Monday, June 25, 2007

Spare the rod

"Spanking is not child abuse," a pair of spanking enthusiasts insist in an Ottawa Citizen op-ed piece today. They hail from (where else) the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada. One of the authors, Andrea Mrozek, was associate editor at the Western Standard and worked for the Fraser Institute on education and health policy. Her current Institute carries the drearily familiar so-con line on everything from domestic assault (women do it too, and gays do it more) to the ideal form of marriage (you guessed right). Needless to say, the entire National Post editorial board is pro-spanking as well, as well as the "pro-life" folks.

The op-ed, citing various studies that claim that spanking is good for you, is in response to the it's-about-time Senate initiative to repeal section 43 of the Criminal Code. There's a good synopsis of the issue here. The Supreme Court of Canada already prescribed strict limits to the practice in 2004: no belts or paddles and no shots to the head, and the child to be hit must be no younger than two and no older than 12. Focus on the Family, an intervenor in that case, liked the law just the way it was, and provides a helpful on-line "how-to" guide to hitting a child, including the use of "neutral objects" and the following advice:

In those situations when the child, aged 2 to 10, fully understands what he is being asked to do but refuses to yield to adult leadership, an appropriate spanking is the shortest and most effective route to an attitude adjustment. When he lowers his head, clenches his fists, and makes it clear he is going for broke, justice must speak swiftly and eloquently. Not only does this response not create aggression in children, it helps them control their impulses and live in harmony with various forms of benevolent authority throughout life.

Res ipsa loquitur. There's more, here and elsewhere, if you have the stomach for it.

Now, hitting a child is not everyone's idea of how to generate family harmony. If there is a line between spanking and child abuse, I would like any of the pro-hitting folks to tell me where it's to be legally drawn. Here? Here? Here?

Let me declare interest at this point. I was raised by very loving parents at a time when spanking and other forms of corporal punishment were the norm, approved of in child psychology books and practised at home and at school. I received my share--blows to the buttocks, head and wrists, not to mention the strap. I don't judge my parents badly for this (I have a different view, however, of school principals who took rather too much relish in it), because in those days everybody did it. But when I was blessed with (step)children of my own, I hadn't the slightest impulse to follow suit. The notion frankly repelled me.

If the various conservative sources I have cited think that hitting children is good for them, setting them on the Correct Path, why stop there? What about troublesome teenagers? Adults? Seniors? They flog people of all ages in Singapore, don't they? But perhaps I shouldn't encourage them further. A number, in fact, are well along that road already:

Myron Thompson (Conservative MP, Wild Rose) “said he favored corporal punishment for young offenders. He says that during his years as a school principal in Alberta, he saw remarkable change in behaviour among those who had ‘tasted a piece of wood.’” (Edmonton Sun, March 13, 1995)

Art Hanger (Conservative MP, Calgary Northeast): “I suspect flogging straightens up behavior by jolting a criminal into reality … Compare it to our system, which provides no deterrence and is little more than a revolving door … Is corporal punishment extreme? … I don’t think so.” (Alberta Report, April 1, 1996)

And that's why, in a nutshell, I could never be a conservative
. Politically and personally, I just don't swing that way. It's a sign of the times we are now enduring that organized right-wing lobby groups have sprung into being to advocate, among other things, assaults on children for their own good. If anyone had any doubts about the sado-political mentality of the Right, its take on this issue is frankly conclusive.

UPDATE (June 26): There's a rebuttal post here. The author, however, doesn't permit comments. So let me make a few points in response to some blatant misreadings over there:

1) My post was about the pro-spanking lobby in general, not the Citizen piece, which served simply to set the stage. It was entirely appropriate to cite other lobby groups, given my theme.

2) I did indeed seek to make the case that the pro-spankers hail from the conservative side of the spectrum. It's not a hard one to make. I'll gladly stand corrected if anyone here can point me to a left-wing lobby to retain Section 43 of the Criminal Code.


3) He takes issue with my claim that the authors cite studies to indicate that "spanking is good for you," but he doesn't provide the original context, only a statement that the authors state that spanking is "neutral."

But here's what he left out:

It is not accurate to say that spanking necessarily has negative repercussions. In fact there is some evidence from reputable studies that it is, as always, done appropriately -- gasp -- good.

The grammar of the last sentence is non-existent, but the sense is clear enough. The authors then go on to cite a study that concludes that "physical discipline reduc[es] drug use" and another, from New Zealand, that finds that spankees in later life "appeared to be particularly [emphasis mine] high-functioning and achieving members of society."

4) I didn't deal with the claim by some lawyers from the Justice Department (not the op-ed authors, who argue instead that a spanking ban is unenforceable) that repeal will lead to a number of frivolous charges against parents, because I think, bluntly, that it's nonsense. Prove it with facts from jurisdictions that have outlawed spanking--say, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Germany, Italy, Cyprus, Croatia, Israel or Latvia. Otherwise, stop this silly alarmism. Our police are so stretched that they don't even investigate routine burglaries any more. The idea that they'd proceed against a parent firmly placing a toddler into a child's car seat strains credulity, to put it mildly.

5) The examples of punishable child abuse I gave were carefully chosen: they increase in severity from using a belt to mistreatment of children leading in one instance to death. The Supreme Court of Canada, as noted in my post, took a softer view than Focus on the Family and that frightful pastor in the US who believes in whipping babies. But the SCC decision does not necessarily define where the pro-spanking lobby would draw the line if they had their druthers, given the references I quoted and linked to. I'd like to know where they would in fact draw that line.

6) My critic imagines that I was confining my argument narrowly to Sn. 43 of the Criminal Code. Perhaps he should read my post again. I am far more interested in the pro-physical punishment folks and their politics in general, which have burst forth during the current Senate hearings. My reference to Singapore was followed by quotations from two Conservative MPs, who assuredly do support flogging.

7) The rebuttal ends with two questions allegedly put by the original op-ed authors, indicating his overly light reading of the op-ed itself:

How [will] the outlawing of spanking improve the protection of those children who currently suffer very serious abuse (that is, by people who disregard the law even as it stands now)?

The problem with this sort of question lies in its unspoken assumptions. Suffice it to say that, even if repealing Sn. 43 doesn't prevent serious child abuse, it will prevent or at least discourage milder forms of it (hitting a child). So, even if the answer to the question is "maybe not much," so what? In the longer term, of course, a society that does not tolerate the use of physical force against children will become more intolerant of child abuse of any kind.

How it will protect all children from possibly falling victim, in their adolescence, to the sorts of epidemics of violent behaviour Mrozek and Quist outline in their, as yet unchallenged, Ottawa Citizen op-ed piece?

The authors "outline" no such thing. Rather, they make two oddly contradictory statements: first, that spanking, although illegal, is on the rise in Sweden, and that the state cannot control it; and secondly, that youth violence has risen after the spanking ban, the suggestion being made that the latter caused the former--even though the authors have just finished claiming that spanking, too, is on the rise!

UPPERDATE (June 30):

A good response op-ed in today's Ottawa Citizen.


Mr. George is having another go at me. Here is the text of an email I sent in response:

1) There is a continuum within the pro-spanking lobby, not a slippery slope. All want to hit children, but some more severely than others. Perhaps the Citizen correspondents were at the moderate end of this extreme: I don’t know. But what is interesting, to me, at least, is that the issue is so politicized. The pro-physical punishment folks are conservative. Deal with this, don’t simply obfuscate.

2) I don’t think I hid my position that hitting children is abusive. I also expressed my awareness that there is indeed a range of child abuse, ranging from the relatively (and I stress the word “relatively”) mild to violence causing death. You pretend to misunderstand my point, and fuss that my examples come from the US and so on, but that point was actually not that difficult to grasp: where would the current pro-spanking lobbyists draw the line? Where the SCC does? Or further along the spectrum of violence?

All of the examples provided were those of parents disciplining their children, in their various ways. So much for leaving this sort of thing up to the parents. My question was reasonable: how much physical punishment is too much? If there is no clear line to be drawn, or, alternatively (as I suspect) if various groups motivated to a lesser or greater extent by religious and political zeal draw a number of different lines, then the precautionary principle dictates that we not put ourselves in the position of drawing such a line in the first place. That’s what repealing Sn. 43 is all about.

3) I don’t think that Canada will become “pro-flogging” if we fail to repeal Sn. 43. The status quo will simply be retained. Again, I am pointing out the politicized nature of the issue and the conservative politics of the (admittedly various) lobbyists against repeal. The fact that in those same quarters one finds flogging advocates and even child abuse advocates (like Pastor Tripp) might cause some to reflect. Obviously not you: you would rather argue against positions that I never took. I think that’s called the “straw man” fallacy, summed up neatly in your bizarre italic recounting of my own alleged thought processes.

4) The unspoken assumptions behind the question How [will] the outlawing of spanking improve the protection of those children who currently suffer very serious abuse (that is, by people who disregard the law even as it stands now)? include the notion that outlawing spanking would only be worthwhile if it protected the victims of serious abuse, and, secondly, that a law should not be passed if some people are simply going to break it. Those are both highly questionable assumptions, but they are each clearly implied.

5) I am not arguing anywhere in my article to a conclusion that hitting a child is abusive. I start from that notion. So I am not “begging the question.” Nor do I think that the majesty of the law will descend in the future upon those who yell at their kids. Peer pressure is far more likely to do that. As already noted, the police are already over-stretched. I cannot accept that parents will suffer the guilt or self-stigmatization of the uncaught criminal, either—that’s absurdly over-stated. Rather, I think that the culture will simply shift more in the direction it is already travelling, away from the physical imposition of authority over the young.

6) Your common law argument escapes me. There cannot be a contradiction with the Criminal Code if the latter is silent. I suggest you check out the jurisprudence, however, pertaining to “reasonable force.” At least as I understand it, this generally applies to physical force used to prevent a crime or otherwise prevent harm to a person or persons. It was given a specific definition by the SCC relating to Sn.43, but obviously that would disappear along with the provision. It would in any case be difficult to invoke the common law notion as a defence for hitting a child given the clear will expressed by Parliament in repealing Sn.43.

In conclusion, your summing-up is a straight appeal to authority. If the objective of outlawing spanking is to achieve a net reduction in harm, then there is much to suggest that this strategy, at best, will achieve nothing--at worst, it could create a whole new set of problems. This is an entirely reasonable conclusion, Dawg, and one that is supported by legitimate studies. I don’t think the authors made their case, and I did explain why. And your final claim that I argued that “all” conservatives are sadists is ridiculous, with all due respect. I made a point that you have been unable to refute, though, in more than 3,000 words: the vast majority of those who support physical punishment of other human beings happens to be politically conservative. Why, do you suppose that is? Don’t duck—give us an answer.


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