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Smacks of denial

By Joseph Gelfer - posted Monday, 5 August 2013


The Royal Australasian College of Physicians is embarking upon a new campaign to provide legal protection for children from being hit by adults: in other words, it seeks to ban smacking. In The Age, Associate Professor Susan Moloney, president of the College’s paediatrics and child health division, is quoted as saying, “We know that a significant number of child homicides are a result of physical punishment which went wrong … It started off as physical punishment and went too far”. Pointing out the gaps in current legislation around physical correction, Moloney goes on to say, “If you hit your dog you could be arrested, but it’s legal to hit your child”. The College’s campaign therefore seeks to give children the same protection from harm as not only adults, but animals.

The College’s aims are absolutely commendable, but they highlight a certain error in thinking around the framing of the debate by some anti-smacking advocates. By suggesting that the proposed protection is to prevent physical punishment that “went too far”, Moloney implies that physical punishment that does not go “too far” (whatever that means) is somehow acceptable. At the same time, we hear a lot about better forms of discipline that are more effective than smacking, so the debate then becomes one of the effectiveness of different forms of behaviour modification in children, or some kind of lifestyle choice for parents.

In such cases the debate, via a cunning sleight of hand, is steered away from the inherent wrongness of smacking. I can understand this strategy: it seeks to make people aware that smacking is wrong, but without alienating them by saying “YOU are wrong”. This strategy believes that people will not buy in to an idea if they are being made to feel uncomfortable or, worse still, like a criminal: it alludes to the idea that it is not the average citizen’s smacking that is wrong (the elusively-defined “reasonable” force as allowed by the current law), but those few outliers who go too far. It’s a gently-does-it strategy. But we don’t have time for this strategy, for tiny increments of progress building one generation upon another. Children are dying as you read from violence in Australian homes. I think it’s time to tell it as it is, to set a few things straight.

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Smacking children, whether it be a slap on the wrist or a whack with a riding crop, is abuse. You need to get familiar with the word “abuse” because most people need to own it in the following two ways:

If you were smacked by your parents, you have been abused.

If you have ever smacked your child, you have been an abuser.

It’s that simple.

Now most people will shake their heads at this statement because they feel that although they were smacked, and although they may themselves have smacked, such smacking does no real harm and therefore is not abuse. The reason why people come to this conclusion is also simple: they cannot grasp the idea that nearly everyone in Australia has either been abused or is an abuser: popular logic states that it would be impossible for nearly everyone to be wrong (or wronged). In other circumstances we might call this logic “mob rule” or “tyranny of the majority”.

So I suggest that nearly everyone in Australia has been wrong (or wronged), has abused or been abused, and that the reason why the nation isn’t up in arms about this injustice is because of a mass, self-imposed state of denial about society’s acceptance of violence. This means that Australians (indeed, most of the world) do not want to face up to the truth, because the truth is painful. It is painful to acknowledge that your parents were abusers. It is even more painful to acknowledge that you may yourself be an abuser. But here’s the thing: while acknowledging this abuse is painful, it is not as painful as perpetuating abuse for generations to come.

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Acknowledging abusive behaviour in yourself or your parents does not mean you are bad people. It means that like most other people you have been duped by a global lie. That lie is the acceptance of violence. More than this, by acknowledging abusive behaviour, you are stepping up to a future with no abuse: this makes you a good person.

There are lots of historical issues that were once thought to be reasonable by the majority, but which we now see to be wrong: that the world is flat or we should make Black people sit at the back of the bus spring to mind. In due course most people will consider smacking children to be equally wrong. Hopefully this will be sooner rather than later. The question is: Are you going to be among those who history views as the last to get it wrong, or the first to get it right?

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About the Author

Joseph Gelfer is a coach and researcher whose books include "Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy" and "2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse." His latest book is "Masculinities in a Global Era", published in Springer's International and Cultural Psychology series. More information at www.gelfer.net.

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