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.