The Need to Punish

The soul of America has gone soft. Our will has dulled. When it comes to discipline, we are collectively the five year-old howling not to be spanked. We know we deserve it–we just don’t want it.

You see this instinct everywhere. I often think that we as a society are more prone to feel sorry for the criminal than the victim. Something terrible happens, and we’re so quick to look into the killer’s background, sympathize with his family, and generally look at things from his side of things that we forget the victim. Then, we as a society scream that the poor criminal has to spend time in as terrible a place as jail. Jail is bad, after all, and bad things happen there. So we shorten the sentences and lighten the burdens and ease off the death penalty and all of a sudden, being a criminal ain’t so bad.

We carry this out on many other levels as well. With children, for example. We don’t want to do anything to damage the “self-esteem” of our children or to raise the hackles of the government, so we softpedal physical discipline and use all manner of useless time-outs that do nothing to teach the child that their conduct is bad and instead communicate that if they misbehave, they get to take a quiet break in the corner. No harsh repercussions, no red mark on the hiner. Just a soft little ten-minute spell in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the children learn, just as the criminals do, that it’s not really such a bad thing to disobey.

Even at the seminary I attend, a school strongly committed to the need to point out wrong and address it, some professors use purple ink when they are correcting papers because red hurts feelings. Those who do so do it with the best of intentions. They would likely affirm the need to punish. But they are nonetheless a small participant in the societal shift away from punishment and firm, clear correction. We are so psychologically driven, so concerned with people’s opinions, so scared we might hurt a feeling or scar a psyche, that we go soft at the very point at which we need to go hard and at which the offending person needs us to go hard. As we’ll talk about tomorrow, discipline is not inherently bad for us. It is inherently good for us. And discipline that is not firm and unpleasant does us no good at at all. That type of discipline actually is bad for us.

Think about this. When you did something wrong and were caught at it, what caught your attention? What really made you change? When did you know you were going to get away with your wrongdoing?

When discipline is lovingly administered, it leaves a mark. That mark leaves a lasting impression.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Need to Punish

  1. Colin

    O–good thoughts. I have a friend here who is a good deal overweight. He eats pizza late at night. He does not exercise. He is, as they say, fat and happy. He also does not know what he’s missing out on, what could be had if he used a little, to borrow a baseball phrase, “plate discipline.” It is not that a sound diet is confining; rather, it is just the opposite.

    It does strike me, though, that it would be foolish to approach my friend with the assumption that he should be punished because he had violated some dry, impersonal guideline about proper eating habits. How arbitrary that must appear to him.

    I will grant that in breaking God’s law, we are doing more than just harming ourselves, and punishment is desrved. But I still think it is important to make clear that we follow laws not because they bind our freedom but because they promote it.

    PS: Why’d I get let off that list a few posts ago, you punk?

  2. Jed

    Owen, I don’t think that America is becoming soft because we feel more sorry for the criminal than the victim; rather, we are becoming more Socratic. As Socrates would often argue, the worst thing by far is to commit a crime and escape punishment since one’s soul becomes worse with no hope for improvement. Hence the criminals are to be pitied more than the victims and–if we truly don’t like a criminal–we should let him go off scott-free. I never realized how Socratic our society is. It’s quite unbelievable.

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