Corporal punishment: violence begets violence
OVER the ages, a lie has often been peddled by teachers meting out corporal punishment: “This hurts me more than it does you.”
Even as a young child, I battled to make sense of the logic when I saw my peers crying after being physically punished. In fact, the more I listened to teachers, who used corporal punishment, the more I heard about their satisfaction at being able to discipline children. I wonder, sometimes, whether the principal who hit me remembers and is still traumatised by his actions.
I remember clearly. I was in Grade 10 and was sent to the principal’s office with three classmates for speaking in class, while the teacher was out. The principal was respected and celebrated in some quarters as a strict disciplinarian. He soaked his canes in salt water to make them more lethal.
As we moved forward to receive our punishment, he whipped the cane in the air; the swishing sound was loud, sharp and menacing. His face was chilling. We recognised the look of delight as he exercised his authority over us. The cane connected with my palms four times. My hands were swollen and scarlet welts, two on each hand, were visible.
That night my mother cried as she rubbed balm on my hands. My father, on the other hand, saw nothing wrong. The pain, both physical and psychological, was unbearable. This form of corporal punishment was quite common at the time. It would be another 20 years before the banning of corporal punishment would come to pass. And yet it continues.
Corporal punishment in its simplest sense is punishment that hurts. The descriptor, “corporal”, distances and alienates one from recognising its violent nature and attack on the body.
It is a retreat from human rights and rehabilitative practices. It is premised on the idea of retribution and reprisal, a reckoning with the power of authority. Power, in this instance, is applied to produce a docile body that is submissive and made to conform to some implicit moral order.
Corporal punishment, no matter what its form, we dare not forget, is nothing more than unchecked tyranny. Tyranny, we must concede, has no place in schools, homes or society.
Detractors insist that corporal punishment is a solution for all kinds of social ills, minor and major behavioural transgressions, poor academic performance, bad attitudes, and non-conformity to school rules and regulations. Interestingly, this magical solution only works on school children. Strange indeed.
It is pity because such a solution could be so useful, if it worked, to punish errant workers, corrupt politicians, lazy spouses and bad drivers. It is, in other words, nothing more than a lazy approach to problem solving. But what is the problem? For example, as a solution to academic under performance, neuroscience tells us that learning under fear is counter-productive and more worryingly, reduces pre-frontal grey matter (brain cells). Future learning, undoubtedly, can be seriously compromised.
The effects of violence unleashed on the body have long-term negative repercussions. Unintended learning occurs. Violence, children learn, is a legitimate way of dealing with relationship and social tensions and disagreements. Instead of the eradication of unwanted behaviours or practices, violence is inducted and established as a tool of coercion and subjugation.
For example, some children in our schools live their lives as adults. They head families; they mother and father siblings. They make important family decisions every day. Through frequent acquaintance with physical punitive measures, some over-burdened childadults learn to manage their very young families through violent forms and means.
With a range of unanticipated learnings occurring all the time, we should then not be surprised at the high levels of violence in the country: “corrective” rape of lesbian girls, spousal abuse, child abuse, crime and murder, violent protests, bullying, and so on.
Violence on the body, it seems, is our go-to solution.
It is ironical that the drive to reorientate, recuperate and transform “naughty” children into ideal pupils has such dangerous outcomes. And yet, physical harm is seen as a cure.
Jaques Derrida, the Algerian-born philosopher, offered the composite concept “pharmakon” to denote that which is simultaneously poison, cure and culprit. There are those for whom corporal punishment is a cure, for another a contagion and yet another, the culprit that has generated a culture of violence endemic to South Africa.
How then can we promote a solution with such unpredictable, uncertain and precarious outcomes?
Corporal punishment, I want to argue, is the enemy of the people. It not only harms the body, it destroys self-esteem, ruptures self-concepts and interrupts maturation of the developing self.
It is a dangerous element that can contaminate social systems and structures. It cannot and should not be acceptable for trained professionals like teachers (and even untrained parents and guardians) to mete out corporal punishment.
It is a well-established finding that violence begets violence, while harmony, we can agree, promises social cohesion.
Forty-seven years on, the welts on my palms have disappeared, there are no visible signs of the beating. But the trauma is locked away somewhere in my brain and every now and then, I relive the pain.
The punishment meant to silence me has not worked. I still speak.
Associate Professor Amin is from the School of Education, UKZN