Trevor Turner fears that our desire for discipline
and our impulse to punish may be getting the better of us.
These days punishment goes hand-in-hand with violence in an increasing cycle of neurotic repetition. Punishment, in its myriad forms, has become a kind of Continental Divide between the moral and scientific worlds. In a recent radio debate a Catholic priest (the moralist), childless of course, suggested there was an active state of original sin, a kind of miasma from which we all have to fight free. His opponent was a recently sacked prison doctor (the scientist) who had spent over 20 years working with some of the worst criminals in Britain, talking to them, trusting them and even trying to treat them. He had no doubt whatsoever that these dangerous criminals were the way they were because of how they had been brought up.
Nevertheless, societies of every ilk have meted out an extraordinary variety of punitive responses to behaviours seen as immoral, aberrant or just a social nuisance. Even the term ‘meted’ is one reserved for the ceremony of punishment. There is an enormous gulf between forms of response. In Saudi Arabia if you steal something you can have your right hand chopped off, by a method reminiscent of those old Viking movies where limbs regularly went flying amidst the crunch of axes and the clash of swords. But go to New Zealand/Aotearoa, commit the same ‘crime’, and what happens? There will be a meeting (instead of a meting out of punishment) of your family and the victim’s, a court supervisor, a social worker and a range of other specialists to determine an appropriate response, including some kind of pay-back, organized to all parties’ satisfaction. Miscreant behaviour is seen as a group responsibility. Rehabilitation rather than castigation is the focus.
There are various components to modern chastisement. These include the need for revenge (a form of pleasure); the need for compensation for losses suffered; the need to consider the wider safety of society; and – usually at the bottom of the list – some sort of re-instatement or even therapy for the offender. These four horsemen of the correctional apocalypse vary throughout history as to their level of influence. It is well established in industrialized societies that there is an adverse relationship between the numbers of people in prison and the numbers in mental hospitals. Discharge people from the latter, as in the present era of community care and, strangely enough, prison numbers start to climb. Expand your ‘asylum’ system and prison numbers tend to fall. This is hardly surprising, given that prison governors report that between a third and half of their inmates suffer psychiatric problems or some form of brain disease. In fact the Victorian theory of prison in the high evangelical (mid-nineteenth-century) period considered that solitary confinement combined with individual reflection was the road to salvation.
The two most powerful theories shaping punishment in the twentieth century are behaviourism and psycho-analysis. The former suggests that behaviour is all and that inner feelings, fantasies, fixations, etc are but metaphysical claptrap. Rats in cages can be punished (ie usually by electric shock) to conform to certain behaviour patterns. Behaviour modification is used successfully in bringing up children even in the most liberal societies, including measures of verbal or even physical admonition. A recent extensive survey from a Catholic country found 75 per cent of parents, more often the mothers, admitting to hitting their children. The most common approaches were hitting with the hand, hitting with a belt or shaking them, due to a child’s defiant attitudes, refusal to work or study, or for running away from home. While there is a debate about the effects of corporal punishment and its excesses on the personalities of young children, many parents still accept the use of some physical sanction to deter wayward behaviour.
The more complex approach of Freud and the psycho-analysts, as one would expect, gives a rather sexier reading. This theory suggests that as we grow up we develop, initially, our basic instincts, bubbling away in the Id; then our control centre for balancing these primitive drives with the realities of the outside world (the Ego); then, finally, a Superego. This Superego derives from the control our parents exercised over us and acts as a kind of conscience. This may sometimes involve the need for the pain of punishment to alleviate the chronic guilt coming from our Superego. Thus, accepting punishment – and, of course, seeing other people accept punishment – becomes part-and-parcel of our personal stability. Yet a range of neuroses (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Sado-Masochism) can develop out of an abnormal sense of punishment. Sadism, which delights in hurting people, and Masochism, which delights in being hurt, are essentially the same perversion – the latter being merely the former turned against one’s self.
What both Freud and the behaviourists seem to agree on is that punishment is a natural part of the human state. We can enjoy it. Some even seek it out as part of their sexual pleasure. Punishment is also integral to the most extreme forms of worship: flagellants were religious fanatics who whipped themselves for hours on end. But it might be suggested they are just the tip of the iceberg, and in the end we all enjoy a good thrashing; whether it is the ‘thrashing’ of the opposition at a game of rugby or football, or whether it is the thrashing we receive from an angry parent – absolving us from our sins. In a fragmented, individualized world the desire for discipline in oneself and others becomes an increasingly influential undercurrent. Such primordial instincts may even be seen as the basis for the new ‘tough-on-crime’ approach. The dark army of medieval moralists, increasingly threatened by the outriders of post-Darwinian rationalism, is becoming ever more fierce in its demands. Just as the new ideas of the Reformation generated the heightened reactions of the Inquisition, with its burning of witches and hunting down of heretics, so the heightened awareness, in the modern world, of crime and criminality leads to similar demands to control and punish. The return to the death penalty in many American States reflects exactly this primitive, sadistic urge.
These desperate adumbrations of dying belief-systems were predicted by Matthew Arnold in his poem Dover Beach, way back in 1867. He felt that ‘the Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full... but now was ebbing fast’. He finished the poem with a sense of being ‘swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night’. This process of loss of faith that Arnold describes still continues some 130 years later and there even seems a current upsurge of ‘ignorant armies’ of radical and fundamental religious belief, whether Christian, Islamic or elsewise.
It may be that punishment has yet another derivation. A particular feature of modern times is the perception of violence on the rise. This may simply be because a growing number of people no longer accept such behaviour as normal. There is also the fact that we know what is going on, via television or detailed sociological surveys. Whatever the cause, an urgent feeling persists that ‘something must be done’ to quell this awful upsurge in violence. The Superego within us has its desire to punish and the ‘criminal’ is an obvious target. Getting rid of a few degenerate human beings seems less troubling in an over-peopled world, where life seems cheapened daily with public deaths from Bosnia to Somalia, or in awful air crashes or natural disasters. Is this punishment for our own excessive breeding? As the crush gets noisier the demand to get rid of the overt murderers and robbers becomes more insistent. Even adolescents and ‘retarded individuals’ are no longer immune from the death penalty in America. A fervour for moral eugenics has taken over the administration of justice.
Given this castigatory can of worms and the prison doctor’s account of dangerous criminals, with their tales of awful upbringings – how can we produce gentler, less urgent children? Perhaps they need to spend more time with their grandparents, older folk more mellow in their ways, happy to sit and wait rather than instantly demand. Perhaps we should ban ‘instant’ anything.
When in Arizona recently I heard a National Rifle Association supporter drawl out that old platitude: ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ I wanted to challenge him and ask him to go and share his views with the parents of the children massacred at Dunblane in Scotland. At the time he was playing with a large shiny rifle. So I demurred. But what came across most to me was his sense of righteousness in wanting to discipline those who mis-used their guns. Punishing people can be fun, addictive even, so we must try to stop doing it altogether.
Trevor Turner is a London-based psychiatrist whose views on psycho-politics frequently appear in NI.
The payroll robbery was a bust – but it got Stan to thinking about what is
and what isn’t called ‘a crime’. He talked to George Fisher.
Stan gave up stealing cars just as the manufacturers started fitting high-tech anti-theft devices as standard features. ‘They’ve taken all the fun out of it,’ he says, smiling wryly over a mug of coffee, ‘and it’s more like homework now than forbidden fruit’. Stan is a large man, and the cheap diner chairs we sit on squeal in protest every now and then as he shifts and wriggles – never, it seems, comfortable. He admits the ‘adrenaline’ factor was a major influence when he was a teenager in Sydney’s sprawling western suburbs. ‘I guess I could’ve watched TV or helped my folks grow veggies, but it didn’t have the same attraction. The girls in the pub car park weren’t interested in a bag of compost or an armful of carrots.’
While Stan has served time more than once for car theft, his last sentence was for his part in an armed hold-up: a foiled hold-up, that is, followed by a long period of manifest embarrassment. Maybe it was a tip-off. Stan’s anger at this possibility is visible to anyone.
Stan waxes lyrical about life, in language full of style and colour. The hold-up that went wrong was of a payroll delivery at an electronics factory whose subsidiary now assembles high-tech car alarms. Stan is very aware of the fact that one of the company’s directors has attracted police attention for both tax evasion and fraud. The key evidence against him always disappears with impeccable timing. The sum involved was reportedly around 20 times the amount Stan and his friends would have pocketed from the hold-up. ‘Although we never did get to find out the exact amount,’ Stan notes with surprisingly good humour.
Stan started out being stoic about his likely future but has become increasingly bitter. He finds ‘legit’ work from time to time but is also well acquainted with the local welfare office. He has learned to feign appreciation of the long list of job ‘re-skilling’ courses his parole and welfare payments require him to do. It’s a far different life than that of the company director, who Stan imagines will soon be showing his face again on the social pages of the Sydney Morning Herald.
‘What really gets me in these “victimless” crimes is that there are really victims,’ he reflects. ‘It’s just that it’s harder to prove that a worker’s depression, or some family’s loss of hope, is because of that man.’ Stan warms to his subject. ‘His victims would probably fill a Town Hall. Try to pin it on the company maybe, but it’s faceless, it’s invisible. His victims are at fault for their weakness. But not the victim who can show a black eye or a few stitches. My greed got me years inside and a bleak future.
I know what I did was wrong. But his got him a harbourside home and a ticket to the smart set. And that’s got to be wrong too.’
George Fisher writes for NI from Sydney.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.