Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Golden Rule

There used to be a slapstick "joke" of sorts in which a parent is depicted as giving a spanking to a young boy while sternly saying "this will teach you that it's wrong to hit your sister!" The idea is that there is a certain irony behind using physical violence as a means to teach the wrongfulness of the use of physical violence. Some parents, especially those who think that spanking is a great way to discipline children, don't think the joke is funny, even though they get the point. My own experience has been that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but I've learned that some parents can be extremely sensitive about this topic. Trying to talk to a pro-spanking parent about alternative methods of guidance for children is rather like talking to creationists about evolution, so I've learned to just smile, nod politely, and hope that calmer heads will prevail.

Of course, that never works. When it comes to dogmatically held ideologies there's no such thing as a calm head. Ordinarily I don't go in for Star Trek references, but there was an episode in the original 1960s series that starred Frank Gorshin as an alien named Bele who was all black on one side of his body and all white on the other, and he was relentlessly pursuing another alien across many star systems or whatever, and he tried to enlist the help of Kirk and the Enterprise in his pursuit. When the other alien is found many sparks fly, because these two guys hate each other with a passion. Kirk and the others are mystified by the level of animosity, and they press them to explain themselves, pointing out that they come from a common culture and have much in common and ought to get along better. The two aliens appear equally mystified by this, and the Bele character points out the "huge difference" between them: "Lokai is white on the right side. All his people are white on the right side." And we're all supposed to go "Whoa, that's really deep, man!"

The Israelis and the Palestinians could change their names to the Beleans and the Lokaians and do a remake of that show. The Israelis, angry for some reason about a barrage of thousands of missiles flying into their towns and villages made an incursion into the Gaza strip, killing 130 people, including some children. So a group calling themselves the Galilee Freedom Brigade launched an incursion of their own into a rabbinical seminary in Jerusalem and shot eight people. In the Strip, the reaction to this terrorist attack was celebration in the streets, with the handing out of sweets to the kiddies and prayers of thanksgiving in the local mosques. It's always good to strike a blow for freedom by murdering some seminarians, I guess. Some of the more militant citizens of Gaza said that Israel is just reaping the seeds it has sown, and I suppose that if one of your children had been killed by an Israeli incursion, you might feel the same way; but perhaps you could have avoided the Israeli incursion if you had not been firing rockets at anybody in the first place.

The lex talionis mindset seems firmly in place in the Middle East. Someone strikes at you, and you strike back. Curiously, the reasoning seems to be that it is wrong for the Israelis to kill innocent civilians, and so to punish them for doing something so morally outrageous the response is to strike back at them by--killing civilians? Well, OK, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and there is a new version of the Golden Rule floating about here. Instead of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, just do unto others as they have already done unto you, provided what they did unto you was morally wrong. If what they did was morally right there's no need to do anything in reply. This way you're absolutely guaranteed to be always doing the wrong thing, but at least there's a small chance that you'll have the last word in the fight, like Bele and Lokai, who return to their home planet only to find that it has been completely destroyed by a race war. You'd think that something like that would help them to bury the hatchet, as it were, and not in each other's heads, but no, like ideologues everywhere the go down to the planet trying to kill each other, and Kirk and the rest fly sadly away in their starship, shaking their heads at the folly of mankind--or, well, whateverkind Bele and Lokai are supposed to be.

It's hard to hold out much hope for peace in the middle east when the people in charge of trying to figure out what to do in response to some perceived wrong are complete morons, and ordinary citizens find that fact something to celebrate in the streets.


Curious said...

I'm curious as to why you think being pro-spanking is tantamount to an "ideological" position. Not the idea of preferring honey to vinegar - for one thing, I have used that approach myself, so I don't need explanation of it, and for another, a preference for honey does not set up a basis for saying the opposite preference has something objectionable about it. Just curious.

Scott Carson said...

Personally, I'm a lot more curious as to why, in a post that is about the Arab-Israeli conflict, you're only curious about the anecdote used to introduce the main topic.

I guess some things in life are just mysterious.

Anonymous said...

Mostly it is because for the main point of your post your ideas are so obviously sensible as to elicit no comment - there is nothing unclear as to wish for greater clarity.

Scott Carson said...

Well, I wish I had as sensible an answer to your question as you have to mine. Not all spankers are ideologues, of course, nor are all those who oppose spanking. But there are a few on either side, and they were the ones I had principally in mind.

It may not be objectionable to prefer vinegar to honey, but in my opinion it's a little weird.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I suppose there are ideologues on both sides. Like the Mama who lined up the 8 kids on Saturday night for a spanking, just to cover what she missed during the week.

Actually, I personally tend to think, at least in philosophical terms, that if vinegar is not forbidden, then BOTH honey and vinegar are better than either honey or vinegar alone. That is, I like honey in my tea, but not on my salad. I like vinegar on my salad, and not in my tea. Isn't a carrot and a stick a better motivational tool shop than either just the carrot or just the stick? But this of course depends on whether the stick really is an allowable tool.

Scott Carson said...

Wow, you really know how to work a metaphor!

My own experience has been that, on those occasions where I was tempted by the stick, it was because I was angry. That makes me suspect that there are times when it's not the common good, or the good of the children, that are motivating me.

I once, in another forum, quoted a passage from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas to the effect that it is "always" wrong per se to strike another, except to protect oneself from mortal harm. That quotation was met with quotations about "sparing the rod and spoiling the child" (misquotations, I should say, since I don't believe the passages quoted had anything to do with disciplining children by means of striking them). I suppose there's some wiggle room when it comes to the giving of reasons for such things, so I can only go by what my own feelings tend to be in such circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Metaphor-mania. At least it's better than simple mania.

Yes, I have had the same experience of feeling (after-the-fact) that the inclination to use physical a response may have come from my own anger. And of course this logically implies that the inclination to use violence is not (or at least may not be) supportable by reason - in those cases. And an intelligent man does not trust his own motives when his passions are aroused.

But to balance that, there are times when a child does something wrong that interiorly amuses me just a bit, and I still know they need to be disciplined. Some of such times, it seems to me after thinking it through, that spanking is the most reasonable punishment - achieves the most attitude adjustment with the least pain and suffering, including interior suffering. So, on such occasions it would not appear that personal passion clouds the issue.

Further, in speaking to my older (teen) children, they confirm that there were times when they definitely would have preferred to be spanked and get the whole thing over and done with than be forced (when very young) to sit in a corner for ages (subjective) or to write an essay (when older), or other punishments that of necessity extend over time.

So there would appear to be evidence that the choice of a physical method of discipline is (a) not automatically to be understood as springing from anger, and (b) not clearly worse to the child than the alternatives.

I have never thought that I really understood the proverbs about "spare the rod and spoil the child" as clearly as I would like. Do you know of any exegesis that explores those passages well?

Scott Carson said...

If the point is to modify behavior--that is, teach children to do certain things and refrain from doing certain things independently of what they may desire--then I'm not sure I see the point of determining what method to employ simply on the basis of the degree to which the children themselves believe the method to be efficacious (or enjoyable, unpleasant, etc). I mean, the whole point of behavioral modification in children seems to me to be predicated on the assumption that the children themselves are not the best judges of what's what.

The question really has to be, rather, what ought I to do in order to bring about the desired behavioral modification, where the word "ought" has both a moral sense (what is permitted to me to do) and a prudential sense (what is most likely to work)? Possibly spanking will work, but I'm not sure it's permitted (quotations from Proverbs aside). Other methods may work equally well, if not better, and if it's a difference between the use of physical violence as opposed to the writing of essays or confinement to quarters, it's not difficult to see why a kid might actually prefer spanking to other methods, since kids don't really think that physical violence is morally wrong to begin with--they use it all the time themselves, and they don't have a very good notion of what's morally justifiable and what's not, and, well, as you point out, it may not "hurt" all that much in comparison to the absolute agony of going to one's room for ten minutes (of course, if it had been their own idea to go there, just to punish us for not letting them do something, then their perspective on that alleged agony would be different...).

On the "spare the rod" stuff I can only say that I have looked at various commentaries on the passages in question (mostly from Proverbs), and in every case they point out that the word translated as "rod" is a Hebrew word that refers to a shepherd's crook, which shepherds did not use to beat their sheep but to guide them in the right direction. To be comforted by the rod and the staff, then, is simply to trust in God's wisdom in laying down the moral law for us, and by refusing to take the responsibility for training our children in following the moral law we "spoil" them in the sense of letting their native instincts, which are often at odds with the moral law, govern their behavior. They get what they think they want, but not what they really need, so they are often happier (=spoiled?) in a certain sense of the word, but not in the moral sense (where "happiness" means attainment of one's proper end rather than merely what one's drives and desires lead one to seek out for the sake of temporary pleasure).

There are those who argue that it is morally justifiable to use physical violence, not only in the correction of children's behavior, but in the correction of any wrongdoing. These are folks who would endorse capital punishment, of course, but in principle there would be no reason for these folks to oppose other forms of violence in a correctional setting. Of course, children are not wrongdoers in the proper sense of the term, since they often do not understand the nature of the wrongs that they commit, and in many cases they do not even understand that what they are doing is at all wrong (some children have this bizarre idea that parents are arbitrary and capricious; go figure). Still, I've heard plenty of folks claim that it's OK to use physical violence to correct the behavior of children because it's "for their own good". This, of course, begs the question, but try pointing that out to an ideologue. More to the point are those who claim that spanking works more quickly than anything else in cases where speed is of the essence (e.g., the child who is reaching out for the hot stove, about to run into traffic, etc.). This, I think, is sheer smoke and mirror talk, but again, this is a difficult point to get the ideologue to see.

My brother-in-law once said to me that "children are just chattel". I fear that there are many spankers who would agree. Fortunately, my brother-in-law has no children.