Should a Smack?

I won’t bore you with a rehash of what makes the current referendum question ridiculous. That’s been well covered by just about everyone in the country – except, presumably, those who signed the petition in the first place.

The stupidity of the wording is perhaps befuddling, until one considers the original timing. Family First’s petition was never intended to be a standalone postal referendum in August ’09. They hoped to get it piggybacked with the general election last year. The same wording and language that renders the whole exercise pointless was intended to alter the outcome of the general election – an intention that harks back to a time when Family First and others believed National would reinstate the original Section 59 as a matter of course.

Instead, the poor bastards got the election result they wanted, a National Party who’s disappointed them, and a referendum question that gives John Key an excuse to ignore its results.

Another strange irony in this whole thing is the manner in which smacking has potentially become an arrestable offence. If Section 59 had been repealed quietly, with neither fanfare nor opposition, police behaviour wouldn’t have changed at all (no concern of theirs which defences are available to lawyers). The parents who smacked in the past would continue to smack without thought of arrest, and parents who committed the kind of violence almost unanimously considered abusive would continue to be arrested if found out.

Instead, because of the level of attention raised (mostly by opposition to the repeal, but some of it from the Green Party), Kiwi citizens have been made aware of something that was always the case – that you can technically be arrested for smacking your kid. And so you can technically complain to the police about someone smacking their kid. It’s just that while in the past (before the media circus, rather than before the change to S59) police would ignore any assaults they considered inconsequential, suddenly they’re in the spotlight and what should or should not be dismissed is not so cut and dried as it was.

So by making a fuss, Family First and co actually managed to effectively criminalise parents by drawing attention to the fact that they were always technically committing crimes.

I’m in two minds regarding smacking in general. I don’t think it’s necessary or preferable, and I think the great majority of smacks are motivated by frustration or anger, rather than some calculated behavioural correction. And regardless, I don’t like the idea that a violent authority dynamic prepares children for an adulthood where the right to violence is transferred from the parent to the state.

At the same time, trying to make this change (from a country that smacks to one that doesn’t) via the mechanisms of crime and punishment also reinforces similar dynamics – the force of the state.

Presumably, many people in favour of outlawing smacking hope that by shifting the acceptable-violence line towards non-violence, the unacceptable violence towards children in the country will shift accordingly. Something like a speed limit, perhaps. You know that people are always going to drive over the limit, so you make it about 10kph lower than the speed you really want people to stick to, and those who consistently drive 10kph over the limit are driving acceptably.

The argument depends on that analogy standing up – that abusive parents are analogous to speeding drivers. Even if they are, then the majority of parents would shift down gears in response to the newly defined line, while the minority who were always going to drive as fast as they can/beat their kids don’t change. There will be no effect on [those who are considered by the majority to be] child abusers, because they’ve never shown themselves to be concerned with what other people think is an acceptable level of violence towards their children.

Really, the whole thing has become a line in the sand to various people, representing far greater changes than the repeal to S59 would have been. Many see it as a symbolic first step towards something good, while others see it as a symbolic first step towards something terrible. The law change itself has been lost amongst everything it’s claimed to represent.

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