(dis)honest to God: How Not to Argue about the Smacking Referendum

Ian Harris tells us (“Honest to God,” Dominion Post, [Dominion Post. Saturday July 11, 2009. Page B5], reproduced at the YesVote website) that we should reject the “harsh views” on child rearing found in the Bible.

Mr Harris, unfortunately, joins many of those who promote the criminalisation of good parents by muddying the waters. He notes, for example, that someone who defends the right to use physical discipline also believes that children (like adults) are sinners. He then announces that since “progressive” Christians (by which he seems to mean those who no longer accept Christian theology) realise that this is based on an antiquated view, we should likewise reject the right to use physical discipline and we should criminalise those who do.

It is difficult to interact charitably with those who support the ban on smacking if this is the contorted way they are going to reason about the subject. Whether or not one thinks the theology held by some supporters of the right to use physical discipline is correct is quite a different matter from whether or not one thinks they ought to be made into criminals, surely!

Unfortunately again, Mr Harris attempts to use his platform as a mouthpiece of liberal (what he calls “progressive) Christianity to give credence to scientific claims that are obviously subject to great dispute. He makes the sweeping claim that this nebulous thing called “modern research” (while he cites no actual studies) shows that although corporal punishment does help bring about short-term compliance, it does not help a child to “internalise positive values for the longer term.”

I am constantly bemused by the way in which conservative religious spokespeople are ridiculed even when they do cite research, but obvious nonsense like this can be peddled by the liberal voices without so much as a single scholarly citation, and nobody is expected to bat an eyelid.

But even if what Mr Harris says is correct, the implication is that corporal punishment in and of itself has short term benefits and no long term ill effects. Hardly something to be prosecuting people for! The reality is that the effects he cites are perfectly compatible with the good of corporal punishment. Such punishment usually is administered to children when they are not willing to reason or reflect on the long term consequences of their actions. It is for when children are being unruly and unwilling to listen. Circumstances in which they are willing to do so are the circumstances under which corporal punishment is less necessary (meaning that the older a child becomes, the less frequent a smack will become). None of this gives the careful reader any reason to think that the occasional smack is immoral, much less worthy of criminal prosecution.

Bereft of compelling moral or scientifically grounded arguments, Mr Harris turns instead to arousing prejudice against the religious convictions of those who disagree with him about child discipline. Unable to find anything strong enough in what all Christians consider their holy book, he reaches into the book of Ecclesiasticus (part of the so-called “apocryphal” writings that did not make up part of the Hebrew canon) to find the claim that “he who loves his son will whip him often.”

But not only has Mr Harris strayed into literature that the so-called “fundamentalists” (most of whom would identify as conservative Protestants) that he attacks do not even regard to be part of the Bible at all, he has clearly sought out the most extreme translation of the verse that he can find. He conjures up grizzly pictures of leering parents towering, horsewhip in hand, over the broken and bleeding bodies of little children with misleading language like this.

But just a few minutes research would dispel this attempt. The New American translation reads, “He who loves his son chastises him often.” The Douay Rheims translation (the Catholic Bible, which does include this book as part of the canon) reads “He that loveth his son, frequently chastiseth him.” The old King James version, the one that “fundamentalists” are most likely to read if the read this book at all, reads “He that loveth his son causeth him oft to feel the rod.” Of course, because it’s a metaphor for physical discipline that’s probably still too much for Mr Harris, but needless to say, it robs him of his “whipping” bogeyman.

After the rhetorical debris is stripped away, all that’s really left is a string of namecalling and fearful language. He calls the views of his opponents “repugnant.” He calls them “fundamentalists” with “antiquated” views that are opposed to “progressive” thought. But where’s the actual substance? Like much of the rhetorical fireworks that is being leveled at those who want the law changed to a common sense view that refuses to place thousands of good parents in the criminal category, Ian Harris offers more heat than light, and manifests just the sort of shallowness and bias that this debate could do without.

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