Guest Column: Fr Oskar Wermter SJ
IT is one of those topics that feed the daily and weekend papers: Corporal punishment. May parents and teachers beat their children and pupils? Is it good practice for educators to use sticks, or give a slap in the face with an open palm or a clenched fist, to discipline children? Is hitting a child a good thing for a pedagogue to do? Being hit by a much stronger person, is it fair? Does it teach a small person better manners, especially if it is not the outcome of cool judgment, but of hot anger?
What does it really teach a child? Most likely that, if you want to have it your way, you had better be strong and force your own will on companions, family members or authorities. You thus teach a child to use violence as a way to succeed in competition, rivalry or arguments.
Strong fists are, in the eyes of the child, an indispensable weapon. If grown-ups can shout you down and get it all their own way by torture and inflicting severe pain, can’t I do the same, as I grow up in a tough world? If the current heavy-weight champion is my hero, why not learn from him how to knock my opponent unconscious and leave them flat on the floor?
Thus strong boys become classroom bullies. If my father or teacher has the muscles to succeed in any brawl and shows his superior power, so can I!
If muscle power allows you to become a little tyrant in your classroom, in your neighbourhood or home, and anger and rage makes you the Number One far and wide, it must be tempting to bully your rivals and come out on top. And once a youngster has learnt this he/she will not forget it. He/she will not become polite and considerate, kind and compassionate as an adult. There is a risk: Once a bully, always a bully.
There are teachers, especially women teachers (today the majority), who resign from schoolwork because big boys harass them, even assault them cruelly, enjoying their power to humiliate a person of authority.
If a boy observes that his father has the habit of hitting his wife in the face and striking her down, is he not likely to become a wife-beater himself once he is a husband? Is he not likely to humiliate women in general with his superior muscle power?
A man of limited intellectual capacity may resent the cleverness of his wife and her ability to out-talk him, so he silences her by hitting her in the face. Since he can’t stop her tongue from chattering endlessly, he can only make her submit to his tyranny by sheer force. If you do not have the better argument, you at least want to demonstrate your irrepressible anger, leaving no doubt about who is in charge. Maybe she just goes away keeping her mouth shut, while planning her revenge and counter-blows. Thus domestic violence becomes an unstoppable epidemic.
You can of course turn a person’s heart or mind around by crashing your fist into his or her open, defenceless face. This is, in fact, torture. It was once a means of forcing a person to accept your will and act accordingly.
Today we consider it an offence, indeed a crime against human dignity.
People were forced by this method to admit that they were witches and acting like witches. We no longer go for witch-hunting as in those days, but we still persecute people when we suspect them of things as evil as witchcraft. We still try to discover evil in people’s hearts by attacking them like demons and satanic spirits.
The rage and anger of beating, hitting and wounding or even killing people is still there.
The rage and anger of today finds expression in war and violence, revenge and mass slaughter (think of drive-by shootings and random classroom and more recently church killings). It translates into the ever-increasing production of weapons of war, conventional and nuclear. The anger can translate into “cold war” and into constant rearmament and mutual deterrence, leading to a “hot war”, xenophobia and racist genocide.
Where does this come from? Evil has its roots in the hearts of people, even in the hearts of children who were hurt and wounded when they were still small.
If we do not want violence and warfare, arms production and weapons trade, we should start by rooting out even the smallest plant likely to grow into a colossal tree of tyranny and despotism. If we give way to anger as young people we are likely to be carried away by violence and be addicted to guns, bloodshed and lethal war games later.
Domestic violence today may cause wars between nations and peoples tomorrow. The bullies of today must learn how to enjoy a life of peace when grown up. The domestic tyrants oppressing women through rape and sexual slavery may lose all respect for human dignity in people everywhere very soon. The evil roots of today must not be allowed to flourish and spread their poison in time.
We must face up to the truth of war, terror and atrocities of yesterday so that the “truth may make us free” from the compulsion to take revenge and return evil for evil in future.
If our children behave like bullies we must teach them new plays and let them enjoy a home where there is peace; no wife-beating and no thrashing of children.
A new generation brought up in peace will not start another “Gukurahundi”.
Fr Oskar Wermter SJ is a social commentator