A Reader Asks About Spanking

A reader writes:

I just had someone equate spanking with torture, on the grounds that they are both by force on a defenseless human under your power, used to achieve some perceived good.

Obviously mere intuition tells us these are not equal, but I am ashamed to admit that I was somewhat silenced initially. One of those things you know is really dumb but which at the same time you cannot answer immediately.

What is thy response, oh great Responder-to-Stupid-Arguments!

I'll venture some half-baked guesses here, but I would actually ask Greg Popcak about this if I were you.  He and his wife refuse to spank their kids (who are, by the way, fantastic kids).  I'm highly skeptical about equating it with torture.  But I’ve come to wonder about whether it’s good or necessary (and I speak as somebody who has been on both the giving and receiving ends of spanking). 

I think the main difference between the two is that torture has, as its object, the reduction of a person to a thing and a means—it is calculated to dehumanize whereas the vast majority of parents who spank do so in profound love of their children and the desire to help build them into better people, not tear them down and destroy them in pursuit of some other end to which their children are mere means.  Torture has no interest in the dignity of the person tortured. Spanking seeks to help children love what is lovely and hate what is evil. Torture simply seeks either vengeance (the real reason for most of the torture apologetics we heard over the past ten years) or else (in even more deeply corrupt civilizations than ours), it takes no interest in the sufferings of the victim at all, nor is it involved in questions of the guilt or innocence of the victim.  It simply seeks information, or to terrorize and intimidate, and inflict tortures on the victim—guilty or innocent—in order to obtain those ends.  Such an approach to torture is several circles of hell closer to the abyss than our hot-blooded “Make the terrorist evildoers pay” motivation in the wake of 9/11.

Some will deny that was our motivation, but the paradoxical proof that torture apologetics in this country were primarily rooted in a thirst for vengeance against terrorists is found in the fact that nobody embraced the suggestion that the loved ones of suspected terrorists be subjected to “enhanced interrogation”. (Not that it wasn't done. There is very good evidence the CIA attempted in at least one case to terrorize the seven- and nine-year-old children of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and threatened to kill them in an attempt to frighten KSM into talking.)  But such tactics appear to have been rare and instead of defending or promoting them, most apologists for torture simply ignored them in embarrassed silence.  That silence is deafening because of what it clearly admits. 

It's like this: Torture apologists spent oceans of ink to pretend that our torture techniques “aren’t torture” and were only used to “get vital information” not to inflict vengeance.  But when it was suggested these “harmless” techniques therefore be inflicted on the families of suspected terrorists as a motivator for the terrorist to talk (because people will usually endure things themselves that they cannot bear to see a loved one suffer), even the most dogged sophists defending "enhanced interrogation" with every euphemism, excuse and consequentialist argument in the book refused to go there.  The healthy, normal—and horrified—response was “Are you insane?  Those are innocents!  You can’t do that to them!”

Translation: The torture apologist knows that "enhanced interrogation" is torture and is not "harmless".  And most importantly, he knows that torture was always really about vengeance for terrorists, not the dispassionate search for information by any effective means.  The reason torture apologists wanted to torture those guys was because they thought they had it coming.  The reason they refused to torture their innocent families was because, despite its effectiveness in gathering intel, those wives and children did not have it coming. (Of course, we still wound up torturing and even murdering innocents such as Dilawar and Maher Arar, and then covering it up, one of the many fruits of the torture regime conservative Christians supported in greater percentages than the general population.)  But to our very negligible credit, this hot-blooded and thoroughly pagan thirst for vengeance, while a disgrace to the Name of Jesus Christ and an utter embarrassment to the Church's witness is, compared to more Communist strategies that don’t care about questions of guilt and innocence, a strangely more human (though still mortally sinful) reason for torture in that there is still a tenuous connection to the person as an object of hatred for his evil act.  We torture him because we are angry at him and assume him to be guilty of support for terrorism.

In societies like the Soviet Union, victims might be tortured, not because they were hated, but because they were a matter of complete indifferent utility.  They were simply pieces of meat needed to make a confession or admit to a crime or be the face of some condemned movement. The victim's guilt or innocence in such systems is entirely irrelevent to the question of their utility to the State. 

So our approach after 9/11 still saw the terrorist as a moral agent whose sin deserves punishment.  But the Soviet approach saw all subjects of the state entirely as a piece of meat valued solely for how he can be exploited to achieve some state goal. 

With spanking, things are typically worlds away from all this.  It is pretty obvious that the parent who spanks typically has in view the real good of the child.  The child is not a means to some other end in such a situation.  Rather, the good of the child is itself the end: mom and dad want him to grow up to be good and so punish him that he may learn that when he chooses evil there are consequences.  It may be a disordered way of achieving that end of instiling virtue (my interior jury is still out on that) but it just is not the same sort of moral act as torture, which has no interest in the good of the victim and just wants vengeance (at best) or has no interest in the victim at all beyond their utility (at worst). 

Not all infliction of pain equals torture.  Everything from surgery, to physical training, to sparring, to spanking can have in view the good of the person himself as an end, rather than the utility of the person toward some other end.

Just some noodling.  Take with a grain of salt.