Michael Kelly: Smacking ban hits home in debate on liberties
ZEALOUS reformers have to accept that no gain in the civil rights of one group is costless in terms of others, says Michael Kelly
Many of us are getting thoroughly fed up with organised groups of do-gooders fixated on the justice of their own particular hobby horse. They pester the authorities and bore the public to death until their politically correct ideas overwhelm resistance and yet another set of civil rights are restricted – in the name of advancing civil rights.
Two quick examples. Both sides of the same-sex marriage debate are totally convinced that they are right. Thus as a supporter of traditional marriage I simply cannot see what lesbian and gay couples think they are being deprived of. They have equality under the law. Why won’t they be satisfied until they have redefined the meaning of marriage for the rest of us?
The same is true of the ridiculously politically correct lengths to which anti-racism campaigning has brought us. The authorities have not learned the lesson of the John Terry case and are now pursuing the fallout from it and a Tweet involving the term “choc ice”. It’s just gone too far. It is now endangering freedom of speech. In Scotland it has gone even further off the scale with the largely unenforced “Offensive Behaviour on the Way to Football” legislation.
In this atmosphere, many of those worn out by these constant assaults on our freedoms will have greeted with despair the news that a number of Scotland’s children’s charities have renewed their campaign to have smacking prohibited by law. But distinguish this from the cause brigade. This is a genuine and overdue reform. One of the last major outstanding abuses of our civilised society is that our children are offered less protection under the law from assault than are adults.
There is no sustainable argument against change. Even the mantra of the reactionaries, “it never did me any harm”, has been discredited. Serious independent medical research suggests that there may be a link between children who were subjected to physical punishment (short of abuse) and the development of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety or alcohol and drug abuse in adulthood. That was a US study of 34,000 adults.
In the Canadian Medical Association Journal, two childcare experts reported: “Studies found that physical punishment was associated with higher levels of aggression against parents, siblings, peers and spouses. Results consistently suggest that physical punishment has a direct causal effect on externalising behaviour, whether through a reflexive response to pain, modelling or coercive family processes.”
But, of course, scientific evidence rarely overcomes the built-in prejudices of the disciplinarians. Even the simple fact that hitting children teaches them to get their own way by force will not convince the likes of David Lammy, Labour’s education minister in the last UK government. He admitted he had smacked his own children, but then went on to argue that more “traditional discipline” might have prevented last summer’s city riots. Nothing to do with alienation, unemployment and deprivation – just hitting kids will restore social order. Public schoolboy London Mayor Boris Johnson backed this view and wants a strengthened law to reassert parents’ rights.
Hitting children has always been an issue that raises strongly held views on both sides. Many terms ago, on Glasgow Corporation as education convener, I tried to ban the belt. There were fierce protests from teachers and their unions. If they had their way corporal punishment would still be used in our schools. Teachers expressed their opinions many times. More depressing was the number of Labour councillors who voiced their unease at the proposed change. The establishment view overcame their reforming tendencies.
To the young, committed and passionate, any questioning of whatever particular cause they are promoting always seems like selfish sectional interests protecting their territory. But experience should teach them that however obviously right they think their cause, opposition will come from the most surprising quarters with sensible objections. The intolerance of the reformer can be seen in most of the groups lobbying for some kind of social reform.
This week I had a rather banal social networking conversation with an active campaigner for civil rights. I asked “who doesn’t want to restrict civil rights?” and he replied “me”, without apparently appreciating his blindness to the fact that all of these campaigns do, often severely, restrict the rights of conflicting groups. It opened my eyes to the ignorance and intolerance of these crusaders who want to enforce their view of society on the rest of us through restrictive legislation. And the dithering Scottish government isn’t helping. It was right to reject the Catholic Church’s demand for a referendum on proposed changes to marriage. This is a representative democracy. But its procrastination shows the agony it is suffering with having to fall foul of one set of voters or another. That is not a principled reaction.
Its response on the controversial proposal to restrict parents’ rights in favour of their children’s rights again avoids an expression of opinion. “We have no plans to change the law on smacking”, was the Scottish government’s position. Hopefully they’ll do another flip-flop over this.
The social progress made over the past 150 years is the evidence of history that those pressing for more and faster change have by and large been right. But not always. There are reforms that have given rise to serious flaws in our society.
But, in the main we live in a better place because of pressure from reformers, some well ahead of their time. The fact that communication technology allows people with views to co-operate and promote change aggressively is a “good thing”.
However, the zealots among them must be made to recognise that no gain in the civil rights of one group is costless in terms of others. The balance in society must be maintained by resisting the arrogance of social libertarians. Except, of course, for outlawing the assaulting of children by people twice their size – that is, self-evidently for the good of all.
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