July 05, 2004

From Mild Smacking to Outright Sadism, Torture and War: The Lie of "Well-Intentioned" Violence

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.
With the exception of the most emotionally deadened and hardened people, those people who do not care too much about the extent to which they might reveal their own propensities to violence, I cannot imagine that anyone would view such a law as justified, moral or even humane in the most basic sense. Yet, when it comes to the most defenseless human beings of all -- infants and young children -- even an allegedly "civilized" nation sees fit to treat those children as insensate, unfeeling objects, and as property belonging to parents, who may now feel free to inflict violence on their children [link no longer working], allegedly "for their own good":
British lawmakers on Monday voted against a ban on parents spanking their children, and decided instead to tighten existing rules.

After a three-hour debate in the House of Lords, peers rejected the ban by 250 votes to 75.

Instead, they voted by 226-91 to allow moderate spanking, but make it easier to prosecute parents who physically or mentally abuse their children by spanking.


Britain is out of step on the issue with several European countries, including Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Austria, where all physical punishment of children is illegal.

Pressure groups insist children must have the same legal protection from being hit as adults and had called for the law to be changed. Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has repeatedly shied away from a ban, fearing it will be accused of intruding into family affairs.

The current law dates back to a case in 1860, when a judge ruled that physical punishment of children should be allowed as a "reasonable chastisement.'' ...

In the House of Lords on Monday, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester successfully proposed a measure to allow moderate spanking, but remove the "reasonable chastisement'' defense if parents harmed a child physically or mentally. If the amendment is also approved by the Commons, the new law will make it easier for authorities to prosecute violent parents.

Several peers called for an outright ban.

"Smacking can lead to battering which can lead to death," said Liberal Democrat peer Lord Thomas. "We are presented with medical reports, social service records, school records and one can see the route to death which starts with the initial smack."

Independent peer Lord Ackner disagreed. "I think we are overlooking that parents have a unique relationship with their children and in order to fulfill their parental responsibilities they have powers which they don't possess in relation to anyone else," he said.

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith backed Lester's measure and said it would "have the effect of preventing harm to children without criminalizing parents for minor disciplinary steps."

Blair's government ordered its Labour peers to vote against a ban, but allowed them a free vote on Lester's amendment.

"The government wants an outcome that maintains the balance between the parent's right to discipline and protecting the child," said Blair's official spokesman. "That is why we don't want to criminalize parents. That is why we are opposed to outright bans."
It is a measure of the limitless denial in which the great majority of people live that the leaders of a country can seriously offer arguments such as those quoted above to justify violence against children. And make no mistake: any kind of smack, no matter how "light" or "moderate," is violence. But Blair's government doesn't "want to criminalize parents," for committing criminal acts.

It is indeed true that parents have a "unique relationship" with their children. Children depend on their parents for everything -- for shelter, for food, and for emotional and mental support and sustenance, for their very survival. That same total dependence is then used by some adults to justify violence against those same children, violence which those same parents would not be permitted against any adult. But many people are so deluded that they believe it is part of "their parental responsibilities" to assault their own children.

How would you feel if the following happened? You are at dinner with a friend. The friend expresses disapproval of your table manners. When you fail to conform to his suggested changes in your behavior, he stands up, walks over to your chair and says: "I'm sorry, but I'm only doing this for your own good." And then he slaps you.

Would you be outraged? Would you feel violated, in your person and autonomy? Would you not want to be friends any longer with a person who would permit himself such behavior, who would allow himself to believe that he was justified in inflicting physical violence on another human being? Yet we see parents do this kind of thing with children in restaurants and other public places all the time. God only knows what they might permit themselves at home, in private. And precisely because children are dependent on their parents for their survival, and because children have nowhere else to go -- they can hardly change parents with the ease with which an adult might look for a new friend -- the damage inflicted is incalculable, and likely to last a lifetime.

In another news story from today, we see a demonstration of the other end of this continuum -- and the unbelievable horrors to which this kind of denial can lead [link no longer working]:
OSHAWA, Ont. (CP) - Two brothers kept caged and chained in their family home over 13 years reacted bitterly Monday after their adoptive parents were sentenced to nine months in jail for treatment the judge said was horrendous but well-intentioned.

The boys, who were adopted as toddlers and raised in nearby Blackstock, said their parents deserved longer terms and complained the judge appeared to blame them in part for their ordeal.

"I don't feel (justice) has been served," said one boy, 17, as he stood shoulder to shoulder with his 18-year-old brother.

"I feel they should get more time."

Even close relatives of the couple denounced the sentence as too lenient given the judge's description of the boys' treatment as "near torture." ...

When investigators visited the ramshackle two-storey farmhouse northeast of Toronto, one boy was found in a makeshift cage that was strapped to a wall and padlocked.

They were often tied to their beds, sometimes handcuffed. At one time, one brother was forced to sleep in a bare dog cage.

They were kept in diapers because they couldn't get to the washroom, subjected to rectal examinations and often beaten with a variety of household implements.

They lived in such fear, court heard, they ate their own feces to hide evidence of accidents and, deprived of water, felt compelled to drink their own urine.

Ontario Court Judge Donald Halikowski blasted the couple's "ill-informed system of discipline" as demeaning and damaging to the boys.

However, Halikowski said their behaviour was "underscored by good intentions," that there was no evidence the parents were sadistic. ...

Child welfare workers rejected Halikowski's suggestion that the apprehension of the boys may have caused them more emotional damage than the abuse from their parents.

"We are disappointed," said Wanda Secord of the Durham Children's Aid Society.

"We had hoped for a stronger sentence."

The younger son has denounced his adoptive mother as a "stupid bitch" and said he didn't have a childhood "because of her stupidness."

The older boy said the "unbearable" crib incidents had continued to haunt him.
If you had any doubts about the immense significance of Miller's work, this ought to convince you once and for all. The crucial point to note is that the justifications offered for this monstrous sadism are precisely those justifications offered for "mild smacking." This judge -- like many other adults -- appears to sincerely believe that these adults' actions were "underscored by good intentions," and that there was "no evidence" that the parents "were sadistic." The light sentences he imposed only underscore the depth of his own denial.

Note the ungraspable magnitude of this denial: Putting a young boy in a makeshift, padlocked cage is not sadistic. Tying children to their beds, with handcuffs, is not sadistic. Keeping children in diapers when they are too old to need them -- if only they could get to a bathroom -- subjecting them to "rectal examinations," and beating them often is not sadistic. And creating such fear in children that they will eat their own feces and drink their own urine is not sadistic.

Any person who defends or minimizes such acts to any extent at all is capable of inflicting the most unimaginable tortures on anyone. If you wonder what makes possible horrors such as those which occurred in the Third Reich, wonder no more.

I had wanted to return to my series on "The Roots of Horror." Very regrettably, these latest news stories provide the opportunity. The denial which underlies the justifications for the new law in Britain and for the judge's comments is the same denial that leads to criminal adults, depressed and sometimes suicidal adults, incalculable suffering, unprovoked wars of aggression, and any number of other horrors. I have talked about some of those issues in previous entries in this series, and I will have much more to say on these topics and a number of others in the coming weeks.

For the moment, I will only review a few salient points. The analysis I am offering in this series is derived in significant part from the work of Alice Miller. (Here is Miller's website, with links to her books and various articles.) In a post several months ago, I explained why I began to seek again for underlying causes, and I used the continued and altogether remarkable resistance on the part of many supporters of our current foreign policy to acknowledge obvious gaps and inconsistencies in their arguments. After discussing a number of other factors, I wrote:
There is another area that appears to be pointedly neglected by many hawks: the human costs of our actions over the last year. Our government follows this course as a matter of policy: our own non-fatal casualties are significantly undercounted and/or ignored, and the deaths and injuries to innocent Iraqis are almost never mentioned. It is as if, in a very deep sense, these human costs of our policies are not fully real to certain people, or they refuse to allow them to become real. One would think that a strong advocate of our foreign policy would at least have the good grace to acknowledge the costs to American soldiers and to their families, even if they won't mention dead Iraqis, but they almost never mention either of these subjects.

At a certain point, one is justified in thinking that much deeper psychological mechanisms are involved -- and to conclude that the manner in which the debate about foreign policy has been and continues to be conducted obviously involves much more than the surface issues which people are willing to identify. Repeated denial and avoidance, across a wide range of issues and engaged in by very large numbers of people, requires an explanation which consists of more than noting that people will look for information that tends to support what they already believe. That is certainly true -- but it isn't enough to explain many people's seemingly limitless ability to deny what is literally screaming in their faces.

So I began rereading Alice Miller. Here is one obvious and very important point about why her work has so much explanatory power: the one universal experience that all of us share -- an experience that crosses almost all cultures, all economic classes, and all political systems -- is that we have all been children. And as Miller demonstrates in her books in great detail, the experiences of early childhood leave patterns of thinking, feeling and behavior which last all our lives. This crucial fact is confirmed more and more, by numerous studies. Miller further shows that the most basic of the mechanisms that she analyzes are to be found in every culture, and in every historical period -- most notably, the commandment that we are to obey and respect our elders, and especially our parents.

Thus, all the facets of the denial-obedience mechanism that I summarized at the beginning of this entry are not to be found only in the United States, or only in the last century. These results can be observed throughout all of mankind's history, in every culture, and across the entire world.
Here is the very brief summary of the denial-obedience mechanism that I set out in that earlier post (and I must stress again that, for a full appreciation of Miller's argument, you need to consult her books):
By demanding obedience above all from a child (whether by physical punishment, by psychological means, or through some combination of both), parents forbid the child from fostering an authentic sense of self. Because children are completely dependent on their parents, they dare not question their parents' goodness, or their "good intentions." As a result, when children are punished, even if they are punished for no reason or for a reason that makes no sense, they blame themselves and believe that the fault lies within them. In this way, the idealization of the authority figure is allowed to continue. In addition, the child cannot allow himself to experience fully his own pain, because that, too, might lead to questioning of his parents.

In this manner, the child is prevented from developing a genuine, authentic sense of self. As he grows older, this deadening of his soul desensitizes the child to the pain of others. Eventually, the maturing adult will seek to express his repressed anger on external targets, since he has never been allowed to experience and express it in ways that would not be destructive. By such means, the cycle of violence is continued into another generation (using "violence" in the broadest sense). One of the additional consequences is that the adult, who has never developed an authentic self, can easily transfer his idealization of his parents to a new authority figure. As Miller says:

"This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called 'healthy normality'--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology."
Returning to the two news stories, here is Miller explaining part of the mechanism that underlies the denial of many (if not most) adults with regard to the cruelty and even outright sadism that is inflicted on countless children. In discussing an excerpt from a book by Phil Donahue (the full excerpt is in this post), Miller notes:
Although Donahue's discussion ostensibly proceeds from the question of which parental behavior might exert a traumatizing and lasting effect on the child, and although it would appear to give priority to concern for the child, the second paragraph shows that basically it is concerned only with liberating parents from justified guilt feelings. They are assured that their actions pose no danger: The child will suffer no harm if he knows that he is being tormented out of "love" and "for his own good." This kind of reassurance that relies on untruths is based on the statements of "experts" quoted here and, I need hardly say, corresponds to the wishes of all parents who are not prepared to question their own behavior.

But might not there be a different way, other than reassurances? Might not one explain to the parents, in all honesty and frankness, why they traumatize their children? Not all of them would stop tormenting their children, but some would. We can be certain, however, that they would not stop if they were told, as were their own parents thirty years earlier, that one slap more or less does no harm, provided they love the child. Although this phrase contains a contradiction, it can continue to be handed down because we are used to it. Love and cruelty are mutually exclusive. No one ever slaps a child out of love but rather because in similar situations, when one was defenseless, one was slapped and then compelled to interpret it as a sign of love. This inner confusion prevailed for thirty or forty years and is passed on to one's own child. That's all. To purvey this confusion to the child as truth leads to new confusions that, although examined in detail by experts, are still confusions. If, on the other hand, one can admit one's errors to the child and apologize for a lack of self-control, no confusions are created.

If a mother can make it clear to a child that at that particular moment when she slapped him her love for him deserted her and she was dominated by other feelings that had nothing to do with the child, the child can keep a clear head, feel respected, and not be disoriented in his relationship to his mother. While it is true that love for a child cannot be commanded, each of us is free to decide to refrain from hypocrisy.
In that post, I commented: "For these reasons, my view is very simple: it is always wrong to hit, slap or spank a child. Always."

But some adults who are prepared to deny the damaging effects of spanking and "light smacking" will use the same arguments to "justify" outright sadism -- just as the judge did. He clings to the notion that "good intentions" lie behind parents' terrifying their children to the extent that those children will eat their own feces and drink their own urine.

What is crucial to see -- and what I know many people will nonetheless deny -- is that these are not different phenomena. They spring from the same roots, have the same ultimate causes, and lead to similar horrors, which differ only in degree, but not in kind. And those same causes lead to the torture, exterminations, war and other nightmares that the world sees over and over again.

As I indicated, I will have much more to say on this subject in the near future. For now, I will leave the final word to Alice Miller. Here is an excerpt from her article entitled, "Every Smack Is a Humiliation":
Many researchers have already proved that corporal punishment can indeed produce obedient children in the short term but, in the long term, it will have serious negative consequences on the child's character and behavior. This disastrous development toward later crimes can be prevented if there is at least one single person who loves and understands the child. During their whole childhood, dictators like Hitler, Stalin or Mao never came across such a helping witness. They learned early on to glorify cruelty and hypocrisy and to justify these actions while committing crimes against millions of people. Millions of others, also exposed to physical maltreatment in childhood, helped them to do so without the slightest remorse.

Children should not be the scapegoats for the painful experiences of adults. The claim that mild punishments (slaps or smacks) have no detrimental effects is still widespread because we learned this message at a very early age from our parents, who had taken it over from their own parents. This conviction helped the child to minimize his suffering and to endure it. Unfortunately, the main damage it causes is precisely our numbness, as well as the lack of sensitivity for our children's pain. The result of the broad dissemination of this damage is that each successive generation is subjected to the tragic effects of seemingly harmless physical "correction." Many parents still think: What didn't hurt me can't hurt my child. They don't realize that their conclusion is wrong because they never challenged their assumption. ...

It is imperative to launch such legislation—prohibiting corporal punishment—all over the world. It does not set out to incriminate anyone but is designed to have a protective and informative function for parents. Sanctions could simply take the form of the obligation for parents to internalize information available today on the consequences of corporal punishment. Information on the "well-meant smack" should therefore be broadcasted to all, since unconscious education to violence takes root very early and inflicts disastrous imprints. The vital interests of society as a whole are at stake.
UPDATE: And if you had wondered about the even more specific relevance of this to other foreign policy events, you shouldn't wonder about that any longer, either:
According to information from the International Red Cross, more than a 100 children are imprisoned in Iraq, including in the infamous prison Abu Ghraib.

The German TV magazine "Report" revealed that there has been abuse of children and youth by the coalition forces.

Mainz - "Between January and May of this year we've registered 107 children, during 19 visits in 6 different detention locations" the representative of the International Red Cross, Florian Westphal, told the TV station SWR's Magazine "Report Mainz". He noted that these were places of detention controlled by coalition troops. According to Westphal the number of children held captive could be even higher.

The TV Magazine also reported of evidence and eye witness reports according to which U.S. soldiers also abused children and youthful detainees. Samuel Provance, a staff sergeant stationed in the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison said that interrogating officers had pressured a 15 or 16 year old girl. Military police had only intervened when the girl was already half undressed. On another occasion, a 16 year old was soaked with water, driven through the cold, and then smeared with mud.
As Miller notes in her article entitled "The Origins of Torture in Endured Child Abuse" (at her site, under Articles):
Many people have claimed to be appalled by the acts of perversion committed by American soldiers on ADULT people, Iraqi prisoners. Amazingly, I have never heard of any such reaction in response to the occasional attempts to expose similar practices committed towards CHILDREN as for instance in British and American schools. There, these practices come under the heading of "education." But the cruelty is the same. The world appears to be surprised that such brutality should rear its head among the American forces.

After all, America presents itself to the international public as the guardian of world peace. There is an explanation for all this, but hardly anyone wants to hear it.
And so now it is revealed that the coalition forces have abused children, as well as adults. That is hardly surprising; in fact, given the underlying causes identified by Miller, it is inevitable.

I urge you to read Miller's entire piece, as well as the other articles at her site.