By Excusing Violence We Legitimise It

A person by the name of Julian Tan wrote a piece for The Huffington Post entitled “Why I Am Glad I Was Spanked As A Child” back in March, which I recently came across. The author has a BA, MEng Oxon, is a PhD student, and is Vice President of the Cambridge University Students’ Union – International, and so is a smart chap.

I think it’s sad when an intelligent person attempts to rationalise and morally legitimise the violence (belt-spanking and knuckle-striking) they experienced in childhood at the hands of their parents. What’s revealing about the piece is that it’s almost entirely an exercise in repeating his parents’ various justification for hitting him with a belt. Only once does he actually say why he is glad he was spanked:

“In fact, I owe it to their ‘tough love’ for shaping me into this responsible member of society, who knows to respect his elders and to put in honest hard work into everything that I want.”

The implicit premise in this claim is that in the absence of ‘tough love’ he would not have become a responsible, respectful, honest and hard-working member of society. However, this is not a valid proposition because it is unfalsifiable, which means there is no way of proving it false with experimentation, and so we cannot accept as objectively true any conclusions based on it. The author can believe it if he wants, but he cannot prove it and therefore he cannot claim it is a fact.

Here’s what I think. Julian Tan had violent parents, but the emotional pain of admitting this is so great that he would rather pretend he didn’t; he would rather believe that he had faultless parents. Now, almost certainly he believes violence is wrong in general, and so the only way to believe that the violence used against him by his parents wasn’t wrong is to find a way to make a exception to the rule for it; one that is plausible enough for him to accept. One of the ways he has found is the ‘tough love’ claim above, which we’ve shown is unfalsifiable and therefore irrational. Another way is by using his parents’ justifications for using violence against him as proof that the exception to the rule ‘violence is bad’ is valid. Of course, this relies on the premise that everything his parents say is true, which is obviously false, but we get some insight into why he would accept as plausible such an absurd premise early in the article when he says disobeying his parents “orders” was a “cardinal sin that never went unpunished”.

On the face of it it appears that Julian Tan was fortunate. Judging by his academic prowess, the violence he suffered at the hands of his father didn’t seem to hamper his intellectual development at least, although we can never know whether he would have been even smarter had his dad not beat him with a belt. Having said that, the fact that he is implicitly advocating the use of violence against defenseless human beings doesn’t say much for the rationality of his ethics and is a sign of a lack of integrity. Of his general mental health we cannot speak as we have no information.

The problem with believing that his parents were correct to use violence to ‘discipline’ him is that through such publicly available rationalisations of parental violence he is implicitly saying it’s okay to hit your children with belts. To be fair he does refrain from explicitly advocating the use of corporal punishment as a universal good, which is something, but it’s not enough. Those who lack the critical thinking skills required to identify the flaws in his reasoning will almost certainly draw the wrong conclusions having read his article. They will go away believing or reassured that the use of violence or the threat of violence as a way of nurturing a newly minted human mind is moral and effective, which is not true.

Further problems arise if and when Julian has children of his own. Because he feels glad that he was spanked this is likely to lead him to believe that his children will end up feeling the same way. Thus he will probably be much more inclined to resort to the use or threat of violence against his own children. Unlike their father, however, they may not be so lucky as to arrive into adulthood fairly unscathed as a result.

Some of those who had violent parents, like Julian Tan, get lucky in the same way that two thirds of smokers get lucky and don’t die from smoking. But a significant amount of people who experienced violence at the hands of their parents in childhood (enough to be a concern for us all) aren’t lucky and are affected in later life to some degree.

Accepting the reality that his parents were wrong to use violence against him doesn’t mean that Julian has to stop loving them and stop being grateful for the genuinely good things they did for him. It does mean abandoning the irrational exception to the rule ‘violence is bad’ he created to excuse his parents’ use of it. In doing so he will stop misleading others into believing using violence and the threat of violence against children is good, will achieve more ethical integrity and won’t use violence against his own children – thus breaking the cycle.

Psychotherapist and parenting educator Andrea Nair encapsulated the argument against the use of violence as a parenting technique in an article entitled ‘The Cost Of Spanking‘ when she said: “Spanking children may teach them to obey, but it does not teach them to think.”

Spanking works pretty well as a way to teach children to simply obey (up to a point), no one’s questioning that; what we are asking, however, is why you want or need complete submission and unquestioning obedience from your child, your loved one. No adult relationship based on such a dynamic would be defined by anyone as healthy and good for both parties.

For further reading on the evidence of the long-term effects of corporal punishment in childhood and for information about peaceful parenting techniques please visit my site

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