The First Condition for “Legitimate” Punishment

1. Lack of proper authority:

The practice of punishment is a very specific, legitimate sort of abuse; are its effects very different though? Considering the case of children, and assuming that retribution is not supportable when practiced upon children (which I will elaborate upon later), let us postulate a scenario, one where some person is imposing something unpleasant or aversive upon a child, we may make some observations:

If it’s the authorized person punishing a child, then what results?

For the child, education, moral direction, and respect for authority, society and the rules, because he knows he is being corrected by a caring and trusted adult? I believe these are purported to be the goals of punishment.

And if it’s the unauthorized person dishing out unpleasantness, what results then?

For the child, trauma, confusion, fear, potential damage to the psyche? Certainly many people would at least consider that to be something between a possibility and a probability, depending on the severity of the unpleasantness and a number of other variables.

And what if it looked identical not to a passing stranger, or to us, as omniscient observers, but what if it looked exactly the same to the punished or abused person, to the punished or abused child? What if the child thought any number of things that would invalidate the authorized nature of his or her punishment in his or her mind? This is not uncommon, that a punished person, child or not, has a reason for his transgression, somewhere between an outright, far-fetched rationalization and an actual, arguable reason. More importantly however, what is also far from rare is it that a punished person has reason, good, bad, or in between, to feel that his punisher isn’t or shouldn’t be considered to be a respected and trusted authority. So in the likely event that something like these thoughts are in the child’s mind, then what comes of it?

Education, moral direction, respect, because that is what the punisher intended? Or:

Trauma, confusion, fear, potential damage to the psyche, because what the child perceives is not punishment but abuse? Which of these?

Of course, the question of what is effected in the punished or abused child’s mind is rhetorical. We, people, human beings, we suffer physical damage according to the blows we receive, according mostly to the targeted part of our person, and the force of the violence, all of which are determined by the intent of the attacker. This is not the case with psychic damage, which is more complex. The punished, the abused person, their internal effects, those are more closely correlated to their own mental and emotional structures than they are to what’s in the mind or heart of the abuser or punisher. And so, as beauty is in the beholder’s eye, doesn’t the trauma of abuse reside in the mind of the punished or abused person? And so, doesn’t authority lose its transformative power and the act of punishment move some steps closer to becoming only abuse?

Again, rhetorical. I’m saying yes, and maybe every step, the whole walk.

Abuse is a subjective determination, is what I’m saying. I don’t think that is news for anyone, but perhaps it doesn’t get the traction it deserves in our minds. It cannot be the punisher or abuser’s decision as to whether a given action is abusive. If that were any sort of logical possibility, that the people dishing out the unpleasantness got to say what is abuse and what is not, where could we be in terms of crime and punishment, morality, or support for the sufferers? There would be no concept of abuse. No abuse, no rape, no concept of personal human rights. Abuse is, must be, a subjective determination: if I feel raped, I have been raped, if I feel abused, I have been abused. That is the criteria. Therefore, if a child has been subjected to punishment, and he has reason to believe that the three conditions for punishment have not been satisfied, for instance that his punisher, for any number of real world reasons lacks moral authority (not a rare thought), then the child will feel abused.

Again:  if I feel abused, I have been abused. That is the criteria.

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Abuse, Punishment, and Intentions

To repeat: Abuse is, must be, a subjective determination: if I feel raped, I have been raped, if I feel abused, I have been abused. That is the criteria. Therefore, if a child has been subjected to punishment, and he has reason to doubt that the three conditions for punishment have been satisfied, for instance if he feels that his punisher has made no effort and doesn’t care if it improves the child’s behaviour (a likely assumption if there is no other attempt to solve the problems that resulted in the offence in the first place, only the unpleasantness and no lesson, no offer of other solutions. If the child is in some sort of bind where the crime is necessary for him), he will feel abused. This is not a rare thought, is it? Again: if I feel abused, I have been abused. That is the criteria.

It is one of the main points of this project that even ‘proper’ punishment of children is bad enough for them and for society, which I plan to show, let alone putting any sort of hurt on children without so much as an attempt at changing the unwanted behaviour. Retribution, practiced upon children, is counter-intuitive to the acceptable goals of society; clearly, in that stage of life and development, education must be the priority for any action adults take with the young. With no more productive lesson, pain for pain’s sake is not something we should be teaching. However, many children can also fall into the role of ‘repeat offender’, seeming to require endless punishment. In that case, as with adult criminals, the excuse of the intent to change behaviour cannot be supported. At some point, we have to admit it’s not working, and just not admitting it doesn’t count; our denial won’t transform retribution upon children into productive punishment. In this sense, retribution upon children may well be in itself a definition for abuse.

There may of course be many other ways in which intent fails as a condition of punishment, but again, abuse is in the mind of the receiving party, and children, especially young ones, have little hope of granting authority or intent the way we hope and so they will likely experience our corrective efforts as abuse. In that sense, intent can always fail, but if all else is identical, if an unauthorized person can impose something unpleasant on a child for the wrong reasons and it looks exactly the same as the ‘proper’ version, then what of intent?

In what other area of life, in what other sorts of interaction, when all things are equal, when actors, actions, and objects are identical, do intentions change outcomes? In what activities do we not have to consider what we do, but only our intentions? It may in fact be a fallacy for anyone to declare their different intentions if the actions are the same; if actions are not modified, then what evidence exists for modified intentions, let alone for different results?

Alice Miller was wrong.

Not about the problem. The problem Dr. Miller identified is real. It’s real, and it’s huge and serious. Nearly all children, for basically forever have been abused by their caregivers, usually their parents. Child abuse is ubiquitous and systemic. True dat.

But the doctrine that she offered and has been held by her followers, that a person must have a deep and thorough therapy and recover their memories of childhood trauma, recover the feelings buried during those traumas? This is a good plan for a person, a way for a person to get in touch with themselves, a way for a person to heal themselves, and some folks may succeed. It’s well documented that Dr. Miller failed in her attempt, and sometimes offered as a criticism of her work, at least as a qualifier of the success of her work, but that doesn’t amount to anything. Therapy is not going to solve this problem.

Dr. Miller understood the goal, and she was motivated, personally and professionally, yet still she failed. One reason for this is that almost no-one has escaped the problem Miller described – her therapists included. No-one understands all the types of abuse, no-one qualifies all the abuse as such, no-one can acknowledge all of it. The problem she has described is real, and very serious, even – incurable. Every year we live is more influential and more important than the next, so traumas in early childhood have more power over our development and therefore in our lives than any attempts at intervention afterwards can ever have.

It is prevention that we need to solve this problem. There is no fixing it afterwards. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men . . .

Millerian doctrine has it that we cannot save our children except if we become conscious of our personal histories, of our childhood traumas and abuse, but this rests on an assumption very few people fail to make: that all children need be abused, that all children will be subject to force and violence, because they MUST be. The assumption is that all children must be controlled, and controlled by force and or violence. We seem to consider that it is abuse only when it is carried too far.

This is where I introduce punishment as the vector for the disease. I submit, that if we do not punish our children, that if we never hurt them, as Dr. Miller says, “For Their Own Good,” then we will never go too far with it. If we can find a way to never hurt our children, and not PLANNING to hurt them would be a good start, if we don’t plan to hurt them or abuse them any way whatsoever, then we will never visit upon them even the particular abuses our own personal histories have left us blind to. That is the one, universal repressed thing that we are all blind to, punishment, that is the secret, and if Dr. Miller ever realized it, she never told us.

We all have this blind spot, we all think punishment is OK, that punishing is somehow different from abuse. That is the key., and that is the thing that when we realize the truth, Alice Miller’s dream can come true, children raised without abuse, because the children of someone who has realized this will be safe, despite the particulars of their parent’s abuse. These parents will not pass on abuse, because abuse is passed on by force.

If we refuse to use force, our children will be safe.