared a hasty lunch, I was reading about a recent successful land rights claim by the Wulli Wulli tribe of Queensland. Their rights to the land now allow them to use the land for traditional and cultural purposes such as hunting, gathering, and fishing, and story-telling. In many ways, it is symbolic, given that these rights are non-exclusive, but the fact that it is a victory makes it a powerful symbol. And that is a positive step.

In the past, there has been a tendency to assume that Indigenous people could be given financial compensation for the use of their land–a practice which still continues, especially when it comes to mining rights. I’ve often thought this was such a difficult issue. Of course, I’m not arguing that traditional owners should simply have their land taken away from them, to be used by others in whichever way they see fit. But I’m not convinced that the playing field is always even, with some companies who want to use the land having very deep pockets and very well-paid lawyers to ensure a successful outcome for their employer.

I’m encouraged, then, when people stand up against what is now considered ‘the norm’, and argue that they simply won’t accept money in return for something, and that they want to instead challenge the system. As much as I think that compensation might temper an undesirable outcome, it’s at best an attempt to balance out sorrow, or loss, and at worst, a way of hushing the voices, of trying to keep people from getting what they really want or need. Eventually, just like when Fourth Offspring cries ‘I want you!’ while I hurriedly finish up a job, we might have to reconsider our priorities. And sometimes, that means money (or jellybabies) just won’t cut it, and we’ll have to make a change to our behaviour and our values instead.

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