Why Does the West Not Cane or Whip People In Public?

This post is very un-thought-through – everything in it is offered mainly to stimulate thought, not to convey my own beliefs (after all, I’m an anarchist, so my thoughts on punishment are hardly going to be mainstream).

One hears sometimes stories of people in other countries by sentenced by a court to be whipped or caned in public. Apparently, this is practiced in one form or another in about 30 different countries – all in either Africa, Asia, or the Caribbean. In ‘the west’, i.e. Europe and North America (also, it seems, Latin America) such a thing is never done – at least to adults.

Not only is it not done, but it often provokes shock and horror. Isn’t that barbaric? As a related fact, we are also entirely opposed to any sort of punitive mutilation, such as the amputation of a hand, or castration, or branding.

The reason for this is not entirely obvious at first sight. ‘We’ (that is, the general Western public) are quite happy to have people locked in cages – some of us are even happy for it to be indefinite, or solitary for long periods. Why is there such a big difference between controlling someone’s movements and just beating them?

One obvious argument for why we’re against mutilation is that it’s so permanent, and we want to affirm the possibility of rehabilitation – that punishment shouldn’t determine the whole of your life. But this seems to imply that we should be very keen on corporal punishment – because a beating, even a severe one, is less ‘lasting’ than most forms of imprisonment.

Reinforcing this, is the possibility that a beating might be considered substantially preferable to imprisonment by some (or most?) of the actual recipients of the punishment. It’s over quickly, it doesn’t impact so much on your ability to carry on your other projects. It’s less likely to destroy your relationships through prolonged absence, it has less effect on your children.

In fact, it doesn’t seem at all impossible that for some people, a public caning might be preferred to a fine – if you don’t have much money, then the pain of the caning might be much less than the possible pains of getting ill, being malnourished, or being evicted.

And that’s not just about looking from the recipient’s point of view – society might observe that corporal punishment doesn’t have either 1) a feedback loop where fines make someone so poor that they need to go back to crime to survive, or 2) a feedback loop where prison leaves people coming out with no skills except loads of shared knowledge of how to live by crime. Though might it have its own feedback loops?

So our opposition to corporal punishment seems odd on the face of it. What lies behind it?

Is it that the particular acts involved are of a different level of ‘viol-ence’? By only confining someone, you control their environment, you control their location, i.e. you control what is around them, but you leave them themselves untouched. You ‘respect their personal space’.

Is it that corporal punishment is less ‘humiliating’? That is, while an imprisoned person can retain their dignity, the person being beaten is ‘undignified’? Is this why so many of us are much more happy with corporal punishment of children (not me personally, but I’m not talking about my personal views here)?

Is it because corporal punishment focuses on and acts on the body, and makes the body passive, and works through the raw physicality of skin and nerves and fat and muscle? Whereas confining someone involves only limiting their body as an active thing – stopping them from moving and acting in certain ways.

These three are obviously associated quite closely. I’m not sure if this general theme is the correct one but it feels closer to being correct than anything else that comes to mind. I think considering a couple of other points may reinforce it.

Firstly, there are other cases of things that we communally consider worse to do to people, but which the victims might not consider worse. For instance, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it says in article 3 that people have ‘the right to’ life liberty and security – implying that this right may at times be forfeited or justifiably infringed. Sometimes it can be ok to kill or to injure or to kidnap. But articles 4 and 5 are more absolute – they prohibit slavery and torture without exception.

There might be many good arguments for this distinction – and I want to emphasise that it’s a separate discussion to have –  but I think part of it, intuitively, is something like what I mentioned above – that something about torture and slavery ‘deny all dignity’ to their victims, deny their very personhood, in a more extreme way than killing or imprisoning. It is consistent, we might imagine, to kill or imprison someone while still respecting them – but not to respectfully torture or enslave?

The other consideration is that the idea of punishing certain crimes by legally-sanctioned rape is appalling – just the thought provokes a very strong reaction, out of all proportion, if we are honest, with the ‘severity’ of such a punishment. Without wanting to over-generalise, or deny how severely many people are affected by it, I don’t think we can say that it is, in general, for most people, worse to be raped than to be killed, nor worse to be raped than be confined for 20 or 30 or 40 years. Yet the thought of prescribing it as a punishment strikes us (I think? I hope?) as especially wrong.

This shares the features of involving the person’s body, making them passive (rather than restricting their activity), of ‘violating their personal space’, ‘denying their dignity’.

Is this what’s at work? I’m not sure, but I think so. But what follows if it is?

Consider a final observation: despite the fact, as mentioned above, that to be killed is, in general, worse than to be raped – we are generally quite happy as a society with killing animals. Even with a particular individual killing them quite directly, for amusement. But someone who rapes an animal (or, indeed, someone who has ‘consensual’ sex with an animal, as far as that is possible) is a freak, a bad person. We don’t accept that.

Now, in this case, of being ok with, say, hunting, or meat-production, but not with bestiality, it seems pretty clear that what’s going on is not in fact about any respect for the real animals involved. What’s going on is respect for certain symbolic distinctions, certain taboos. Perhaps there are good reasons, from an animal-rights perspective, not to have sex with animals – but they clearly have nothing to do with why our society is against bestiality.

So in that case, our feeling that some ways of treating people are just more wrong than other, more severe, ways, is motivated by something other than respect for those real people – it’s more about respect for an idea.

Could the same be true of our society’s feelings about corporal punishment? Could it be that in feeling more appalled at a beating than at confinement, we are in fact respecting an idea, a symbolic ‘human dignity’, more than we respect actual people?

If so, is that wrong? Would we be a less cruel society if we made use of such punishments?

Or have I, in fact, entirely misunderstood why we have these attitudes in the first place?

Have I missed a key issue? Have I neglected a particular part of the extensive jurisprudential discussion on these questions? Have I in fact neglected the entirety of such discussion? (yes)

4 Responses to “Why Does the West Not Cane or Whip People In Public?”

  1. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    Modern theories of punishment talk about 4 reasons for it:

    * Retribution: society wants revenge on the perpetrator

    * Deterrent: making the consequences of crime (or at least, being caught) so horrible nobody will risk it

    * Reform: teaching the criminal so that s/he no longer wants to commit crime (this can take many forms)

    * Protection: protecting society from the actions of the criminally-minded.

    Corporal punishment clearly falls into the first two categories but does nothing with respect to the latter two. Prison can be seen as covering all 4, while the death penalty can be seen as covering all against “reform” (it’s hard to learn to change your ways once you’re dead!)

    I think the modern “liberal” approach would be to argue that the move away from retribution-based punishment shows a tendency for humanity to recognise that that cruelty begets cruelty, and that participating in certain types of punishment (either directly, or indirectly as members of a society that condones them) is animalistic and inhuman. For that reason, they might argue, we turn away from physical brutality and use other methods of controlling crime. I would question that argument because the greed for vengeance seems to be still very strong in the human race, especially over emotive issues, as can be readily discovered by talking to people about those issues.

    It’s difficult to explain as an economics question, since prisons are in general a net drain on resources, and therefore don’t appear to bear much relation to the interests of capital (although IIRC Engels did write something about crime, punishment and capitalism, I don’t recall what his conclusions were)

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “Corporal punishment clearly falls into the first two categories but does nothing with respect to the latter two.”
    Seems that the same is true of fines?

    “Prison can be seen as covering all 4”
    It certainly covers protection, but we might well be dubious about how sincerely it’s intended to reform.

    “the move away from retribution-based punishment shows a tendency for humanity to recognise that that cruelty begets cruelty, and that participating in certain types of punishment…is animalistic and inhuman.”
    By ‘away from retribution-based punishment’ you mean towards confinement and away from corporal punishment, mutilation, and capital punishment?

    The main question this seems to beg is, given that ‘cruelty begets cruelty’, it’s not clear why prison is ‘less cruel’, which is what I was particularly asking myself.

    Similarly, if ‘animalistic and inhuman’ simply means ‘very bad’, then it just throws us back to, why is confinement less ‘inhuman’?

    On the other hand, if those words are meant literally, then they’re clearly true: almost no species other than humans seem to confine other members out of anger or vengeance, whereas most will probably attack each other. But this then poses the question why that matters – and if it is simply a matter of symbolically ‘elevating ourselves above the animals’, then is that worthwhile?

  3. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    First up, I mentioned the theories of punishment because you hadn’t referred to them at all in the OP, and you did ask if there was anything you’d missed!

    Read carefully my comment, and I said that I questioned the validity of the liberal arguments – I just put them out there as an argument that seems to be popular.

    However, I would support “retribution-based” as a description of punishments that pander to the desire to inflict suffering on others rather than having genuine utility in preventing further crimes.

    The liberal argument against “inhuman” punishments I suspect is akin to the adage, “an eye for an eye and soon the whole world will be blind”. It probably also owes something to 18th and 19th century attitudes about keeping base instincts under control lest they tear us apart (for example, the assumptions behind Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”) – the term “animalistic” often refers to this idea of a complete breakdown of social order. Modern liberal arguments I suspect also would suggest in a similar way that prison is NOT “out of anger or vengeance” (which are animalistic responses) but instead is the response of a society that is able to put those emotions aside (which, again, I pointed out doesn’t seem to be a realistic assumption to make).

    The other issue is that “why don’t we…?” seems to stand as a question without a sense of past; it is known that historically corporal punishment in various forms was used, so the question seems to be as much “why did we change from…?” as it is “why don’t we…?”

    I don’t really have any answers (although the adoption of those liberal arguments may have had something to do with it as liberalism developed from the 18th Century onwards). I’m just throwing ideas out there same as you were in the OP

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Cool, cool, sorry if I rushed to critique a bit fast.

    You’re right that ‘why did we change?’ is more reasonable than ‘why don’t we now?’, and it would be interesting to see if there was any specific documentation/polemic around the time. I know that at this sort of time there was also the rise of other ‘confining’ institutions like schools, factories, and asylums, and the changes they introduced.


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