The Brookline Town Meeting resolution to encourage parents and caregivers of children to refrain from the use of corporal punishment did not get a chance for a vote on the merits. This is why. Before the Meeting the Moderator sent a message to Town Meeting Members that said, "A couple of Town Meeting Members have asked me how best to proceed if one (a) doesn't believe that this is a proper matter for consideration by Town Meeting, but (b) does not wish to be perceived as supporting corporal punishment by voting against the resolution. A motion to postpone the subject matter of the article indefinitely would be an appropriate way to proceed."
A Town Meeting Member followed the Moderator’s advice and made the motion to postpone indefinitely. Then the debate started and continued for about an hour. A few speakers expressed views that the resolution was not appropriate and a couple of speakers criticized the wording. The Selectman speaking in favor focused on urging an open democratic process rather than on the issue of corporal punishment. Another speaker did not take a direct position but discussed his doctoral work warning about the dangers of "might makes right" approaches to relationships. A social worker argued that corporal punishment is a contributing factor to violence.
The arguments opposing the resolution were generally opinions that were not supported with evidence. Sometimes they misrepresented the resolution, like saying we would be "unfairly imposing our cultural values on people from different cultures." The resolution, of course, is only a "gentle, reasonable, and respectful suggestion." As is often the case, when opponents do not have strong arguments in debate, they use weak ones, but weak ones appeal to those who have the same biases and fears as the opponents.
The most influential speaker, in my opinion, was the representative of the Advisory Committee. This committee makes recommendations to Town Meeting about any business before it. The speaker said, "The vast majority [of the Advisory Committee] felt that this was inappropriate, that the resolution was not the appropriate vehicle to deal with this subject." There was no poll of Advisory Committee members to support this claim.
There were some pertinent communications. On 5/24 after reading the Advisory Committee report on this resolution, I emailed the Chair of the Advisory Committee, and referring to the Committee report, I asked, "What is the evidence that ‘most members questioned the appropriateness of bringing this before Town Meeting?’ . . . This is an interpretation not a fact. How does the writer know what the members ‘feel?’ . . . I request clarifications to be made by the speaker for the Advisory Committee on Article 16 [resolution on corporal punishment] at Town Meeting. As the report stands, parts of it are presumptuous and misleading."
The Chair responded the same day that aside from those who spoke at the Advisory Committee meeting, "any other feelings by individual members would be speculative. It may well be that some people felt that by abstaining, the resolution, and its content, could stand on its own merit at Town Meeting." In a subsequent message the next day he said, "Surely, those abstaining were considering a variety of concerns. Your point is well taken, and should be acknowledged by our speaker." He told me that he communicated this concern to the Committee’s speaker before Town Meeting.
The record shows that the point was not "acknowledged by our speaker." We do not know how this communication problem influenced the vote. It could have encouraged people to vote for the motion to postpone indefinitely, which passed 105-78. Those who may have abstained from a vote on the resolution were likely to vote for the motion. With a significant number of potential abstentions, the resolution could have had a chance to pass, because only for and against votes would determine the outcome.
In any case, the purpose of this resolution was to raise awareness. This was accomplished because I was involved in fifteen interviews with newspapers, radio, and television news programs.
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