An argument “against” spanking.

As a follow-up to my previous entry on child abuse, I’d like to look over this argument which was posted in the January 2010 issue of Public Affairs Quarterly. The author, Gary Bartlett, called his article “An argument against spanking” but wasted his entire introduction arguing against the standard argument against spanking so he could then arrogantly introduce his own. This summary dismissal deserves greater examination.

After the standard mention of the high percentage of spanking, he points out that he’s not interested in discussing illegality:

A lot of the debate concerns whether it should be legal. I shall not address this question, but rather whether spanking is morally permissible. I shall argue that it is not. I shall not argue that it should therefore be illegal. (Even if spanking is wrong, a law against it might constitute an undue intrusion of the state into the private sphere.)

In this he glibly echoes a standard argument used to support any level of child abuse: that the concept of privacy may somehow override the use of violence against children, and justify making or keeping such violence legal. And yet we do not invoke an “intrusion of the state into the private sphere” when it intervenes in other cases of violence taking place in “the private sphere,” and any such invocation would be obviously laughable.

Laws against spousal rape are relatively recent, because until relatively recently we believed that a man’s wife was his sexual property. We still believe children are subject to their parents’ authority, therefore the idea that beating children in the home is a matter of privacy is not yet outdated.

Obviously positing that an act is wrong does not mean it should be illegal, and Bartlett is clear that he does not believe this either; but how this could possibly apply to child abuse is not at all clear.

In public debate, spanking is often unhelpfully conflated with severe punishment such as beating with a belt or even child abuse. By ‘spanking’ (or ‘smacking’, as it is known outside North America) I shall mean open-handed striking of the buttocks, such as to cause only moderate and short-term pain, and causing no injury or lingering marks. Spanking is thus a mild form of corporal punishment.

Every time someone tries to reframe a valid definition, you know there’s a misdirection going on, so let’s untangle this carefully. I think there is something interesting about Bartlett’s statement that conflating spanking with abuse is “unhelpful.” Unhelpful for who or what?

The conclusion gives us the answer. Bartlett wants us to think of spanking as “a mild form of corporal punishment.” And this, presumably, is not “child abuse.” Using the word “punishment” is supposed to indicate that spanking is a tool of discipline; discipline is the role of the parent and therefore cannot by definition be abusive. He continues in this vein:

Within philosophy, the usual argument against corporal punishment stems from the ‘liberationist’ view that children deserve the same rights as adults. This view implies that since adults have a right against being struck, even mildly, then so do children.

I find it interesting that the view that children are human beings and therefore deserve human rights needs a label. I have never heard about this “liberationist” label, but I don’t think it makes much sense to call such a basic view “liberationist.” Granting children their basic human rights would not be a “liberation” of children, although it would certainly represent a small step in that direction.

Bartlett, however, is correct that children have a right not to be harmed. We should not even need to discuss this. As I’ve said in my previous entry, this is the first and final word on spanking and other forms of child abuse. It is the simple, elegant, and inescapable conclusion that one arrives at, once one rejects childism.

So what is Bartlett’s answer to the “liberationist” argument?

However, as Laura Purdy says in her case against liberationism, such a policy seems not to be in the interests of children themselves, whose immaturity requires their parents to exert far more control over them than would be required for an adult.

Predictably, his answer is one of the three childist rationalizations, more specifically number one. I have already analyzed why these rationalizations fail miserably.

Looking at this particular formulation, we see nothing new here. There is no attempt at formulating a line of reasoning or explanation. Bartlett assumes that you already understand the standard rationalizations for childism and that you agree with them. Of course children are immature (in what way?). Of course that implies that parents must control them (for what purpose? why should parents have that power? how much is “far more”?). This is a complete intellectual blackout.

He continues:

Even if children do have a right against severe corporal punishment, it seems unlikely that such a right would extend so far as to rule out spanking. After all, parents need some way to control their children, and spanking looks no more harmful than other punishments such as being sent to one’s room or going without dessert. So if those punishments are acceptable, why not spanking? Spanking is, of course, painful; but so is a polio vaccination. Pain is sometimes necessary.

This is only a longer form of the irrational blathering in the previous quote. It still presents no logical argument, no line of reasoning, no attempt at grasping the issues. What is “severe corporal punishment”? What is the relevance of an act of violence being “punishment” and not “abuse”? What do parents need to “control their children” for? Why equate an act of physical violence with acts of psychological control?

The final sentences are particularly revealing. Yes, pain is sometimes necessary, but at least I can tell you why a vaccine is necessary. I can clearly tell you the purpose of a vaccine. Bartlett, on the other hand, clearly cannot tell you the purpose of spanking a child apart from some vague handwaving about “control.”

The childist party line on these questions is well known. Parents need to control their children because that’s what a parent does, and that’s what a parent does because they must mold the child into an adult (or as they euphemistically put it, “growing up”). “Punishment” is what a parent, or authority figure, does to maintain that control, and “abuse” is violence which is not necessary to maintain that control. Spanking can be compared to psychological control because they are both forms of “punishment,” not “abuse.”

But these answers presume that children are not actually human beings, that they are property of their parents, and that they must be “domesticated.” In short, they presume that childism is true. Therefore Bartlett’s rationalization can be reduced to this: if children are human beings, then spanking would be wrong as a matter of human rights, but I assume that children are not human beings, therefore spanking is not wrong as a matter of human rights.

The logical deduction here is obvious, and therefore pointless. Of course we know that if you assume children are not human being, then you will not oppose spanking as a matter of human rights. So what? This is hardly worth the space Bartlett wastes in saying absolutely nothing about it. And yet this is what passes for reasoning to the supposedly intelligent childist…

Accordingly, even writers with liberationist sympathies are often unwilling to disallow spanking. Given its disciplinary effectiveness and the implausibility of the idea that there could be a right against it, spanking appears morally acceptable.

If Bartlett is telling the truth about these liberationists, which I doubt, then they must be quite a useless bunch. Imagine, people who pretend to support the “liberation” of children and who can’t even speak up against spanking! But then again we do have “feminists” who support the exploitation of women and “environmentalists” who support the continued destruction of the environment, so perhaps it’s not that surprising…

The second sentence, however, just opens another unanswered question: how is spanking “effective”? “Effective” for what purpose? How can we measure this “effectiveness”? Again, not a word, not even a footnote. In fact, every single footnote in this whole section exists solely to refer to a book or books, and none are used to explain the author’s reasoning, if such a reasoning does actually exist.

As I said, his conclusion that spanking is morally acceptable (from the standpoint of rights) is no great feat, since he starts from childist premises. His dismissal of the argument against child abuse fails to prove anything beyond the fact that a bigot accepts violence against the people he hates. Again, this is not news.

While I doubt that children have a right against spanking, the idea that spanking is justified by its disciplinary effectiveness reflects a simplistic picture of the harms it might cause. The picture considers only whether spanking itself causes direct harm to the child. I agree that such harm, if it exists at all, will indeed be negligible. What is overlooked, however, is the potential for spanking to escalate into more severe corporal punishment, of a sort which plainly is harmful.

Bartlett agrees (with whom? himself? his childist readers?) that spanking entails non-existent or negligible harm, but that it may escalate into “severe” punishment, which is harmful. Now, he previously argued that pain can be necessary, and he hasn’t told us the purpose that makes it necessary or not. Therefore, why might not “severe corporal punishment” be necessary as well, within his framework?

Bartlett’s argument for the rest of his article is basically that there is a continuum between spanking and severe corporal punishment, and that at some point in this continuum we cross a line into abuse. It does not matter at all to him whether the action itself is harmful, as long as it creates a “slippery slope” into dangerous behavior.

It seems that the philosophically unsophisticated Bartlett has in mind some kind of variation on virtue ethics, the position that our standard of right and wrong actions should be based on what cultivates a right or wrong character in the individual. Although I support deontological ethics myself, I would say there is much to recommend in the concept of virtue ethics, and it’s perfectly defensible. Bartlett’s version, however, is undefended, and therefore unconvincing, because he has no principles.

This is demonstrated by the issue of the line of “abuse” which underlies his discussion. Where is this line? How can it be drawn? Bartlett sure doesn’t tell us, so his slippery slope argument and his pretense of virtue ethics (which depends on the slippery slope) fall flat.

However, we might get a hint about the true purpose of “punishment” in the following quote:

Corporal punishment has been found to be associated with lower internalization of moral norms. Spanking, along with other disciplinary methods involving overt external pressure, may teach a child to avoid misbehavior in order to avoid being spanked, rather than teaching him why that behavior in itself is bad – so that he will learn to avoid the behavior only when the parent is present. So compared to less overtly punitive methods, spanking may be less effective at reducing recurrence of misbehavior, because it does less to instill an internal motivation to avoid such behavior.

I find this quote to be a chilling display of the hatred which people like Bartlett feel towards children. According to him, the problem with spanking is not that it aims to generate obedience, but that the obedience it generates is not internalized enough! A child must not only be made to obey parental control, but ey must internalize it as well, it must become part of eir personal identity, of eir desires. Comparisons with 1984 and other mind control systems come to mind. This is some majorly fucked up shit right there. I wouldn’t let this guy live on planet Earth, let alone allow him to be near children.

The fact that Bartlett is ultimately against spanking is irrelevant, because he is still a childist through and through. He is like those racists who are in favor of immigration because “those people” take the jobs “white people” won’t take, or misogynists who support sexual liberation or pornstitution so they can prey on women. These people are not allies. The issue of systemic prejudice is the root issue, and while there are plenty of nice, kind, intelligent people who support it (please note that I definitely do not include Bartlett in that category), we must be fundamentally opposed to it.

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