Corporal Punishment and the Arrested Development of the ‘Adult’

In the past couple of weeks, I have quoted at length from Erik Erikson‘s Young Man Luther. First, to draw an analogy between the development stages of humans and nations via the notion of an identity crisis, and then, to point to perhaps a similarly analogical relationship between indoctrination and addiction recovery. Today, I want to point to a passage that is particularly insightful about corporal punishment:

It takes a particular view of man’s place on this earth, and of the place of childhood within man’s total scheme, to invent devices for terrifying children into submission, either by magic, or by mental and corporeal terror. When these terrors are associated with collective and ritual observances, they can be assumed to contain some inner corrective which keeps the individual child from facing life all by himself; they may even offer some compensation of belongingness and identification. Special concepts of property (including the idea that a man can ruin, his own property if he wishes) underlie the idea that it is entirely up to the discretion of an individual father when he should raise the morality of his children by beating their bodies. It is clear that the concept of children as property opens the door to those misalliances of impulsivity and compulsivity, of arbitrariness and moral logic, of brutality and haughtiness, which make men crueler and more licentious than creatures not fired with the divine spark. The device of beating children down by superior force, by contrived logic, or by vicious sweetness makes it unnecessary for the adult to become adult. He need not develop that true inner superiority which is naturally persuasive. Instead, he is authorized to remain significantly inconsistent and arbitrary, or in other words, childish, while beating into the child the desirability of growing up. The child, forced out of fear to pretend that he is better when seen than when unseen, is left to anticipate the day when he will have the brute power to make others more moral than he ever intends to be himself.

I was fortunate enough to never suffer the chastisements of an unhinged father (though he was, in his own way, a strict man with high standards) but I did see, in too many of my school years, teachers who thought little of vigorously handing out slaps and canings to their wards. In my fifth grade year in school, our teacher had such a reputation that she induced a severe panic into most of my classmates. The penalty for a missed homework was a public slapping, as was that for talking in class. Indeed, think of a possible offence, and you’d find the penalty was a ear-ringing slap across the face. We didn’t respect her; we just feared her. Without exaggeration, her replacement, a few weeks into the school year, by a young graduate of teaching college, who turned out to be a brilliant mentor to all of us, was one of the best pieces of news I have ever received in my life. The sense of relief I felt that day can scarcely be described. Then, she seemed grown-up and fearsome. In retrospect, I realize I had been confronted with someone who had never quite made the transition from child to adult.

Note: Excerpt from Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 1962, pp. 69-70.

Indoctrination and Recovery from Addiction

Today at lunch, a conversation about the difficulties of quitting smoking cigarettes and of persuading smokers to quit, about possible strategies for inducing smokers to leave their habit behind, and so on led quite naturally to a discussion about the nature of addiction and so-called ‘addictive personalities’ (and subsequently, a discussion of why some strategies for recovering from addiction work and some do not.) This discussion reminded me that recovery and rehabilitation from addiction can be thought of as a kind of indoctrination into new modes of behavior. In that regard, the following description of indoctrination, taken from Erik Erikson‘s Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, from the chapter ‘First Mass and Dead Ends’ describing Luther’s initiation into monkhood, is of much interest:

Indoctrination is charged with the task of separating the individual from the world long enough so that his former values become thoroughly disengaged from his intentions and aspirations; the process must create in him new convictions deep enough to replace much of what he has learned in childhood and practiced in his youth. Obviously, then, the training must be a kind of shock treatment, for it is expected to replace in a short time what has grown over many formative years; therefore, indoctrination must be incisive in its deprivations, and exact in its generous supply of encouragement. It must separate the individual from the world he knows and aggravate his introspective and self-critical powers to the point of identity-diffusion, but short of psychotic dissociation. At the same time it must endeavor to send the individual back into the world with his new convictions so strongly anchored in his unconscious that he almost hallucinates them as being the will of a godhead or the course of all history: something, that is, which was not imposed on him, but was in him all along, waiting to be freed.

Note: I have quoted previously from Erikson on this blog and will do so once more. And on a related note, Freud himself was an addict who recovered: from a habit of conspicuous cocaine consumption, one that he transcended by (among other things) a rigorous work schedule.

A Nation in Identity Crisis?

Just for kicks, I thought it might be interesting, on the day after the 2012 election, to think of the US as a nation undergoing an adolescent identity crisis. I do this in response to some post-election commentary that seems to suggest the demographic shift in the US has engendered one, forcing political parties across the land to respond before their next loss in a national election.

What do we know about identity crises? Well, here are some thoughts from Erik Erikson, who coined the phrase. They sound  especially interesting when the ‘youth’ in question is a nation, and in this case, one with a very particular opinion of itself and its history:

I have called the major crisis of adolescence the identity crisis; it occurs in that period of the life cycle when each youth must forge for himself some central perspective and direction, some working unity, out of the effective remnants of his childhood and the hopes of his anticipated adulthood; he must detect some meaningful resemblance between what he has come to see in himself and what his sharpened awareness tells him others judge and expect him to be. This sounds dangerously like common sense; like all health, however, it is a matter of course only to those who possess it, and appears as a most complex achievement to those who have tasted its absence. Only in ill health does one realize the intricacy of the body; and only in a crisis, individual or historical, does it become obvious what a sensitive combination of interrelated factors the human personality is a combination of capacities created in the distant past and of opportunities divined in the present; a combination of totally unconscious preconditions developed in individual growth and of social conditions created and recreated in the precarious interplay of generations. In some young people, in some classes, at some periods in history, this crisis will be minimal; in other people, classes, and periods, the crisis will be clearly marked off as a critical period, a kind of “second birth,” apt to be aggravated either by widespread neuroticisms or by pervasive ideological unrest. Some young individuals will succumb to this crisis in all manner of neurotic, psychotic, or delinquent behavior; others will resolve it through participation in ideological movements passionately concerned with religion or politics, nature or art. Still others, although suffering and deviating dangerously through what appears to be a prolonged adolescence, eventually come to contribute an original bit to an emerging style of life: the very danger which they have sensed has forced them to mobilize capacities to see and say, to dream and plan, to design and construct, in new ways.

For what it’s worth, I do not think this election, or even the one before it, have triggered anything like an identity crisis. This is not because the US cannot be termed ‘adolescent’; rather, it is because these elections do not seem have induced as fundamental a rupture as indicated above.

Note: Excerpt from Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 1962