On Punishment

by Kobutsu Malone

I speak from the perspective of a simple Buddhist priest - over the years through working with my own children, students, prisoners and my fellow human beings I have learned that any form of punishment, be it corporal or psychological, is injurious, causes pain and is counterproductive.

Punishment involves the deliberate infliction of physical or emotional pain or injury - on a being - by another person or persons who exercise a "power over" dynamic toward that being. The deliberate infliction of pain on an individual in response to an action after it has occurred can in no way change the effect of the original action nor can it serve to educate or awaken the individual. The physical or emotional pain or injury of punishment done to a child or an adult creates only fear and trauma, it not only damages the person being punished but it damages and enslaves those who inflict the punishment. The abuse of physical violence visited on anyone is a deliberate act that scapegoats the person through the, often disconscious, release of an accumulated burden of internalized oppression.

The net result of any kind of punishment is repressed anger or internalized oppression, humiliation and degradation for both the giver and the receiver of the punishment. It is difficult indeed to really see the profound depth of this truth because we as individuals and collectively as a society live within an oppressive and coercive environment. Our vision is completely blocked to the truth by materialism in the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of our lives. Arrogance and aggression permeate our society, our history, our religious traditions, our so-called "judicial system" to the point that we can not see clearly enough to question the premise of punishment on a fundamental level. We live in a nation surrounded by violence, violence and the infliction of pain is almost worshiped in our entertainment, our "news" reporting and in our day-to-day interrelationships with each other. We fail to perceive that this is a legacy of hatred and oppression that we have inherited from our parents and they from theirs. We forget that our country was founded on the violent conquest and enslavement of indigenous peoples. Our "history" is presented in schools as "patriotic mythology" that hides the reality that our nation perpetrated the institution of racial slavery of African people for generations for the economic gain for people of privilege and wealth. We fail to perceive how our religious traditions have been used to justify the perpetration of genocide and slaughter on indigenous people in the name of "civilization."

I submit that punishment is uncivilized and serves no purpose other than the perpetuation of oppression. - I was punished, therefore it is justifiable for me to punish another. I was spanked as a child - it did me no harm - therefore I can spank my children. However, deep introspection into our own experience reveals the painful and horrible truth. It is through the means of introspection and insight that we can begin to perceive our addiction to the assumption that punishment is an acceptable mode of behavior.

Each and every time we have ever been punished we have been socialized in punishment – we learn to modify our behavior in the presence of an oppressor who wields power over us out of fear. We internalize our oppression out of fear, denial and disconscious thought we carry the burden of external oppression within us. When our oppressor, the individual or group who punishes us, is no longer present, resentment often rises up in the mind, in time our internalized oppression builds into hatred for ourselves and for others. In the long run our internalized oppression, our internal rage and anger result in depression and social alienation, or, when externalized, the oppression of others. We, in effect, have learned to become an oppressor, we disconsciously pass on the cycle of violence to our families, our children and our society. Punishment, corporal or otherwise, no matter how it may be justified, is unacceptable and inexcusable, because it erodes the ability of people to see things with clarity and poisons the possibility for genuine healing.

Punishment inflicted on people for the purpose of influencing others, the alleged deterrent effect, is in actuality brutality by proxy, socialization in oppression through threat and fear. Deterrence is a myth maintained by people in positions of power out of ignorance and arrogance and perpetrated on people who are powerless. People do not consider penalties when involved in illegal activity, their only concern is "getting-over" on those in power - not getting caught - deterrence does not enter the picture.

The only truly effective and successful methods of dealing with correction of behavior come through compassionate communication, comprehension of social responsibility, education, restraint and discipline. Punishment simply does not, and has never, worked to bring about genuine changes in how people think and act.

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by Paul McCold, Ph.D