Saturday, June 04, 2011

Punishment and punishment

We were talking the other day about discipline. Someone's toddler nephew has recently got into the habit of hitting his sister, and the Big People are trying to make it stop.

In addition to reprimands and stern warnings, spanking is on the list of methods used to stop it.

I think it's ironic. You think it's wrong for the kid to hit other people, so you hit him to make him stop.

I could be mistaken, but to his little brain, won't the logical process look something like this?

I don't like something my sister does. I hit her.

The Olds don't seem to like me hitting. They hit me.

Hitting must be the standard response to something you don't like.

I shall go on hitting my sister when she bugs me, then.

Maybe I'm oversimplifying. I know I'm not diminishing the need for discipline and boundaries and, not being a parent myself, I am not criticising my friend's family or telling them what to do. Just questioning whether theirs is the best approach -- questioning stuff being one of the things my brain is constantly occupied in.

It got me thinking of how society does exactly the same thing to the people who do Bad Stuff ("bad" as defined, usually, by the majority and by the law. I'm not saying crime isn't bad... I'm just asking, who got to decide on the definitions of crime?)

I have a friend who, from time to time, posts news articles on Facebook about the latest child sex violation case to hit the Malaysian news. It doesn't take long for her other friends to pop up with expressions of outrage or just... rage. It reminds me of the time a few years ago when a few of us were having lunch and somehow, conversation turned to the case of the moment.

(It's a sad thing that for a relatively small country, Malaysia has a thick history of child abuse. And that's only the cases that get reported. We do tend to conform to the general Asian practice of sweeping things under rugs and pretending there are no lumps.)

Around the table, my friends were talking about what the offender deserved to have done to him because of what he'd done to his very young victim. Things got a little graphic and I was stunned by how violent my nice little urban acquaintances, with their expensive chemical perms and manicures and designer outfits, could be.

And then came my turn.

"You don't think that maybe whatever you think should be done to him in retaliation for these horrible things... maybe all of that pain is already in him, from something that happened before, and that's why he's like this now?"

Silence. And glaring.

"Are you saying he doesn't deserve to be punished?"

This is me four years after that lunch. I still am not saying he should have been let off the hook. My point, then and now, was that abusers are usually abuse victims who've finally got big and strong enough to act on the powerless feeling that most often arises from being abused. Unfortunately, frequently they turn on someone weaker as a victim, rather than confronting their abusers -- because no matter how big you get, it's hard not to feel smaller than the person who shattered you to fragments. And then their victims grow up and hurt some other, smaller person. And then that smaller person grows up and...

... and while this pattern repeats on and on, like the seasons of a low-quality daytime soap opera, we sit at our linen-clothed tables eating expensive fusion food while shielded from the relentless humidity that, except for our being so fortunate as to have access to air conditioning, should be ours to experience in sticky discomfort. And so it is that we get to take for granted the grace that has put us here, all pretty and smug in our weekday make-up and fancy office outfits, instead of on the front page of the news to be hated and spat at by all who see.

I'm only asking if we even know why punishment as we understand it exists, in our families and in what to many of us comfortable middle-class types who do not have careers in law will only ever be a cloudy abstract idea: the justice system. Is it for the sake of correction, so that after the event the perpetrator will have a firmer grasp on the makings of a life at peace with him/herself and others?

Or is it just a slap on the wrist, a retaliation for making our family/community/country look bad and for wrecking our blissful little delusion that we've constructed a safe place for ourselves and our families, far from evils large and small?

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