Magazine article New Internationalist

Naughty, Naughty! Trevor Turner Fears That Our Desire for Discipline and Our Impulse to Punish May Be Getting the Better of Us

Magazine article New Internationalist

Naughty, Naughty! Trevor Turner Fears That Our Desire for Discipline and Our Impulse to Punish May Be Getting the Better of Us

Article excerpt

THESE days punishment goes hand - in - hand with violence in an increasing cycle of neurotic repetition. Punishment, in its myriad forms, has become a kind of Continental Divide between the moral and scientific worlds. In a recent radio debate a Catholic priest (the moralist), childless of course, suggested there was an active state of original sin, a kind of miasma from which we all have to fight free. His opponent was a recently sacked prison doctor (the scientist) who had spent over 20 years working with some of the worst criminals in Britain, talking to them, trusting them and even trying to treat them. He had no doubt whatsoever that these dangerous criminals were the way they were because of how they had been brought up.

Nevertheless, societies of every ilk have meted out an extraordinary variety of punitive responses to behaviours seen as immoral, aberrant or just a social nuisance. Even the term 'meted' is one reserved for the ceremony of punishment. There is an enormous gulf between forms of response.

In Saudi Arabia if you steal something you can have your right hand chopped off, by a method reminiscent of those old Viking movies where limbs regularly went flying amidst the crunch of axes and the clash of swords. But go to New Zealand/Aotearoa, commit the same 'crime', and what happens? There will be a meeting (instead of a meting out of punishment) of your family and the victim's, a court supervisor, a social worker and a range of other specialists to determine an appropriate response, including some kind of pay - back, organized to all parties' satisfaction. Miscreant behaviour is seen as a group responsibility. Rehabilitation rather than castigation is the focus.

There are various components to modern chastisement. These include the need for revenge (a form of pleasure); the need for compensation for losses suffered; the need to consider the wider safety of society; and - usually at the bottom of the list - some sort of re - instatement or even therapy for the offender. These four horsemen of the correctional apocalypse vary throughout history as to their level of influence. It is well established in industrialized societies that there is an adverse relationship between the numbers of people in prison and the numbers in mental hospitals. Discharge people from the latter, as in the present era of community care and, strangely enough, prison numbers start to climb. Expand your 'asylum' system and prison numbers tend to fall. This is hardly surprising, given that prison governors report that between a third and half of their inmates suffer psychiatric problems or some form of brain disease. In fact the Victorian theory of prison in the high evangelical (mid - nineteenth - century) period considered that solitary confinement combined with individual reflection was the road to salvation.

The two most powerful theories shaping punishment in the twentieth century are behaviourism and psycho - analysis. The former suggests that behaviour is all and that inner feelings, fantasies, fixations, etc are but metaphysical claptrap. Rats in cages can be punished (ie usually by electric shock) to conform to certain behaviour patterns. Behaviour modification is used successfully in bringing up children even in the most liberal societies, including measures of verbal or even physical admonition. A recent extensive survey from a Catholic country found 75 per cent of parents, more often the mothers, admitting to hitting their children. The most common approaches were hitting with the hand, hitting with a belt or shaking them, due to a child's defiant attitudes, refusal to work or study, or for running away from home. While there is a debate about the effects of corporal punishment and its excesses on the personalities of young children, many parents still accept the use of some physical sanction to deter wayward behaviour.

The more complex approach of Freud and the psycho - analysts, as one would expect, gives a rather sexier reading. …

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