A conflicted Society – Psychology VS Punishment

A conflicted Society – Psychology VS Punishment

A swat is good for a kid, teaches ‘em right from wrong. This has been accepted wisdom for many, many folks for a very long period of time: punishments teach.
Abuse damages people – this has probably been accepted by fewer people, and also for fewer centuries.
Can we think both these things? That is to say, is there a place in our minds for both of these . . . functions? Is there room in our society for these opposing apparent effects we see as resulting from what are perhaps closely related causes?
Psychology and the naming of the ravages of abuse have the potential to change the world in unimaginable ways. The symptoms and unrealized potentials that so often follow in the lives of the abused are a scourge the vastness of which cannot be overstated. The only measures of it that approach the truth are our wonder and appreciation of those who somehow manage to overcome, as well as our appreciation of those who refuse to repeat their abuse upon the next generation and to imagine a world without abuse is to imagine nothing less than heaven on Earth. Unrealized it may be, but only the fields of knowledge in and around psychology and sociology have the potential to bring this dream into the realms of possibility. Unrealized, to repeat. I admit that.
The reasons for the unfulfilled potential of the study of human interactions are many, and not all within the scope of what I’m trying to say here. Conversely, the unfulfilled promise of the other idea – that is sort of my specialty. The other idea, of course, being that children need discipline – read “punishments” – to become responsible, well-behaved, law-abiding adults.
The social – I hesitate to say ‘sciences,’ so the social ‘fields of inquiry’ – haven’t really been tested yet, in terms of their potential to cure some of society’s ills. Despite so much good information coming out in the last few generations about the damages of corporal punishment, spankings and other corporal punishments remain the rule rather than the exception. Despite the consciousness on the part of the psychological and psychiatric communities of the harm caused by punishments, over-punishments and abuse, these professions seem to spend their time selling fixes for the harmed people after the fact rather than focussing on prevention (I mean, to be fair, that is more properly the province of social workers and educators, plus it’s so vastly worse than just pointless and thankless – it’s no wonder no-one gets paid to do it). It seems the patients possibly believe in psychology, and are willing to use what psychology offers – but it appears their parents and caregivers do not. Therapy is looked upon as a very personal thing. When a person’s damage is so bad that it robs them of their quality of life, then they may look at the source of their pain; when we are tacitly accused of being the source of the younger generation’s pain we are less likely to participate in that examination.
Punishing, the belief in punishing, sets the scene for abuse in many ways. I know it’s a normal part of the narrative around parenting and abuse to say that proper ‘discipline’ and abuse are opposites, to say that the parent seeks to mold and direct their kids while the abuser seeks only to harm and humiliate. However to believe this, one must ignore all the gradients between those poles.
One must refuse to see that near the worst end of this bridge, that there is some remnant of the parent, and that near the best end, that there is some small component of the abuser. This would be a truth even if the two things were opposites – but psychology has shown us that as much as they are, they also are not. The truth is that, even as within the popular narrative’s apparent opposition all punishing has a component of abuse, the darker, psychological story of unconscious mechanisms show the abuse component to always be present in fairly constant measure. I’ll make a sharp left turn here.
I’m guessing that paragraph separated the believers of psychology from the believers of punishment (‘discipline,’ if you prefer)? Did anyone just make a choice, or learn that they had already made a choice somewhere in the past? Because that is the point I’m heading for here. No-one seems to take psychology or childhood trauma seriously, not until we run out of choices, or until our choices take a deadly turn, not until we’ve lost everything first. This is my point, the answer to the questions posed at the start of this little rant. If there is room in our minds for both of these concepts, then our minds are split, our selves are severed in two. We need to understand that a choice is necessary. Of course there is only one choice to make.
A modern person who has no concern for abuse, no concern for the consequences of the pain we create, that person is a monster, a villain. That person has been destroyed, he’s either a rare, birth-defected organic monster or has suffered some kind of ultimate abuse himself (or some combination, the possessor of an activated ‘warrior gene’ perhaps). That person has not made a conscious choice, and that isn’t a choice that it is possible to make consciously.
In the middle ground is where humanity lives, nearly all of us. Unaware of the choice, or unaware that one must be made, we treat the lessons of psychology like art, an amusing intellectual exercise, humouring the work and the visionaries who have shown us the way as though they were children and their life’s works were finger paintings.
“Sure,” We say. “Betrayal of love. Childhood emotional and mental trauma, being trained to look at hurt and deprivations as being good for us, demonstrating Might is Right, modeling bullying and the use of force – that’s bad, I mean, I guess . . . but what are you gonna do?” (Shades of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ . . . )
“Like, sure, psychology. But seriously . . .”
This, while in our real lives, we punish, wielding pain, withdrawal of love, and selective deprivations of all kinds ostensibly to produce ‘better’ people – because we think the lessons of psychology and the understanding of abuse, unlike hard science’s laws like gravity, only apply to some few of us, to extreme cases, to other people, to other parents, to other parents’ children.
There is a choice, one conscious choice to be made, because not to make it leaves us in the middle ground. That choice is to buy into the basic premise of psychology and the understanding of abuse, which, at its simplest is: hurt hurts. To deny the social forms of philosophy this way, to believe in punishing is to say hurt heals. That’s the simple logic of it, peeled down to the essence. But beyond that, because we don’t really believe in the sciences of human behaviour and so this logical truth can’t reach us, this:
Punishing, being what we have believed for millennia, has us still living in a world of abuse, war, hatred, bigotry, and a crumbling environment. If you think it hasn’t caused it, I ask you this: has it fixed it? Do we think it’s going to fix things any time soon, is that our fantasy? Will anyone say that if we treat our children, our criminals and our enemies with more harshness and less forgiveness that that is the way to peace, tolerance and a better future? Five, six, maybe ten millennia of ‘discipline,’ and this is our world. It’s not all bad, but it’s got a lot of bad still. Is this supposed to be the generation where our ideas of bringing pain and with-holding love will finally solve our problems?
No? So that isn’t a choice, then? What about the status quo?
Would no change in the level of pain and deprivations we use to make things better be a viable choice? Should we be just exactly this harsh and retributive then, and if we do, can we expect improvement in our problems? Should we make sure not to decrease the amount of unpleasantness we visit upon each other?
No again? Of course we want to lessen abuse and pain in the world, but we think we can get there while supporting a concept like punishment, a concept that means hurt heals, a blatant reversal of what is obvious and true.
Or is it yes?
Yes, we really do think the knowledge of abuse and its damages isn’t real, or somehow not important? We really do believe that a great deal of hurt is bad, but some hurt is good, so we need to make sure everyone gets hurt in some perfect measure, we really do think that if we don’t hurt each other, if we don’t hurt our children in some way that they won’t learn and the world will become a worse place?
The knowledge of abuse and its harms are the future of the pursuit of human happiness, and the belief that using pain and the loss of love to make better people of our children is the dark, unconscious past, that is what I’m saying. Let’s get on the right side of history with this. We’ll need to take psychology and human science out of the universities and into our homes, into real life. Most importantly, into our families, our parenting. This is it.
Hurt hurts, or hurt heals.
If hurt heals, then what is abuse?
If hurt hurts, then what is punishment?
Anyone who thinks the world is getting worse (it’s not) because of our gradual increase in humanity (a slow but constant upswing), is suffering from Good Old Days Syndrome; they are not making an accurate assessment of our long violent history. As bad as things look now, they used to be worse, and it is humanistic ideas, the fulfillment of which could well be our modern understanding of abuse and its effects, that are making the difference. The modern lives with no humanism, gang life, lives of never-ending war and strife, they are the lives with the most violence and crime, not lives lived in liberalism and molly-coddling.
That’s the choice before us. Humanism, psychology, these are the real deal, let’s let them change us. Let them save our children, our world. We’ve tried the other idea, over and over, hoping for different results, and we know what that is. But of course, mental illness is one of the documented symptoms.

Familiarity Breeds Blindness – When We Can’t See the Concepts for the Words

It’s a sad thing when words lose their power, when we have lived with them for so long that we’re no longer impressed by the things they signify. I think it was when I was reading “Midnight’s Children,” (set in India) when I was shocked, first by the expression ‘sister-sleeper’ and then in “White Tiger” when it was the stronger ‘sisterfucker’ and I realized that our version, ‘motherfucker’ had lost its punch, that I was no longer feeling the image it evokes. I started saying and writing what I think of as the Indian version in order to take advantage of its freshness and power. (Interestingly, my Canadian Microsoft Word is also accustomed to the mother version, but is flagging the sister version for a spell check.)

Show a man a photoshopped picture of himself in coitus with his own mother and he’ll react – but the word for him in that image just means somewhere between ‘dude’ and ‘swine’ these days, at least for some of us. ‘Sisterfucker’ isn’t a more disturbing concept, it was just unfamiliar to me, so my mind looked at it a little closer, and the image was a nasty surprise. I must have quit paying attention to what ‘motherfucker’ means. Now, in case anybody’s concerned that I’m switching gears, don’t worry. Here it comes.

I re-posted one of my older child-rearing, anti-punishment blogs on another site and it started a few conversations with a few people, a man or two and some ladies, some mothers. The conversation came around to my controversial stance that ‘corporal punishment’ is a misleading phrase, that in fact (‘fact’ to me at least), without a willingness to get physical there can be no punishments. Hold on –

early on while writing my blogs and my book on the subject, I looked up ‘punishment’ to get a somewhat official definition. The dictionary ones were pretty straightforward, but the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy went on for many pages. What I came up with, in the shortest form, is that punishment is the imposition of an aversive in order to lessen an unwanted behaviour. ‘Aversive’ means an unwanted stimulus, a term I usually change to ‘unpleasantness,’ and ‘imposition’ means to put something on someone without any condition as to whether they want it or not. So a punishment is something you don’t want and is put on you without your consent, in order to change an unwanted behaviour of yours.

That, just in case ‘punishment’ is a word that we don’t examine anymore, just in case we’ve forgotten the meaning or never really heard it in the first place –

So I spent a few comments trying to convince some people that all punishments depend on force, that their children weren’t likely to have been taking their non-corporal timeouts and such from a place of willing agreement, that their kids probably had learned, either the hard way or by inference, that the non-corporal punishment wasn’t going to be optional, that if they didn’t take it, it would wind up being forced upon them, that the punishment would escalate.

I’m trying not to generalize about gender here, but interestingly, among these very few people in the discussion, the most vocal man made no bones about it. Damned straight, was his attitude, a good smack will put them right. Kids don’t understand talking; that is what they understand.

The ladies, though, they didn’t believe in hitting or corporal punishment, and while they did believe in punishment, they insisted they didn’t back it up with force. Trying to make my point, I asked repeatedly if their punishments were optional, if there was any way the punishment wasn’t going to happen, or if it was going to happen by hook or by crook. One of the ladies assured me that it wasn’t optional, that if the child simply walked away from his or her timeout, that she would simply bring the child back to it, as many times as it took. I didn’t argue that ‘bringing the child back’ was a physical act, and I didn’t ask how forcefully it might have to be done if the child was stubborn about it, although these are certainly important parts of the puzzle for me. I just asked again, if it’s not optional, then the parent is going to make it happen by whatever means necessary, right?

One answer struck me as pretty schizoid, but maybe it’s just this language thing, maybe the words in the response had been said so often that the meaning had been lost: in an answer that said ‘punishments are not all backed up physically’ someone said something like ‘of course you have to follow through.’ Now that last phrase is familiar indeed, ubiquitous even – we all know it. But unexamined it must be, because otherwise how can someone say ‘of course you have to follow through’ and feel it is somehow a contradiction to ‘I am willing to do whatever it takes to make this happen?’ So that’s what’s happening, I think, when I try to make this point, it’s the same as my opening example, like we hear the deadly, incest accusation of ‘motherfucker’ all day long, and it’s all in fun, harmless, like a friendly ‘cabron’ between pals, but when I say that all punishments are backed up with force . . .

well it’s like I said ‘sisterfucker’ loudly during a moment of quiet at a church barbeque. Shock and horror. The deer-in-headlights blank stares of the good peoples’ moral indignation.

So I’m the bad guy. All right, I’ll play that role, I’ll crash your barbeque – what time again? Oh right, I remember. It’s always happening.

It All Starts When We Punish our Kids, Part #7

It all starts when we punish our kids.

What all starts? Well . . .


Addiction is a strange thing.

I used to say, getting high, getting drunk – that I can understand, but gambling? Spending all your money to feel the high from heroin, or from weed, you’re getting something, at least some relief from all those pesky feelings, and with alcohol . . . well, I think with drink what you get is different. I think what alcohol gives you is a chance to vent, a chance to give voice to your worst feelings with no worry that you might remember doing it.

But gambling? That seemed like only half an addiction to me. You lose all your money and . . . nothing. Talk about cutting out the middleman. That is some pure, un-cut self harm right there.

And that is the clue to what’s really going on with addiction.

The addict tends to think that the very thing that is ruining him is the thing that’s saving him – that’s another clue. The addict sees good in the harm, perhaps it’s possible to say that the addict can’t tell good from bad, but probably more accurate to say that for him, the harm looks like good, or feels like good.
Harm from which good is said to come, or good that is derived from harm?

That is what punishment is supposed to be, that is the theory of punishing, good from harm, harm to create good. And this is where the addict learned it. Where we all learned it, at home, from our caregivers.
When a parent punishes, either hits, spanks, grounds or puts us in time-out, confiscates a desired object or simply withdraws his love in order to hurt us and induce us to avoid that hurt by doing what he wants, this is what is shown: good from harm. Worse, the parent explains it, spells it out: this harm is good for you. For many of us, for so many of us, this lesson is applied for nearly every possible hard lesson we get.
It’s no wonder so many of us think harm is good, at least that harm brings good.

Is it?

Familiarity Breeds Contempt – Corporal Punishment and the Catholic Church

Just when I thought we had an enlightened Pope, the obvious truth comes out to smack me in the face – well not in the face, I guess. This obvious truth smacked in some other part of my body, some part where being struck isn’t going to cost me my dignity, I guess.
This Pope has come out on the side of many marginalized groups, gays, Muslims (marginalized in the West), even women, I think. He even said righteous atheists could go to heaven! But this –


“He made the remarks during his weekly general audience at the Vatican, which was devoted to the role of fathers in the family.
The Pope outlined the traits of a good father, as someone who forgives but is able to “correct with firmness” while not discouraging the child.
Some child welfare campaigners have questioned his comments.
The Pope said: “One time, I heard a father in a meeting with married couples say ‘I sometimes have to smack my children a bit, but never in the face so as to not humiliate them.’
“How beautiful,” he added. “He knows the sense of dignity. He has to punish them but does it justly and moves on.””

– this was rather disappointing. It says in the article that the Catholic Church argued that it “in no way supported corporal punishment,” but one has to wonder if this most shockingly liberal Pope could say this then what would more conservative back-benchers think about it. The article also mentions that the Church had come under criticism last year by a UN committee that was monitoring the progress of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
So, I’m a little afraid that we’re all getting a peek behind the curtain at this Great and Liberal Pope. If he can be supportive of corporal punishment for everybody on Earth – after all, we all start as children – then perhaps that gives the lie to his support of smaller groups, perhaps that support might start to look merely political.
The premise I find amusing: that as long as we’re not struck in the face, we retain our dignity while receiving our corporal punishment. I’m sure we all remember how dignified we felt when our pants were pulled down for it.

Personally, I feel this as a slap in the face, and sort of well, personal. The guy supports every possible cause they throw in front of him except mine. Murphy’s Law, got me again.

The Carrot and the Stick – The Irony of Deterrents Part #5

This series is intended to clarify the role and the efficacy of our use of deterrents, both in our households as a parenting tool and in society as a major premise upon which we have based our approach to criminal justice. Here’s the rest of the series:




(Part #1 sucked . . . you can find it on my blog, there’s a search button – but you’re not missing much.)

My premise is this:

When a deterrent works, when someone chooses not to engage in ‘naughty’ or criminal behaviour, then that’s terrific, it’s all good. A child may feel some betrayal at hearing that his caregivers are prepared to hurt him, and in a better world that would be a problem to solve, but in this world we have bigger fish to fry, namely the actual hurt that happens all too often.

It is when the deterrent fails that needs to be looked at, because actual, real world punishments have been shown to increase childhood misbehaviours in the longer term, and it follows that this is also the case in the world of adult criminality. In fact, our “legitimate” punishments cause the very same suite of damages that we all know illicit abuse causes, and so the failure of a deterrent isn’t simply a failure and the lack of a positive outcome, but a net decrease in the quality of life in our families and in our society. It’s a negative.

Our punishments are hurting us. Sounds like a no-brainer when we say it like that, doesn’t it?

We like to talk a lot about rehabilitation, the non-liberals consider that its success rate isn’t good enough and that as such, simply means a waste of money and resources, while the liberals consider it to be important, and if it gets a few percent of people out of the criminal life and the criminal justice system, then we owe to all criminals to try it. I’m here to tell you that rehabilitation isn’t what is failing.

What is failing is not the carrot, but the stick.

If someone wants to explain to me why giving someone an education or a trade won’t work, they’ll need to do something.

They’ll need to show that rehabilitation, when administered alone, without being accompanied by abuse, is failing. We know what abuse and fear does do people, and what it does, how to put this . . . what it does is not this: make people happier, less violent, less addicted and smarter. Personally, I see all punishment as abuse, but for this argument, I’ll settle for this: prison is abuse. Prisons are violent, terrifying places where there is danger in every shadow. We mostly think that’s a good thing, because that is where the deterrent lies, but this being my point in this series: when it’s a threat or a promise, it’s a deterrent. When it’s reality, it’s abuse, and damaging to those living in it.

Rehabilitation is an attempt towards improvement in a person’s performance in society; the abuse of life in prison is almost a guarantee of no such improvement, in fact, as stated in the film “Blow” as well as everywhere, prison is Crime University. That is the education many convicts get, along with the abuse that we know is the best way make people meaner and less interested in the legitimate life of lawful society. So these two ideas are diametrically opposed: if we really wanted to rehabilitate anyone, we wouldn’t abuse them before, throughout, and after their rehab program. Think of it in terms of how the kids in school with the most abusive, violent parents don’t all grow up to be the doctors and leaders, how abuse and corporal punishments have been shown, over and over, to negatively impact cognition and grades. In that sense, the hard-liners of public policy are correct: doing both of these things is mostly a waste of our money and time. It’s just that it’s not the rehab that’s at fault. It’s not the carrot that’s eating all of our resources. It’s the stick.

All that money we’re spending on abuse, and it’s creating crime, making criminals worse, because that’s what abuse does. If we want to see what can be done with the carrot – with an offer of a life for these people – we need to give the carrot without employing the stick at the same time, rehabilitation OR abuse. We need to make our prisons safe for our inmates, is what I’m saying. Sure we need to lock some dangerous folks up, but let’s spend that money a little smarter, and lock them up in such a way where they have a chance to improve themselves, make them safe from one another, more space, individual quarters.

Sure it’s more money, but it’s money with a return. The money we’re spending now is only creating crime in the long run.