November 15, 2011

Aren't You All Just the Most Wonderful People!

Regular readers are familiar with my extensive writing on the abuse and mistreatment of children. My concern extends beyond physical abuse (although I've written many posts about it), and includes a detailed examination of what is much more common: the everyday emotional and psychological abuse of children, in forms that are accepted and approved by the majority of adults. Because of my focus on this subject, I've read a fair amount about the Paterno-Sandusky-Penn State story.

I would have read more, but I find most of the commentary profoundly disheartening and sometimes sickening. As I read about this latest horror story, I kept thinking: We've seen all this before -- and nothing changes. The phenomenon is largely identical to what one might experience reading about the current "crisis" on the economic front or in foreign policy. This, we are assured -- where this is whatever happens to be the "hot" story of the day or week -- is the breakthrough that will finally sweep away the rot and corruption and usher in a new order. Then, after a few weeks, the story slowly recedes from public awareness, to be replaced by another controversy. And that one will be the breakthrough that will finally sweep away ... well, you see how that goes.

One of the themes common to much of the Paterno coverage is the insistence, mixed either implicitly or explicitly with small or large helpings of self-congratulation, that "we all must protect the children!" The writers who condemn what happened at Penn State (which is all of them) are, by virtue of their heatedly announced condemnation, on the side of the angels, for they are fulfilling their responsibility to "protect the children." They know horrifying, sickening, even evil acts when they see them, and they are dedicated to eliminating them.

With so many people so passionately dedicated to "protecting the children," the safety of children in the future can hardly be in doubt even for a moment. Yet nothing will change -- and the abuse will go on.

For the most part, I don't doubt the sincerity of the writers who are outraged by what happened at Penn State, insofar as this particular story is concerned. I'm sure the pattern of extreme abuse that has been revealed genuinely horrifies them. But reactions of this kind (of every kind, in fact) are shaped and conditioned by the culture in which we live, including by the kinds of behavior that are so common and longstanding that they barely register in people's consciousness. Especially severe instances of cruelty grab our attention; such is the nature of "sensational" events in a culture which finds its primary nourishment in the sensational, while the common forms of cruelty continue uninterrupted.

Moreover, public displays of outrage and condemnation, particularly when engaged in with such unsettling eagerness, are to be distrusted. Anyone and everyone will rush to say, when the spotlight is on him, "No one could possibly care more about protecting children than I do!" The test of his sincerity is what happens when the spotlight moves on, when no one is looking -- no one, that is, except his own conscience and sense of humanity (and God, if he believes in such).

The test of his sincerity also includes what he does not say. I have yet to come across an article about what happened at Penn State that mentions this:
Thirty-one nations fully ban corporal punishment.

Sweden, in 1979, was the first to make it illegal to strike a child as a form of discipline. Since then, many other countries in Europe have also instituted bans, as have New Zealand and some countries in Africa and the Americas.

More than 70 additional nations have specific laws in place that prohibit corporal punishment in schools. You can sort through the table above to see where different countries stand on the issue.

In some cases, such as the United States, there are partial bans in place depending on either location or the age of the children.

For the U.S., corporal punishment is prohibited in public schools for 31 states and the District of Columbia. Two states, Iowa and New Jersey, extend their bans to private schools as well.
Thus, in the United States, corporal punishment is legal in public schools in 19 states, and in private schools in 48 states. In addition, corporal punishment is legal in every home.

I'll keep this simple. I'll put it in bold capital letters:


I refer you to an article I wrote, God help me, in 2004: "From Mild Smacking to Outright Sadism, Torture and War: The Lie of 'Well-Intentioned' Violence." Here is the opening of that essay:
I had begun this essay with a different title: A New Law for Adults -- Moderate Assaults Now Permitted. Can you imagine for one moment that anyone would assent to a law of the kind suggested by that statement? Think about the howls of justified outrage that would greet a proposal to pass a law stating as follows:
After review of many studies and having consulted the opinions of numerous experts, we have concluded that it is sometimes acceptable for one spouse to smack the other, if he or she does so to inflict "moderate punishment" for disapproved behavior. However, we emphasize that this new law should not be taken as permission for any adult to go further. Any violence engaged in by one spouse which results in genuine physical or mental harm to the other will be prosecuted to the full extent permitted by other applicable laws.
Yet physical assaults on children are legal in public schools in 19 states and in private schools in 48 states, and in every home in the Glorious United States of America.

From the ACLU, three years ago:
More than 200,000 US public school students were punished by beatings during the 2006-2007 school year, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union said in a joint report released today. In the 13 states that corporally punished more than 1,000 students per year, African-American girls were twice as likely to be beaten as their white counterparts.

In the 125-page report, "A Violent Education: Corporal Punishment of Children in U.S. Public Schools," the ACLU and Human Rights Watch found that in Texas and Mississippi children ranging in age from 3 to 19 years old are routinely physically punished for minor infractions such as chewing gum, talking back to a teacher, or violating the dress code, as well as for more serious transgressions such as fighting. Corporal punishment, legal in 21 states, typically takes the form of "paddling," during which an administrator or teacher hits a child repeatedly on the buttocks with a long wooden board. The report shows that, as a result of paddling, many children are left injured, degraded, and disengaged from school.

"Every public school needs effective methods of discipline, but beating kids teaches violence and it doesn't stop bad behavior," said Alice Farmer, Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, and author of the report. "Corporal punishment discourages learning, fails to deter future misbehavior and at times even provokes it."

The report found that in the 13 southern states where corporal punishment is most prevalent, African-American students are punished at 1.4 times the rate that would be expected given their numbers in the student population, and African-American girls are 2.1 times more likely to be paddled than might be expected. There is no evidence that these students commit disciplinary infractions at disproportionate rates.

"Minority students in public schools already face barriers to success," said Farmer. "By exposing these children to disproportionate rates of corporal punishment, schools create a hostile environment in which these students may struggle even more."

Students with mental and physical disabilities are also punished at disproportionate rates, with potentially serious consequences for their development. In Texas, for instance, 18.4 percent of the total number of students who were physically punished were special education students, even though they make up only 10.7 percent of the student population.


The report documents several cases in which children were beaten to the point of serious injury. Since educators who beat children have immunity under law from assault proceedings, parents who try to pursue justice for injured children encounter resistance from police, district attorneys, and courts. Parents also face enormous, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles in trying to prevent physical punishment of their children. While some school districts permit parents to sign forms opting out of corporal punishment for their children, the forms are often ignored.


Selected Witness Accounts:

"He took me into the office and gave me three licks. … He made me hold onto the wall and he paddled me. … It hurt for about two hours, it felt like fire under my butt."
– Matthew S., who was paddled in second grade for throwing food in a school cafeteria in the Mississippi Delta.

"The other kids were watching and laughing. It made me want to fight them… When you get a paddling and you see everyone laugh at you, it make you mad and you want to do something about it."
– Peter S., a middle school student in the Mississippi Delta.

"What made me so angry: he's three years old, he was petrified. He didn't want to go back to school, and he didn't want to start his new school. I was so worried that this was going to constantly be with him, equating going to school with being paddled."
– Rose T., mother of a 3-year-old boy in Texas who was bruised from physical punishment after he refused to stop playing with his shoes in class.

"I went into the principal's office. … He gave me a chair and said hold onto the chair. The paddle had holes in it. Then he just did three swats. … I was hit on my buttocks. … There were holes in the paddle to make it go faster. … It hurt very much. There were definitely red marks and then swelling… almost welt-like markings. It didn't last for more than a couple days. … It left me feeling very humiliated. I think there were several levels of emotion. Physical pain, mental humiliation. … And being a female at that age, it was like there was this older man hitting me on the butt. That's weird… even at that age I knew it was inappropriate."
– Allison G., a recent graduate punished as a teenager in Texas for being late to class multiple times.

"I've heard this said at my school and at other schools: ‘This child should get less whips, it'll leave marks.' Students that are dark-skinned, it takes more to let their skin be bruised. Even with all black students, there is an imbalance: darker-skinned students get worse punishment."
– Account of Abrea T., former teacher in rural Mississippi.

"I see corporal punishment as a form of slavery. Beating on the slaves was how the headman got them to do something… we're focused so much on making kids do what we want. Think about the mental capacity that this kind of treatment leaves our children with. We are telling them we don't respect them. They leave that principal's office and they think, ‘they don't consider me a human being.' That young person loses self-respect."
– Account from Doreen W., school board member in a Mississippi Delta town.
Since the time of that ACLU report, two more states have outlawed corporal punishment in public schools, so some progress is being made. But corporal punishment is still legal in public schools in 19 states, and in private schools in 48 states -- and in every home. I have yet to see even one of the many wonderful people expressing metaphysical outrage about the Penn State story mention this fact.

So I repeat:


I spoke of the endlessly repeating pattern of momentary outrage followed by forgetfulness, a pattern which will doubtless occur still another time with the Penn State story. I wrote an article in October 2009 about the Roman Polanski controversy, which was just one more among countless "sensational" stories. Among my points was this one:
Most people, and certainly most people in the United States, will not condemn cruel behavior toward children by adults in anything approaching a consistent and meaningful manner. For an examination of emotional and psychological cruelty to children, see the discussion here and here (and follow the links for much more; you'll find still more links here). Very few people condemn such cruelty, for many people, and most parents, inflict such cruelty on children with great frequency. They consider such methods of childrearing to be "proper" and "correct," and they believe they treat children cruelly "for the child's own good."

This inconsistency becomes even more marked when we note how common physical cruelty toward children is. See "When the Demons Come," "The Search for Underlying Causes, and Why Spanking Is Always Wrong," and "From Mild Smacking to Outright Torture and War: The Lie of 'Well-Intentioned Violence.'" I also direct you to my discussion of the heated and fundamentally hypocritical Mark Foley controversy, and of corporal punishment in public schools: "The Politics of Lies: Suffer the Children." I emphasize: corporal punishment in public schools -- which means you pay for the torture of children. On the identical point, see the ACLU report here (pdf).

As noted, individuals are correct to condemn Polanski's actions, and they should condemn them. However, until and unless they demonstrate that they understand the much more common forms of cruelty toward children -- and until and unless they condemn that cruelty as well -- their condemnations of Polanski (and of similar behavior by others), however impassioned and even sincere they might be, represent nothing more than an isolated instance of happening to stumble upon the truth. It is very easy to condemn a figure such as Polanski: such condemnation involves no risk of any kind (indeed, for many people, the failure to condemn is much more likely to open them to criticism from those tribes with which they identify and to which they belong), nor does such condemnation imperil their belief systems.

A heinous crime such as rape -- rape of anyone, adult or child -- is comparatively rare. How often do adults treat children cruelly in the much more common ways I mention above, and that I have analyzed in detail in the past (and which I will soon analyze in still further detail)? Why, every minute of every day, all around you. Do you react with horror when the angry parent smacks a child at the supermarket? You should. Do you intercede to protect the child? I would not suggest that you should in every instance; it might be very inadvisable, for a number of reasons. But you should want to. Most people don't. Many people approve the parent's behavior, and many other parents treat their own children the same way.

For these reasons (and many more), while I regard the condemnations of Polanski as correct in a broad sense, I view them as largely insignificant. I also regard them as worse than insignificant in one crucial way: we are eager to condemn the most extreme crimes, especially when that condemnation carries no personal risk of any kind, precisely because we do not wish to confront and condemn cruelty that is much more widespread. The eager condemnation of the extreme particular instance allows us to avoid a much more threatening and fundamental truth.

This is the same mechanism that I examined in my discussion of the behavior and meaning of those I call "the torture obsessives" ("By seeking to localize the evil in only one aspect of the much broader and more fundamental evil involved and within a falsely delimited period of time, the torture obsessives would thus whitewash the American project as a whole."). The mechanism is an especially effective means of avoidance. The torture obsessives seek to avoid far more uncomfortable truths about America the Good, America the Exceptional; the Polanski obsessives seek to avoid far more uncomfortable truths concerning their view of children and how we should treat them.
I want to reassure those readers who may tire of my mentioning these issues that even my realism, or cynicism as you may style it, is not without limits. I fully understand that all this has changed with the Penn State story and the widespread reaction to it. I have no doubt that this is the genuine breakthrough event that will finally change everything.

After all, with so many wonderful people in the world, how can I possibly believe that anyone, even a helpless, defenseless child, will ever be harmed again?

[In addition to the links provided above, much more on this subject will be found in "Meaningful Connections."]