Monday, 26 October 2009

State-sanctioned abuse is not 'discipline'

Last weekend, when I grabbed the newspaper from the little old man who is so gingerly perched on the island in the middle of traffic that I'm nervous to move too quickly lest everything topple over and throw him to his demise in front of a sugar cane tractor, I was alarmed. Not by the newspaper man - he's safe - but by the enormous front page photo and the story that accompanied it. And so I became caught up in a frenzied clack-clacking on my computer, filled with outrage and wonder, which I then had to suspend because of other work. And alas, the outrage has not returned in sufficient measure to pick up exactly where I left off. But here's the photo in question, with my own description excerpted below, as I began to write it last weekend.

(The front page picture of a senior teacher at a local secondary boys' school who made the decision to wait at the school gates and publicly flog any student who arrived late. Do you need to re-read that? I'll give you a minute. The photographer went one better than that, though. He included in the shot not just the teacher with his cane or stick or whatever it was, but him actually taking hold of a student and beating him. Another minute? Take your time.

The above shot was taken from the online version of the story, and was not the one used on the front page of the paper version. In this one, the child is taller than the teacher, and is glancing disdainfully at the man as if to say "dude, do you know how long it took me to fix my pants like this? You're really harshing my look here." So it's an offensive image, but not as immediately jarring as the front page photo of the smaller child who looks about 11 and taken quite by surprise.)

Since that story was published, the debate has opened up quite a bit about the legitimacy of flogging in schools. And you know what? I don't understand it. I don't understand how we get into heated arguments around whether it is an effective disciplinary measure to engage in the state-sanctioned beating of other human beings when we've already answered that question in the negative. Remember? We used to have this monstrosity called the cat o' nine tails with which we beat convicted criminals? And this and all other forms of judicial corporal punishment were formally declared inhumane and consequently unconstitutional by the Barbados Supreme Court?

Yet, in 2009, pastors and educators and Matthew Farleys abound, writing articles and giving interviews contrasting crime and social statistics and all manner of 'moral indicators' - whatever those are - in countries where flogging is banned with those where it is still practiced, and arguing on this basis that beating the crap out of children represents the yellow brick road to Utopia. And I used to get all caught up in those arguments myself. I used to yell from my side of the aisle about how Caribbean societies seemed so well-behaved because 1) children who are systematically beaten often don't manifest learned, violent behaviours until they are much older, making it harder (also because of high numbers of migration) to draw a straight line from a beaten child to his criminal behaviour; 2) becoming an offender within the judicial system is not the only manifestation of being generally screwed up; and 3) there are plenty other factors at work keeping our 'moral indicators' as the moral majority would like than corporal punishment - just give a glance to the 'crimes' still on the law books, like homosexuality and dressing like a woman, as opposed to those not on the law books, like marital rape. And on I would go blah-blahing within the parameters of reasoned insanity.

I once even got my bristle board and Sharpie out and picketed the headmaster's office at my school, because he was about to flog (behind closed doors and with no one else present) a teenaged girl who had filled condoms with water and distributed them to her friends to have a laugh.


That's what my sign said. I was 15 years old, and traumatized by the notion that a grown man was going to splay a 16-year-old girl across his desk and beat her, and we were saying that was alright because she happened to be on a school compound between the hours of 9 and 3 and he happened to be called Headmaster.

But these days, I hardly get that far into debates about whether flogging works as a disciplinary action, because I find it absurd that it is even an option. Sure it works in the short term to rule and silence a population with fear, violence and intimidation. We have countless examples of that throughout history, and even today; and we condemn them all. What changes when the population in question is below the age of 18? I would think we'd be more indignant and less willing to do harm to those we're meant to protect.

And how can we draw so neat a line between child abuse - with which this region is struggling more and more every year - and flogging in schools? I hear all kinds of silly little differentiators: "Flogging should not be done in anger, and only by principals and senior teachers." Because that's not at all inhumane. Let's pencil the offending student in for a 2:00 p.m. flogging, yet expect her to be academically productive in the meantime, and then march her off to headteachers' chambers at the appointed hour for a detached, methodical beating. Yeah, that's much better. Then there's the old "I was flogged as a child, and it didn't do me any harm. I turned out great!" Yeah, you turned out great alright. You turned out to be an adult who thinks it's ok to hit children. Well done, you.

I was flogged as a child, and it did me harm. It did me harm to realize that the people I trusted not to hurt me could not be trusted after all, and that their kindness and care were conditional upon certain behaviours that I was still learning. That horrified me. It did me harm to watch my neighbour and primary school classmate walking up the street from school, limping, and when we, concerned, pulled back her skirt, to see her fair skin black-and-blue and purple, bruised, swollen and tender from a teacher's bamboo rod. I cried for her that evening, and had trouble sleeping for days after. It did me harm to have to stand up for myself as an 11-yr old, to tell the principal I would not, in fact, allow him to hit me because I had gotten one problem out of 100 wrong (one strike per wrong answer), and then to feel the victory seep away from me after I sat down again and realized that no one was going to defend the students who had gotten 10 wrong, or 20, or 30. It did me harm to watch my sisters awakened in the middle of the night and struck for some newly-discovered transgression, like reading the wrong type of book, or saying hello to the wrong type of neighbour. I love my parents, and had some great teachers, but the fact that I'm not currently incarcerated for murder doesn't mean none of that did me harm.

Human beings have short memories. So sure, we feel fine now. But children's worlds are small, and the adults who occupy them very, very big. It's time for us to stop finding ways to justify organized, state-sanctioned abuse, get off our lazy asses and parent our children.


  1. Thank you for this whole post, every word of it. I linked it at my place.

  2. Thank you for this post as well. I am tired of trying to explain to some people that you simply do not have to inflict pain and terror on a child in order to instill discipline in that child.


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