by Peter Wells
Corporal punishment is a sickening and ugly procedure. Apart from the fact that one person is deliberately hurting another (usually smaller) at close quarters, it is often associated with anger, and even sadism. It is too often administered without reflection, too soon after a perceived offence has been committed. It is humiliating for the victim, especially if done in public, possibly causing lasting resentment and/or low self-esteem. It may encourage the development of violent attitudes among its recipients. The recent efforts to outlaw it are therefore humane and well-intentioned and, as far as they go, praiseworthy.
Unless, as in the case of Capital Punishment (q.v.), the alternatives turn out to be worse.
Let us look in turn at three loci in which corporal punishment has been used (and is now outlawed) in the UK: school, the home, and the criminal justice system.
As a teacher for half a century, I’ve given a lot of thought to how classes might be managed and children’s misdemeanours dealt with, and much has changed in that time. In the past, in addition to formal canings or beatings, administered by a headteacher or a responsible deputy, teachers in the classroom were given unofficial licence to strike children – which, as they were usually sitting in desks, meant hitting the part of the body most exposed: the head. Sometimes they threw things – chalk, if you were lucky. Aside from the obvious physical danger of this practice, it was inconsistent and suffered from flawed motivations. Teachers developed irrational hatreds for particular students, and therefore punished them with exceptional savagery. They were sometimes angry for some extraneous reason. The relationship between the crime and the punishment was ill-defined. I can remember dropping off to sleep in a warm classroom after lunch, and waking to find my head ringing from a blow, my spectacles broken on the floor beside me, and the red face of my French teacher a few inches from mine, roaring with rage. QED – it was a long time ago, and I still remember it vividly! And I particularly resented it because I was a keen student, who normally kept to the rules.
However, our revulsion at such treatment should not drive us to condemn corporal punishment wholesale. Punitive actions like these were not codified, reported, monitored, or carried out by properly trained and designated officers according to an agreed protocol. Arguably they were always illegal, being quite simply assaults. The comparison, therefore, should be between a transparent corporal punishment system, with provision for evidence and judgement, and trained officers to administer it, and whatever might be done instead.
When a child has stolen, cheated, lied, bullied, vandalised equipment, or disrupted a lesson, a bad situation has arisen. Whatever is done about it is not likely to be pleasant to administer or experience. If it is pleasant, it is unlikely to deter, but society rightly demands retribution and deterrence. The situation should, as far as possible, be prevented from recurring.
The first resort is to talk to the child, trying to discover why they have behaved as they did and persuading them to behave better in the future. This was done far too little in the past, but it does not really address the issue under consideration, which is, What do we do if talking doesn’t work? You can’t talk about ethics to a child, or send them to cool off, or put them on the naughty step, if they tell you to Fuck off, or kick you. The question is what to do when a child continues to oppose authority, and will not agree to apologise or reform, or even listen to advice or persuasion.
Here, traditionally, there have been a number of alternatives to corporal punishment. One is to make the miscreants write something, such as a long essay or letter of apology about their offending behaviour. This, it is alleged, will make the child think seriously about what they have done, and reduce the likelihood of re-offending.
However, I was an English teacher, and the idea of using a writing task as a punishment fills me with horror. My aim, like all English teachers, was to encourage a love of writing, which would create a virtuous circle – the students would write more, get better, enjoy it, write more, and so on. To turn writing into a punishment simply undid all I was trying to do – and the victims were usually the sort of disaffected students who were most in need of a positive attitude towards it. Would the games teacher condemn culprits to half an hour of football, or the music teacher recommend half an hour of music as a punishment?
The same goes for another traditional non-violent punishment: detention (obliging the offender to stay on the school premises for additional time, perhaps with an academic task). Again, the wrong message is sent. School is supposed to bring benefit to all children, especially those whose home circumstances make them particularly in need of that benefit. To use more of it as a punishment (and, contrariwise, to reward achievement and virtue with less of it) implies that the teachers secretly agree with disaffected pupils that school has no value except as a tool of control, being nothing but an imposition – a prison sentence for the crime of being young.
The worst substitute for corporal punishment, however, is done with the mouth. Deprived of their freedom to slap or otherwise injure recalcitrant children, many teachers resort to sarcasm. An accomplished mocker – a teacher who has acquired status and confidence – can punish and deter malefactors by holding them up to ridicule in public. While a clip round the ear does carry a slight risk of a permanent injury, sarcasm is much more likely to inflict lasting damage. It harms self esteem, and imparts a lingering resentment which can obstruct a child’s progress seriously – even terminally.
In view of these considerations, it might be worth asking if a properly organised disciplinary procedure, in which misbehaviour was assessed and a condign punishment devised, might justifiably include a painful blow or set of blows calculated to cause pain, but not permanent injury, administered by a properly trained officer not personally involved in the relevant incident. In a word (to use the British expression), caning.
A similar point might be made about discipline in the home. Deprived of the right to spank, parents, like teachers, have recourse to insults and verbal abuse – the worst being “Mummy/Daddy won’t love you if …”
There are many ways in which parents can harm children; as Philip Larkin remarked:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.They may not mean to, but they do. (This Be The Verse)