In this blog I want to begin to think about what forms of cruelty to children are permissible, accepted by society, and which are not. Of course many acts of cruelty are not generally seen as "abuse", but this reflects the selective nature of designation and shows that this is not objective territory at all. So, there are inconsistencies in the way society perceives abuse according to culture, time and place, and many other factors, and I want to investigate why these disparities exist.
We have recently seen the verdict in the Edlington case where two boys tortured two younger boys......... There had clearly been domestic violence in the home of the convicted boys, along with drug abuse and violent and pornographic videos. Certainly the boys had learned violent behaviour from their home life and, whether as victims of it personally, or as carriers of this acquired behaviour, were impelled to inflict this upon other children.
Although all of these factors in the domestic life of these boys add up to unacceptable conditions for the raising of children, the signal for intervention is violence towards the children. Many families allow children to watch violent movies, many children see sexual material that is beyond their age, many witness domestic violence, there are innumerable families where a parent is taking drugs, yet these situations are generally not able to be policed.
Clearly physical violence towards children is an extreme abuse (as is serious neglect) and this is reflected in law.
The law though, follows societies confusion about what is abuse and what isn`t, as is exampled by issues around smacking: Smacking, so called, is permitted in law with a stipulation that the smack mustn`t leave a lasting mark. I find this unsatisfactory, not least because I think that hitting children is wrong in any circumstances, but unsatisfactory also because it is morally muddled. I think that with many people "smacking " their children the law would not find it easy to enforce a smacking ban and this, concomitant with the pretty vocal lobby that says smacking is needed to enforce discipline, means that government does not want to go against the masses. So it fudges things by allowing a bit of gentle smacking that attempts to pacify the folks who believe smacking to be violence against children, whilst also pandering to those who want to smack children to maintain discipline or give the child a counter-fear to stop them running into the road, or some such.
For me, the central issue in regard to smacking children is one of children having equal rights in this respect to any other person. That is, I feel that if it is not permissible to smack/hit adults, then children should not have lesser rights just because they have little social power. The other issue is one of teaching a child that relationships are based around power.
I think we need to think about the term "smack" for a moment: Firstly, it is a euphemism used to diminish the act, though in reality it is not possible to grade violent behaviour, or to euphemise violence to make it allowable towards certain sections of society, namely children, because when children are on the receiving end of a "smack" they cannot discern that it is technically a smack ..and therefore not a hit or an assault. They feel it as violence. The end result of smacking a child will produce psychological damage just as it`s more violent equivalent does (the amount of damage will vary according to all sorts of variables). Confirming this fact, children who have been smacked will often go on to smack their children, just as children raised in homes with a greater degree of violence will likely be violent in their future relationships.
But I think that the notion that violence should be used, or threatened, as a way of controlling behaviour is a twisted mind-set. To teach a child that one must comply in order to avoid violence is a barbaric lesson that shows disrespect towards children as people, and damages the child`s respect for the parent. Even from a loving parent, a smack communicates to the child that "this person who loves me will also hurt me". It is a mixed message indeed to love someone and to use violence against them.
Justifications for hitting a child compound this mixed message.. The old maxim `cruel to be kind` tells us that people know that it is wrong, deep down, and need a justification like this to offload their guilt: the compartmental conscience tries to help the parent who smacks by creating a category that upholds the idea that hitting a child is really a sign of love, since it teaches them right from wrong or what in their environment is dangerous. Nevertheless, whatever the justification, a child exposed to cruel- to- be- kind- violence, grows up experiencing that if you want someone to do something, the way to achieve that is with threats.
What is the difference between using physical violence to enforce the behaviour we desire, and using psychological violence? Well, in affect, certainly, none, both cause serious damage. There are reasons, however, that psychological violence does not have the same status or sympathy-value.
My point in examining corporal control has been to make a path to the consideration of whether violence that is visible...and therefore provable, has greater status than psychological violence that is more concealed and much harder to prove.
The law generally reflects this: A person can be gaoled for a physical attack which seriously wounds someone or kills, yet psychological torture which leads someone to ill health, mental or physical, or suicide, is not provable so therefore very hard to prosecute. In regard to children, serious violence is an obvious act, psychological violence is not. Where abuse of children is psychological, as the general case I explored in my previous blog, and where there are no external signs of abuse, the law does not wish to intervene. That is inspite of our present crusade against child abuse.
But there is another reason why psychological violence, through a range including emotional cruelty, is largely permissible: Looking at society as a general group, more people are emotionally abusive than people who are physically violent. There is a great deal of emotional cruelty inflicted upon children, often, or even from time to time, and the numbers involved are significant because one cannot make a law that outlaws something that is pursued by the masses. For example, we might consider adultery to be a crime, yet so many people are adulterous that we cannot prevent this by law. There are too many people involved, with manifoldly mitigating circumstances, to make such a thing practical.
The selection of types of abuse that we deem impermissible, therefore, is not based upon an absolute morality, but upon practicalities like the numbers of people involved, the scope of enforcement, group moral trends and issues of group psychology driven by people in positions of influence and power. For these reasons children subjected to psychological abuse have a burden, most often resulting in aberrant behaviour and educational and societal dysfunction, that neither legally nor attributively links to the perpetrator.