Punishment, Spanking, Violence–and Glowing Bananas

Punishment, Spanking, Violence–and Glowing Bananas July 14, 2011

I don’t own an intentionameter; besides blood, I don’t know what, exactly, runs through peoples heads and hearts; I cannot make universal or general claims about things that I lack close and intimate proximity to.

To complicate things further, when I use this or that word in a way that seems obvious to me, it will almost always appear differently to someone else—especially if that person is predisposed to disagree with me. From person to person, place to place, circumstance to circumstance: most of the time, our language varies according to intent, meaning, emphasis, experience, and so much more.

Language isn’t a fully reliable form of communication, but most of the time it’s the best thing we’ve got.

If this is true–and I think it is— then, when making certain kinds of claims, like Nathan’s recent claim that “spanking is not violence,” we have be careful. Very careful.

First of all, as I said earlier (and have repeated many times on this site), language is tricky. Trickier than most people realize. What is intended and meant by this or that word, even if the word is commonly used, is not clear to everyone. There is very little common ground, even among those who think they agree with each other and surely among those disagree.

Secondly, the proof is tough too. We usually make our assertions based on a narrow set of experiences and assumptions that are just as easily dismissed by those who have experienced and assumed from the other side of life.

Because of these and other difficulties, I usually try and stay away from these sorts of arguments altogether. When someone asserts “x is this” or  “x is not that,” I have learned to steer clear of the wreckage that will ensue. This time around, I have decided to go against my instincts. I’d like to try—and I only mean try—to unpack some key terms and show what, if any, general claims there might be, leaving the ones that cannot be made alone, in silence.

Don’t get me wrong: Nathan did point-out something important in his controversial post on spanking. Namely, that a knee-jerk and out of hand reaction against spanking as unjustifiable is misguided. Spanking need not be a form a violence in all cases, depending on what these words mean and convey to you. Surely, spanking cannot be made taboo in the abstract.

Unfortunately, Nathan is guilty of the same mistake he points-out by his equally hasty and out of hand assertion that spanking—in the very specific way he understands it, as it was taught to him be his parents, bracketing all the possible emotional and psychological preconditions—is not only justifiable, but good and loving. Nostalgic even.

In other words, both Nathan and his reciprocal critics are wrong in exactly the same way. They both appeal to platitudes and generalities that are equally ridiculous.

(WARNING: What follows below is pretty damn tedious.)

In what follows, I would like to lay out some clarifications:

1. PUNISHMENT – What the term ‘punishment’ refers to in ordinary language is usually synonymous with “just punishment.” Punishment can be complex, but these two things seem clear: (1) punishment must occur AFTER an offense has been committed. To be “punished” for something not yet committed (like in Minority Report) is pretty weird and unjust. The term ‘punishment’, then, refers to the thing that happens after someone has done something to deserve to be punished. In other words, someone must deserve to be punished by their own offense; someone who deserves to be punished is a person who makes themselves liable to be punished. To punish someone for something they do not deserve, for something they are not liable for, is not punishment in the sense I mean it here—it is abuse. (2) Furthermore, whatever punishment comes after an offense should be proportional to the original offense. Different offenses require different punishments in both quality and quantity. In short, punishment always comes after an offense and must be proportional to the offense committed.

2. SPANKING – In this context (as opposed to sexual experimentation, for instance) ‘spanking’ is usually meant to refer to a a very specific type of punishment. Notice that, at least by this definition, spanking is not abuse. Insofar as it is a form of punishment—i.e., that it occurs after an offense and is proportional to the offense—then spanking, in its generic sense, is not abusive. To spank, then, principally refers to a form of punishment, even when the details of what spanking looks like is still very unclear. At this point, the specifics of spanking get very blurry. Usually, spanking occurs within a custodial or parental context and is administered by an adult over a child. As simple as this may seem, it is very hard to generalize universally where those developmental boundaries begin and end. (Should children spank their parents when they misbehave, if it meets all the requisites of punishment?) Furthermore, the act of spanking is not uniform. In quality (e.g. force) and quantity (e.g. amount), a spanking can be very different and is never exactly the same. At this point we should see that it is easy for spanking to fulfill the first requite of punishment (to occur after the offense) but violate the second (to be proportional to the offense), like we see in this hilarious skit by Rowan Atkinson. There is also the other basic requisite: that the person receiving the spanking is in fact the person who is the offender. In other words, all we know is that, ideally, all spanking is punishment; but not all punishment is spanking.

3. VIOLENCE – In my opinion, the term ‘violence’ is not useful in this discussion, because it is being used as one of those throw-away, loaded terms that basically means something like “bad,” “wrong,” or “something I don’t like.” Of course there is a sense in which spanking is what is sometimes called “violent,” but, when spanking meets the most basic requisites of  (just) punishment, this become irrelevant. I don’t think the term ‘violence’ has any place in this discussion, pro or con.

After looking at what little has been laid out, I hope that you can see how few assertions can be made, what miniscule amounts of generalities these words can deliver. What is most important is what has not—and cannot—be said. Plus: these descriptions of terms leave out the events themselves, the actual moments when the things we call “punishment” or “spanking” happen and the rich complexities those realities contain.

Nathan has been very clear that his views have come through a very strong socialization from his own parents and other life experiences. But he has never been a father to a son or daughter. More importantly: he has NEVER spanked anyone. I think the real calculus he is driving at can only happen in the actual moments when punishment is needed and, because of proportionality, spanking becomes a potential option. The rest is wild speculation.

One final, parting story:

I don’t think I’ve ever been as disgusted and infuriated at my (then 3-year-old) son as the day I saw him pull our dog’s ears until Henry (our cocker spaniel) literally screamed in pain. He appeared to do it with cool, clear intention and didn’t seem disturbed in the least. I yelled at him to stop and I gripped his arm as tight as I could—I am sure it hurt, and I meant it to hurt. I sat him down, firmly held his face to look at me, and told him what he did was wrong. He was visibly terrified. I am sure the tears coming out of his eyes were tears of fear. I was clearly and unapologetically upset, furious even. I did not give him a calm explanation of what happened—I gave him a graphic description. I pulled his ear (this time with care not to do any considerable damage) and when he objected, I told him that that pain is the same pain he inflicted on our dog, his dog. I don’t feel any shame for doing that. I don’t think I taught him a lesson in perpetuating violence, even though there is clear-cut evidence that I simply replicated exactly what he was in trouble for. I think and hope he understood that animals feel pain like we do. Since then, he has never done anything like that to our dog or any other animal that I am aware of. Since then, I haven’t intentionally hurt him in that sort of way, although I am not averse to being very forceful with him in words and deeds when a point needs to be made.

What I did was truly violent in a certain manner of speaking and in another way it was not punishment (and I am not at all sure if it was a “spanking” or not): it was more than that, it was a lesson. This event cannot be judged from afar by spectators or pious observers of a generic, general code of parental conduct. Indeed, I cannot judge this from afar either, as my son and I grow and change I must continually reassess and prepare for the unknown along with the predictable.

Being a parent is risky, dangerous—and often dirty—business. Punishment is too. The perils of spanking, then, can only be judged from afar in very superficial and thin general ways. The rest we must leave to the thick, complex reserve of our judgement, our attention, and, hopefully, our love—and the grace of God.

Anything less than this is so far removed from what is actually at stake and so inattentive to the perils of language and assumptions, we might as well be arguing over glowing bananas.


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