Columns

Corporal punishment is violence, gets us nowhere and is actually counter-productive

KEEBLE McFARLANE

Saturday, December 15, 2012    

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I notice, ruefully, that we are once again in the middle of a round of nonsense about the purported need and the claimed benefits of beating children to enforce discipline. The proponents of what amounts, purely and simply, to violence and even abuse, advance the hoary old arguments about spoiling the child by sparing the rod. None of these protagonists can advance a single convincing argument showing any lasting benefits from beating children who refuse to toe the parental line or for not measuring up to education requirements.

We are all familiar with the philosophy and application of the practice, but it is a hollow argument, rather like the concept of using torture to extract information from spies and political prisoners. Even some of the leading practitioners of that dark art, like the various US military and espionage agencies, have come to understand that a person will tell you whatever he or she thinks you want to hear just to stop the application of discomfort, terror or pain in any of its multiple and ghastly forms.

Inflicting pain on children may actually deter them from particular courses of action, but it tends to leave residues of resentment and hostility which, over time, can manifest itself in unpleasant and damaging ways. Do any of these proponents of anti-child violence ever wonder where the present-day crop of callous young people come from? Do they ever look at the underlying forces which propel these young gun-wielders who mercilessly "make duppies"? Do they never make the connection to the back of a hand swiping a six-year-old's face for some minor misdemeanour? Do they never connect the dots from routinely thrashing a 10-year-old boy for bad manners to him never going out without a sharp knife to inflict grievous bodily harm on others?

I am from a generation which received our share of licks from leather straps, switches made from the branches of whatever bushes happened to be handy, or even the odd piece of slender sugar cane. Like the majority of their generation, my parents genuinely believed in that old regime but did not practise it with enthusiasm. Instead, they employed other methods of discipline, mostly by themselves setting examples of what desired behaviour was. Like those held by the governor-general, the strap was a reserve power and more useful as a deterrent akin to the nuclear bomb.

I recall as a boy of perhaps eight years old attending a small private school in a western parish. The lady who ran the school in her house was a long-time denizen of "government schools", as primary schools were then known. Miss Eva was skilled at imparting grammar, arithmetic or geography, but the handy strip of tanned cow hide was always at hand to enforce any lapse of discipline, real or discerned.

And as she brandished it towards her terrified charges, she would intone ominously: "Ah gwine beat outta you what you don't eat!"

The last government school I attended before going on to Kingston College was in Duncans, where the principal, Teacher Ranglin, would often engage all the classes in the main room in a sing-song. He was a raconteur who liked to regale us with intriguing stories about odd people. But Teacher Ranglin was a firm supporter of the strap. He employed it whenever he felt some child had strayed from the correct path. The strikes were normally administered to the child's open hand, on the theory that this was where the least damage was likely to occur. But sometimes he would lash out, quite literally, and the strap landed wherever it may. I recall one incident in which a boy was given a thorough thrashing for some infraction of the rules which I have long forgotten. His back was so sore than his shirt stuck to the skin. The next day he came to school with his mother in tow to have it out with the teacher, demonstrating that even people who believed in corporal punishment knew the difference between discipline and abuse.

At Kingston College, the staff displayed a kind of conflicting concurrence on the matter of physical punishment. The underlying motive of the school was to produce gentlemen, and they encouraged us to behave as such. But whenever a boy misbehaved, he was ordered to the headmaster's office on the principle that he was being treated like a child rather than a gentleman. For part of the time I was there, the redoubtable Percival Gibson was still headmaster, to be replaced by long-time associate Douglas Forrest, after being promoted to be Lord Bishop of Jamaica. "Priest", as the boys called Gibson, and "The Doug" or "Dougs" as Forrest was commonly known, were the authorised caners. When you reported to the office, you had to explain why the teacher sent you there. Depending on how either man felt, you could either get "six of the best" (six strokes of the cane, administered in the palm of the hand), or made to sit on a chair in the office stewing until he decided you had enough.

One teacher, Eric Frater, used creative methods to enforce discipline in his biology lab, where he preferred to hold his classes rather than going to the featureless classroom. In the lab we sat on stools at instrument-laden benches facing in different directions, instead of all facing the front as in the classroom. Frater had a habit of playing with a large sea stone rounded by the ceaseless pounding of the waves as he walked along giving the day's lecture. If his eye caught someone not paying attention, he would throw the stone at the offending party while calling out "Jones - Catch!" Needless to say, he had very little trouble maintaining discipline.

What I cannot understand is how a society which was formed in the most brutal conditions is still so brutal. Thousands of hapless West Africans, most of whom had never seen the sea, were herded into the bellies of ships where they had to lie in their own vomit, urine and faeces as the vessels rolled and pitched in the stormy Atlantic waters, and were routinely flogged.

Life wasn't much better when they reached land. The lash was a constant threat and any slave who escaped and was caught would be confined in crude iron contraptions which inflicted pain if the wearer made any but the most restricted movements.

You would think that people with those antecedents would turn in revulsion against any kind of violence. Instead, we have ended up with a nation which has almost universally embraced that culture of violence and employs the expressions and techniques of the missionaries who followed the landowners to inculcate them in the primitive and punitive concepts of crime and punishment enshrined in the Old Testament.

Finally... no, I didn't pay him! In fact, I don't even know who Fred Barnes of Baltimore, Maryland, is, but I thank him for his kind letter in these pages this week. His praise was fulsome and I have to confess that I don't really deserve it. I'll take it anyway ... it certainly tastes better than the alternative!

keeble.mack@sympatico.ca

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