Essays: The bottom line |
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The bottom line

by Francis Wheen

‘If parents are anxious to have their children well educated, they must not be afraid of a little castigation on the place which nature has ordained for the purpose.’ – Editorial in the Family Herald, January 1846

‘Referring to Gary Paul he said: “In my view I did my best to strike him on the buttocks where it would hurt but not cause any physical damage. I did not consider I gave him any excess caning.” Judge Bertrand Richards commented: “Buttocks were ordained by nature for the purpose.”’ – Court report in Daily Telegraph, August 1975

TAKE A BABY INTO a trattoria in Florence or Rome, and you will be greeted by squeals of delight from the staff and customers. Repeat the experiment in a London restaurant – or, worse still, a pub – and the maître d’ or landlord will fix you with a poisonous glare of disapproval. When Evelyn Waugh grumpily described children as ‘defective adults’, he was articulating a common national prejudice. We are a nation of child-haters; and, as the size of the prison population demonstrates, we are a nation of punishment freaks. Put the two together and you have a society where physical violence against tiny tots is not only acceptable but a bounden duty. Hence the undisguised glee of Tory backbenchers when Gillian Shephard indulged her flogging fantasies on the Today programme this week. ‘I think there is so much value in proper corporal punishment,’ Harry Greenway MP raved. ‘I don’t mean beating boys until they bleed...’ Of course not; merely scarring and bruising will be quite adequate. It was entirely predictable that Britain should have been the last country in Europe to ban corporal punishment in state schools, in 1987 - and then only because the European Court of Human Rights gave us no choice. I don’t doubt that we shall be the last country in Europe to outlaw the beating of children by parents, too.

No wonder spanking is known throughout the world as the English vice. Exactly a century ago, a book about virtue by the French author Josephin Aimé Peladan included a whole chapter on ‘le vice anglais’.  It concluded: ‘The Anglo-Saxon will always represent human deprivation - the race which stains pleasure with blood, which conceals an assassin’s knife in the bed of love.’ One hundred years on, we are still spanking away like billy-o - and still pretending that we do so in the name of love. ‘You say “Don’t do this”, “You mustn’t do that” and you gently slap them if they transgress,’ the Archbishop of Canterbury advised his flock last weekend, ‘and there is nothing wrong with that as long as it is done with love and firm discipline within the family set-up.’ Many a stern Victorian paterfamilias must have thought that he too was exercising ‘love and firm discipline within the family set-up’ when he walloped his wife or housemaid. If he tried it today, however, he might well find himself up on a charge. It is bizarre but true that the only British citizens who have no legal redress against domestic violence are those who are most vulnerable.
As children grow up, accorded to Archbishop Carey, ’they learn and understand those rules and of course it has to be lived out. We older people must practice what we preach. So I don’t think we pontificate from on high. We actually live the kind of discipline we are wanting a future generation of people to grow up with.’ Oh really? I find it inconceivable that George Carey would take a swipe at an archdeacon who had been ‘misbehaving’; the disciplinary code observed by grown-ups doesn’t allow recourse to physical assault. Why, then, do we believe we are setting children an example, and preparing them for adult life, by whacking them every time they stray from the path of righteousness? The answer is depressingly simple: because we know we can get away with it. If George Carey saw a pet poodle piddling on his carpet at Lambeth Palace, perhaps he would administer one of his ‘loving slaps’; if the miscreant mutt was a saber-toothed rottweiler, he might think twice. It is nothing to do with ‘discipline’ and everything to do with the balance of power. As Penelope Leach comments in her recent book Children First, ‘When a big child hits a small child in the playground, we call him a bully; five years later he punches a woman for her handbag and is called a mugger; later still, when he slugs a workmate who insults him, he is called a troublemaker; but when he becomes a father and hits his tiresome, disobedient or disrespectful child, we call him a disciplinarian. Why is this rung on the ladder of interpersonal violence regarded so differently from the rest?’ I can already hear George Carey pointing out one difference: when he spanks, he does so for the child’s own good. But good intentions are no justification, merely paving stones on the road to hell. Does a police officer’s desire to convict criminals justify violence to an obviously guilty suspect? The other distinction, Carey must say, is that the smacking of children is administered in a ‘private, loving family context’. Following that logic, we might as well legalize wife-beating and granny-bashing as well.

‘If the whole concept of punishment is foreign to the self-discipline parents want children to acquire,’ Penelope Leach concludes, ‘then physical punishment cuts at its very foundations, highlighting people’s reluctance to regard children as fully human – as people just like themselves except for youth and inexperience – and their ultimate readiness to abandon cooperation for the naked assertion of painful power.’ Listening to the beguiling understatement of George Carey, Gillian Shephard and their supporters, who murmur about ‘loving slaps’ and ‘gentle taps’, one could easily forget that the point of smacking is to inflict pain. ‘We are not talking about beating [children] up,’ says David Clark, the shadow defence secretary, ‘but a little slap doesn’t do them any harm.’ But it hurts them, doesn’t it? His colleague David Blunkett, who was so scathing about the Education Secretary’s yearning for the cane, has nevertheless endorsed the Archbishop’s ‘perfectly reasonable’ remarks, adding that it is ‘important to distinguish between smacking and physical violence’. Has this supposedly intelligent fellow never twigged that smacking, however mild, is indeed physical and violent? And where are all these calm, caring, cool-headed spankers anyway? Almost every time I visit the supermarket I witness some harassed and frustrated parent yelling at an errant child ‘You stop that right now or I’ll belt you.’ I have never heard a shopper say ‘Now look darling, I think it is important to impress on you that you mustn’t pull the bottles of Virgin Cola off the shelves, and so I intend to deliver a light slap – in a loving context, of course.’ This isn’t a wallop; it’s codswallop.

The Tory MP Sir Ivan Lawrence, who applauds the Archbishop’s’ common sense’, has seen fit to inform us that ‘I got a good hiding at home and at school if I was bad. It didn’t do me any harm; in fact, I like to think it probably did me some good.’ Students of Sir Ivan’s parliamentary career may wonder how beneficial it really was; but at least he was honest enough not to take refuge in euphemisms. One other politician, who has spoken bluntly on this subject, though he probably won’t wish to be reminded of it, is Michael Meacher. I have a friend who was a pupil at Berkamsted School when Meacher was a cane-wielding prefect. ‘Now, boy,’ the future Labour frontbencher warned, as he ordered my friend to bend over, ‘you are going to understand the meaning of pain.’ It may not have done Meacher any harm; but the recipient has never quite forgotten the ordeal.

There is one final point about corporal punishment, which is seldom mentioned in these discussions: spanking is sexy. Go into any telephone box in central London and you’ll find dozens of calling cards from prostitutes advertising ‘strict discipline’ in  one form or another. When George Ryley Scott wrote his pioneering History of Corporal Punishment in 1938, the publishers restricted its sale to ‘members of the medical and legal professions, scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, criminologists and social workers’, precisely because they feared his treatise might otherwise be used as S&M pornography. ‘It would have been easy to ignore the sexual side and all its implications,’ he admitted in the preface. ‘But this ostrich-like attitude would have been not only to evade one of the main issues, but to permit a distortion of the truth. One of the most pernicious features of corporal punishment lies in the possibility, on the one hand, of pandering to the sadistic element in mankind, and, on the other, of awakening or developing sexual libido.’ Nothing has changed since then: how could it, human nature being what it is? On the paperback edition of Ian Gibson’s The English Vice, the most exhaustive study of flagellomania ever written, there are admiring reviews from the Times Educational Supplement, The Sunday Times, the Scotsman – and Janus, the magazine for spanking fetishists, which notes that ‘it should command the attention of every close student of corporal punishment’. Alas, there are few ‘close students’ whose interest isn’t wholly lubricious. Perhaps it is too much to expect a busy Archbishop of Canterbury or Secretary of State to read Ian Gibson’s book before sounding off about the harmlessness of slapping and slippering; but as educated people they must surely be aware of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, published posthumously in 1782.

If not, then let me enlighten them. Rousseau, whose mother dies in childbirth, spent much of his boyhood being brought up by a Protestant priest, M. Lambercier, and his unmarried sister. ‘Since Mlle Lambercier treated us with a mother’s love, she had also a mother’s authority,’ he recalled, ‘which she exercised by inflicting on us such childish chastisements as we had earned.’ After his first beating, he was startled to find the experience ‘less dreadful’ than he had anticipated; in fact, he discovered in the shame and pain ‘an admixture of sensuality’ which left him eager for more.

Who could have supposed that this childish punishment, received at the age of eight at the hands of a woman of thirty, would determine my tastes and desires, my passions, my very self for the rest of my life, and that in a sense diametrically opposed to the one in which they should have developed? At the moment when my senses were aroused my desires took a false turn and, confining themselves to this early experience, never set about seeking a different one… How differently people would treat children if only they saw the eventual results of the indiscriminate, and often culpable, methods of punishment they employ!

More than two centuries later, George ‘Spanker’ Carey and Gillian ‘Thrasher’ Shephard still can’t see it. Perhaps someone should slap them about a bit, firmly but lovingly, until they come to their senses. After all, as they have so confidently reassured us, it can’t do any harm.

Guardian, 31 October 1996