One day, when my son Michael was about five years old, I was so angry and frustrated with him that I smacked him. Smacks were few and far between and this was one that not appreciated. He looked at me through tears and said, “Big people shouldn’t hit little people.”
It was a simple and powerful argument, something presumably picked up at the nursery school or the primary school he attended in Downpatrick in Co Down. Resorting to violence wasn’t about trying to change things, it was about an admission of failure to change things. There were no further smacks, our house remained a firm one without the need to resort to physical force. Strict words and sanctions proved to be far more effective than smacks.
Even at the fundamentalist Christian school on Dartmoor that I attended, it was apparent that their “spare the rod and spoil the child” philosophy simply did not work; the same boys were caned again and again, it never changed their behaviour. The fact that they were being punished owed more to the fact that they were stupid enough to be caught, than to the fact that they were the only people guilty of these wrongs. When an attempt was made to burn down one of the school’s classroom blocks in January 1977, the culprit list included the frequent visitors to the principal’s office – the use of the rod had simply hardened them in their attitudes
Violence is about big and strong people dominating smaller and weaker people; whether me slapping Michael or governments using force to suppress groups they don’t like, it is not a solution to anything. Anyone familiar with the sad history of relations between Ireland and Britain will know that violence never brought solutions, neither in the centuries of British repression, nor in the Republican paramilitary philosophy that embraced bullets and bombs. Violence just built up a huge storehouse of resentment.
Caning and physical force are things of the past, but, looking at the detention list in school, it seems that confining students to a room for an hour after school is as much lacking in power to deter bad behaviour as the cane was lacking in power in former times. Each day, familiar names appear on the list; one student even expressed surprise that his name hadn’t appeared. Will those suffering repeated detentions become as resentful as those who faced regular canings?
Is it beyond the wit of a society to devise a code of acceptable behaviour and a culture that sustains that code, both of which rest upon reason and persuasion?