Culture of abuse
EDITORIAL: The Press, Canterbury, New Zealand, 10 October 2003

Press readers have had the chance this week to consider the conflicting views about the Government's decision to make smacking less defensible in law. In a series of articles the paper has presented a debate that engages just about everyone and about which compromise is difficult. Smacking, plainly, touches something at the core of Kiwi thinking.

The reasons are easy to deduce. Corporal punishment has been practised here for as long as humans have reared their young in these islands and therefore is not about to be legally restricted without substantial opposition. As well, the physical admonishment of children arouses conflicting instincts -- repulsion at physical violence and feelings that parents are entitled to comprehensive control over their young. Smacking, in other words, is entrenched.

Few on either side of the debate state their position viscerally -- most justifications or criticisms of corporal punishment are comparatively sophisticated. But, when the arguments are stripped back, instinct is seen to be the foundation and it is this that gives heat to the dispute.

That emotional element has delayed resolution of the debate in otherwise socially advanced New Zealand. Other nations have taken the lead. We were late in addressing smacking in the classroom and only now are fumbling our way to stopping it in the home.

The Government is not intending to ban smacking. Rather, it wants to abolish the legal defence of reasonable force that has long been available to parents charged with physically ill-treating their children. However, the consequences of repeal are unclear. A plausible assumption is that court rulings will progressively reduce the law's tolerance of physical chastisement, reducing the leeway of parents. This is unacceptable because it prolongs the existence of such punishment and sows confusion. It would be better were the Government to have the courage of its convictions and enact an outright ban.

The issue is pressing. Violent crimes are increasing in New Zealand and violence in many forms saturates our culture. Most citizens have the moral and mental ability to cope with it. They are pacific in their behaviour towards other people and not seduced by the frenzy on their screens. But restraint is far from universal here -- a fact typified by the appalling and continuing series of crimes against children.

The causes of our entanglement with violence are complicated but one thing is clear: the signals we send out about it are confusing. Most confusing is the attitude towards corporal punishment. Because of its continued practice, many of our children are subjected to a potentially dangerous double standard. They are asked to accept that hits from their parents are justifiable but that hitting people is wrong.

No doubt most people eventually work through this hypocrisy, but some do not. Too many New Zealanders vent their anger with their fists, against spouses, workmates, acquaintances, or strangers. Too many New Zealanders think that the use of the shotgun and the baseball bat are not beyond the pale in the execution of crimes.

The smacking of a child and the murder of a child are far removed in the moral and physical hierarchy, but not far enough to guarantee that one will not lead to the other. They are both in the spectrum of violence.

Unless an absolute taboo against violence is established some people will continue to be unable to distinguish between the tap on the backside and the wielding of a baton to the head. That means corporal punishment should be banned -- must be if New Zealand is to cut the incidence of violence in all its manifestations.

Probably that deliverance is in sight. The removal of the legal defence of reasonable force is a first step because it removes the most convenient excuse available to parents faced with prosecution. In effect, parents will know that the law will be unforgiving if their treatment of offspring results in a prosecution, and no parent will be sure what will trigger such legal action. The onus will be on parents to spare the rod. Smacking will not be banned but it will have no legal justification.

That will probably reduce smacking, if only because it will make parents consider more carefully how they discipline their children and keep the issue in debate. This, together with the planned education campaign, should move us nearer to a complete and explicit ban.

Utopia would not thereby be created but we would live in a society where the use of physical force against people was illegal -- a legal sanction that would engender that powerful thing, a social taboo.

The Press, Copyright of Fairfax New Zealand Limited 2003, All rights reserved.



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