Corporal PunishmentMarch 8, 2009
The trouble with discussing corporal punishment in schools is that there are very few coherent moral principles that can be applied, specifically, to corporal punishment, as opposed to punishment in general. Ultimately it is almost a matter of aesthetics rather than ethics and we simply ask: “how pleasing, or displeasing, is the idea of teachers inflicting physical pain on students?” I tend towards the idea that corporal punishment does not fit with my idealised view of teachers as civilised academics imparting the fruits of their expertise, not as substitute parents. Routinely making physical contact with the young is normal in parents but should not be normal in academics; it is just a bit too familiar for me. For that reason I do not endorse the reintroduction of corporal punishment, or at least I’d like to see all schools using other sanctions effectively before we consider adding another sanction.
However, despite my opposition to corporal punishment, when I go anywhere near this issue I usually end up inciting the aggression of opponents of physical punishments, or rather those opponents who are Punishment Puritans: hysterical appeasers of the badly behaved convinced that everyone who disagrees with them about corporal punishment is some form of barbarian or primitive. (For instance see some of the posts here, where one teacher suggests that surveys about corporal punishment “should be used to find out who these evil perverts are then they should be ‘outed’ and humiliated”). I guess I find this sort of display objectionable because my opposition to corporal punishment is entirely based around my personal tastes regarding how teachers should be. I have absolutely no problem with parents or the police using corporal punishment on children. I don’t have any time at all for the main arguments used against corporal punishment, many of which are actually arguments against all punishment, and I find the sanctimonious rhetoric used by the Punishment Puritans deeply insulting to my intelligence.
Firstly, it is argued that it is wrong in principle to harm students. Obviously it is never simply phrased like that. Hyperbole is almost compulsory. Words like “child abuse” or “torture” are thrown around as if every teacher before 1987 was a cross between Josef Mengele and Fred West. Of course, this argument is worthless. Punishments are meant to be unpleasant, and so in that sense are always harmful and to suggest that children must never experience the unpleasant, no matter how much they deserve to, is to dismiss the possibility of justice. Punishment, even corporal punishment, is not, however, harmful in the sense of being against the child’s interests in the long term. It is harmful only in the sense that hard work, an inoculation or physical exercise is harmful. It is harmful only from the point of view of someone who thinks that it does one harm to experience anything other than immediate unremitting pleasure, regardless of the consequences. This is “harm” only to those who believe that children should be encouraged to be hedonists.
The next objection is usually the pacifist objection: corporal punishment is wrong because it is violence. Now it is quite clear that a large part of the British middle class have an attitude to violence that is akin to the Victorian attitude to sex. They refuse to acknowledge that it is happening, that it is ever necessary, or that it could ever be a good thing. I suppose this position is consistent with an extreme pacifism. There are people who have such intense pacifist convictions that if they had been around sixty-five years ago they would have suggested welcoming Nazi invaders and preached to Jews about how “passive resistance” was the best response to being exterminated. Of course, such people are fairly rare and so we instead have the self-righteous middle class version of pacifism. This involves pretending that all violence is unnecessary and unusual simply because it isn’t required at middle class dinner parties. This often leads to bizarre delusions about how the world operates. I have encountered people who claim that “in real life” (as opposed to school life) verbal abuse isn’t punished with violence; presumably they don’t get out much and have never gone to a football match or any bar that doesn’t mainly serve wine. Others have told me that the police don’t use violence; they simply “restrain” people where necessary, leaving me to wonder why they sometimes have batons, attack dogs and guns. Who knows what the chattering class pacifist thinks the armed forces are for? The fact is that our quality of life is protected by the willingness of people, particularly the armed forces and the police, to use violence. Prudishness can make one pretend that this sort of thing only happens among the swinish multitudes, while the middle-class professional can wash their hands of it all, but this is simple hypocrisy. No society can exist without some level of violence, or threat of violence, being used to keep order. Beyond that there is something frankly absurd about considering all “violence” as equally concerning. It reminds me of this:
The most ridiculous objection, one that again could be used against all punishment, is that corporal punishment didn’t work. Usually this is amplified by the claim that students would still behave badly when corporal punishment existed, or that some students would continue to misbehave after being subjected to corporal punishment. Of course, this is to return to the earlier discussion of the purposes of punishment. If the purpose of punishment is to make children into saints, or to deter all misbehaviour, then, of course, corporal punishment did not work. However, by this logic, every other punishment or any other method of dealing with poor behaviour also doesn’t work. Nothing we do can change human nature. Punishment serves not to eliminate sin but to increase justice by inflicting a penalty on those who deserve it. It is obvious that corporal punishment worked in this respect. Unless it didn’t actually punish at all then it would work by definition. Unless all children were completely indifferent to physical punishment, seeing it as a reward or something they felt completely neutral about receiving, then of course it worked. As well as this, given the extent to which corporal punishment has been used in the past and is still used in other countries it would only be the most arrogant of ideologues who could ever believe that it is never effective. The claim is all the more ridiculous when we consider how corporal punishment was abolished. It was not gradually rejected, a school at a time, due to its ineffectiveness. It was outlawed by the Government against the wishes of the majority of teachers and parents because it was creating legal difficulties because of how widespread it was. If it was ineffective, it would not have taken an act of parliament to stop its use. It had to be banned because it was effective, not because it was ineffective. No Government has ever showed any desire in general to outlaw the “ineffective” in our schools.
Finally the ad hominem usually appears at some point in this discussion. Sometimes it is connected with the arguments that have already appeared. Any one who advocates, or is not sufficiently indignant about, corporal punishment, is condemned as a child abuser, a violent brute or simply too unintelligent to understand that corporal punishment never worked. Sometimes the accusations are aimed directly at teachers who have used corporal punishment. It is claimed they were motivated by sadism or sexual perversion. No doubt there are some issues here, but they are issues about which parts of the body are appropriate to be struck, and whether men should be teaching teenage girls in the first place. A general claim about perversion associated with corporal punishment is not terribly credible on an empirical level, simply because of the extent to which corporal punishment has been and is used. (What proportion of the teaching profession in certain eras and countries are meant to have been perverted?) The other point to make here is that to punish children by methods that are only used on children, can never be perverted. It can be perverted to treat children like they were adults, which is why paedophiles have opposed laws that seek to distinguish between children and adults on grounds of age. It can be perverted to treat adults like they were children; some adults have a predilection for being caned by other adults or by being otherwise treated as a child. There is, however, no perversion in treating children like they were children.
There is one final argument. Sometimes the Punishment Puritans declare that “if they brought back the cane, then I would have no choice but to quit teaching”. It is at this point that I start to think that maybe bringing back the cane would be for the best after all.