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.