Psychodynamics of the Punisher
By Adah Maurer, Ph. D.
First published in Watman Educational Services, Henniker, New Hampshire, Bulletin Vol. 4, No. 1, September, 1974.

One of the strongest moral imperatives of childhood, one that is shouted from child to child without adult moralizing, is the fair fight injunction to "pick on somebody your own size."

The code is embodied in the feather-, light-, welter-, heavyweight classifications for boxing, wrestling and other stylized fights. The folk tale of the bully who breaks the fair-fight rule and who is soundly thrashed by the underdog brings a cheer from almost every audience. Americans find distasteful the uneven contest and wars against helpless peoples who pose no real threat are unpopular in the extreme.

Biologically the human is programmed to protect its young even at the cost, on occasion, of its own life. If it were not so, the vulnerable, slow-maturing infants could not survive. Admonitions to, "Be careful! You'll hurt yourself!" are among the earliest instructions and are given with an urgency reserved for no other lesson.

Indeed the care and safety of the next generation consumes a large share of the thought and effort of parents and their surrogates.

Yet in spite of these golden threads in the fabric of our ethos, we hold equally firmly the contradictory conviction that the proper way to educate the young is for grownups two or three times their size to hit and hurt them with wooden boards, leather straps or similar weapons.


We may set aside the idea that the punishers are all sadists who get a perverse satisfaction in the infliction of pain on a captive. Undoubtedly there are some so motivated but the number is small. Surely there must be some other explanation for this behavior than that offered by Morris in The Naked Ape.

Crypto-sexual aspects of paddling the anal area is exposed as a relic of primate behavior. The female rump presentation posture as an appeasement gesture... with rhythmic whipping replacing the rhythmic pelvic thrusts of the dominant male... It is doubtful whether schoolmasters would persist in this practice if they fully appreciated the fact that in reality they were performing an ancient primate form of ritual copulation with their pupils.
Coming from an English school system where the ubiquitous cane was rarely out of use, Morris saw much of the brutality as gratuitous amusement and gratification of unacknowledged, poorly controlled primitive impulses. While there may possibly remain in all of us some substrata of our evolutionary past, especially in response to similarly camouflaged sexual overtures by the student (giving the finger gesture of contempt as an invitation to, or threat of, anal copulation), this by no means completely explains the continued reliance upon the paddle as a means of keeping-order.


It is more difficult to set aside the idea that the punishers are as ignorant of alternatives as they continuously claim. The list of other ways of establishing a learning environment is long and readily available. In workshops for the study of methods of pupil management, the offering of constructive disciplinary techniques is met agreeably enough but with the mental reservation that this is appropriate only for cooperative children. For the exceptions, the ones who "don't understand anything else," the teacher's right to batter is defended by silence. Directly challenged and offered a smorgasbord of alternatives, the punishers reject each in turn as unworkable and accuse the instructor of never having had to manage difficult children. The suggestion of a school board ruling threatens to deprive these teachers of their "last resort," the anguished cry for help goes up. "What are you going to do with some of these kids? The insistence is upon some instantly available alternatives to be used on the spot. One such schoolman, British, conceived the idea of requiring recalcitrant boys to "wash up" after lunch. "That will make them look small and ridiculous," he said with evident satisfaction. Obviously he had learned nothing. His attitude had not changed and one can prophecy that neither had that of the students. And demeaning socially useful work by using it as belittlement seems an unwise lesson.

Teachers who have abjured physical punishments in favor of a comfortable working agreement with the learners do not have to beg for alternatives. With goodwill and creative imagination, they work out ways compatible with their personalities and with the particular situation they are hired to deal with. They conceive of their role more like that of a mediator than that of a warden. Within that framework they invent solutions as problems arise or pick and choose from among the ideas on the library shelves. They do not demand magic instant correctives, nor do they write off any child as hopeless.

Abnormal sexuality and invincible ignorance thus can be set aside (except for the few) as reasons for the continued use of an anachronistic and unnecessary cruelty. Let us consider another possibility: Suppose they are right? Suppose it were true that punishment works.


"A good swift smack on the childish gluteus maximus is occasionally the most effective way to make a long-remembered point," said Max Rafferty, the rejected candidate for the office of California Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Hundreds if not thousands of vice principals across the land apparently agree with him. Many of these are educators of good will and concern for the educational enterprise. They think of themselves as defending the right of good students to get an education unhampered by troublemakers. Nothing pleases them more than the paddled boy who came back to school ten years later to say sheepishly, "That was the best thing you ever did for me." To hear them tell it, one session of stern measures saves many a boy from a life of crime. Would that it were that simple!

The facts are otherwise, of course. Paddling and other punishments are used on the same few children over and over again. The child paddled in kindergarten is the child paddled in fourth grade is the child paddled in junior high. All of the mass murderers were frequently and severely punished as children. Gratitude for a walloping does not bloom until one is grown and in need of permission of conscience to wallop another child. Any such expressions before that time are pure apple polishing.

Nevertheless, let us examine the premise that "punishment works." Not only are some educators convinced of this, it can be found in the writings of some psychologists. Although most behavior modifiers (one school of psychology of three) emphasize the superior effectiveness of rewards over punishments, one small branch who study punishments by running rats, pigeons, cockroaches or flatworms through maze discrimination tests have indeed come to the conclusion that punishment works. A painful electric shock makes the subject exhibit avoidance behavior. In applying the principles learned in the lab to humans, these experimenters are presently under severe criticism for defining punishment as whatever works and then announcing solemnly that punishment works.

Of course punishment that is painful enough and without secondary rewards causes a captive child to exhibit "avoidance behavior." Is that what we want? Torture "works" too. Why would the interrogators of the Gulag Archipelago use their hideous refinements unless they extracted the wanted confessions? Whatever else happened to the victims was of no concern to them, nor did they consider the effect upon the lives of the people at large who lived under constant surveillance and threat of punishment.


When our Founding Fathers wrote into the basic law of our land protection against cruel and unusual punishment for everyone including dissenters and criminals, they had not been convinced by evidence, scientific or otherwise, that such punishments do not work. They added the amendment because of ethical considerations. They prized the climate of freedom more than the security of governing a populace forcibly of one mind. Over the years these proud hopes have slowly approached reality. Except for children. Which brings us back to our original question: How does it become possible to bypass standard ethics for certain sets of people?

Events in My Lai, Vietnam offer a parallel. The factors that permitted otherwise decent men to massacre civilians whom they did not hate and who had done them personally no harm have counterparts that help to explain why otherwise decent people participate in the assault upon children. Herbert Kelman of Harvard has analyzed "Violence Without Moral Restraint" in an in-depth and definitive study.


The causes he finds, are less among the psychological characteristics of the participants, than in the policy process that provides authority for both the massacre of far away peasants and the destruction of the pride and self respect of children here at home.

Situational and societal factors that make people smugly self-righteous punishers are listed as: 1. authorization, 2. routinization and 3. dehumanization.

1."... When acts of violence are explicitly ordered, implicitly encouraged, tacitly approved, or at least permitted by legitimate authorities, people's readiness to commit or condone them is considerably enhanced. The fact that such acts are authorized seems to carry automatic justification for them."

2. Just as the Pentagon and the soldier shave responsibility, so routinely dividing up tasks in education makes the use of cruelty less offensive to each of the parties. The teacher who sends a misbehaving child to the office does not have to see or hear what takes place behind the closed door. The principal who obliges the teacher may not know the child's name or offense and certainly not the history that brought him to his present state of inability to function as a good scholar. The superintendent and curriculum specialist who ordered the inappropriate books that this child has to pretend he can read never see him. The people who compose the text books are still farther away, and the theorists of education who have decided that multiple choice workbooks and set theory, poured over in silence with not a single friend on the same page to talk it over with, bear the original blame. But they do not know that Johnny is dying inside, nor that his rebellion at the impossible task has entangled him and the teacher in an uneven duel.

3. "It is difficult to have compassion for those who lack identity and who are excluded from our community" Dehumanization is accomplished largely by labelling. "Pre-delinquent" is the most damning but any name, announced with eyes rolled ceilingward in mock despair, will do. Not only are children labelled and thus made fair game, but the process of hitting and hurting them is detoxified by semantic tricks. "Administer" is a strange word to use when you mean pick up a wooden weapon and whack at the anal-erotic area of a small child's body.


Then how shall we combat the casual cruelty? Logic, unfortunately is a poor persuader. Better is simple exposure. But such publicity must do more than wave tragic examples across the air waves. Too much trauma inures people to the stench of destruction of hearts and minds. Kelman's observations suggest a few strategies worth considering.

First: open and persistent use of the words that actually describe the performance. An end to weasel words like "measures that may be necessary" and a favorite of science fiction buffs: "aversive therapy." Let us call violence "violence" and not giggle about it.

Second: recognition that the thoughtless punishers are heavily committed to unquestioning obedience. Not only do they insist upon mindless conformity in their students, they themselves tend to march to whatever orders come from on high. (The suggestion by timid legislators that we convince school boards one by one is nonproductive.) A single ruling by any accepted authority is enough to abolish 90% of the reliance upon physical violence and to prove again that one can keep school amazingly well without it. The last few holdouts are most likely character-defectives who should not be permitted near children.

Above all, let us refuse to suffer silently while the reactionaries, wallowing in denial and rationalization, tell us "It doesn't happen and besides they deserve it."


  • Morris, D., The Naked Ape, New York: McGraw Hill, 1967.
  • Kelman, H., "Violence Without Moral Restraint: Reflections on the Dehumanization of Victims and Victimizers" in Journal of Social Issues, V29, #4, 1973.

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