Cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment: vi­o­lence begets vi­o­lence

Post - - NEWS - NYNA AMIN ●

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

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