I’ve been mulling over what it is in the American psyche that makes us so angry and so prone to turn that anger into violence. One of my touchstones for understanding the United States is Mark Twain’s The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn. Pap, Huck’s father, is too often over-looked. Three aspects of Pap’s character yield some insight into our national penchant to settle things with first our mouths, then our fists, and, ultimately, our guns. First, Pap abandons his son, only to reclaim him by force when Huck may have some money. He physically and psychologically abuses Huck, angry that his son has become so “civilized” that Pap now feels inferior. He is particularly aggrieved that Huck goes to school and can read. Third, Pap reserves considerable anger for what he believes has made his life so miserable: “the Govment.”
That “Govment” speech in Chapter Six begins:
Call this a govment! Why, just look at it and see what it’s like. Here’s the law a-standing ready to take a man’s son away from him — a man’s own son, which he has had all the trouble and all the anxiety and all the expense of raising. Yes, just as that man has got that son raised at last, and ready to go to work and begin to do suthin’ for him and give him a rest, the law up and goes for him. And they call that govment!
It is a speech delivered by an ignorant, violent, self-centered bully. Sound familiar?
Pap is neither a model father nor a model citizen. He is selfish and self-indulgent. He complains constantly about what others have done to him. Prejudiced, he attacks the apparent wealth and manners of an educated black man he encounters, who has attained the right to vote. He’s so offended that he declares he won’t ever vote again as long as a black man anywhere in the country has that right, another fault he lays at the feet of “how low the govment had fallen.” Everything wrong in his life, Pap reasons, is someone else’s fault and when that someone cannot be personalized, it becomes the fault of that perpetually present enemy, “the govment.” Maybe today it’s the Deep State.
Pap is America’s non-striving poor man, ready to strike out at the least provocation. He’s not necessarily economically poor, although Pap is, but he is responsibility poor. He’s angry at elites, at racial minorities who seem to be getting what he believes is his due, at schools, at public institutions, and at judges. His weapons are constant complaint and physical confrontation. Today’s QAnon followers and white supremacists are his descendants.
According to General Social Survey data published in 2017 nearly 70% of Americans agree with the statement: “Sometimes a child just needs a good, hard spanking.” Researchers in a 2015 study noted that corporal punishment of children in the United States remained well-accepted, with some surveys reporting 64-95% of parents use spanking between the ages of two and three. Such punishment does have immediate short-term deterrent effects, but there is mounting evidence that it has negative long-term consequences, including increased aggression.
McGill University researchers published results of an investigation on the use of corporal punishment internationally and found that “countries that prohibit the use of corporal punishment are less violent for children to grow up in.” None of our fifty states ban corporal punishment within the home; 18 states, at least as recently as a couple of years ago, still allow it in public schools. Not surprisingly, those states are among our most gun- and God-besotted ones, including almost all the evangelical south (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas, along with southern border states like Kentucky, Oklahoma and Tennessee. North Carolina dropped from that list only in 2019.) Correlation is not causation, but it should give us pause. Residents of those states are also among our most likely citizens to be suspicious of “big” government, public education and professional or scientific knowledge.
There are alternatives to using violence to discipline children and consequences when we do. Countries that don’t find those alternatives are inclined to perpetuate, indeed multiply, violence. They chase the power to control, even if it is only legislative prohibitions that control the bodies of adults they dislike. Think all those men making decisions about women’s bodies.
Too many Americans rationalize their discipline choices by referencing Biblical texts. I have little sympathy for today’s Christians who refer to the Bible for instruction on rod use, since I believe they misread the texts they quote. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is not Biblical. There’s nothing about spoiling a child and physical punishment in that book. There are lines about failing to discipline, however, and a rod is used in those verses. What many of those Bible readers forget is that discipline does not necessarily mean physical punishment, but pastoral guidance.
The rod in use is not a twig from a backyard tree or a belt. Those Biblical lines are surrounded by shepherd metaphors and parable teachings. A crooked rod, for example, is used by a shepherd to guide sheep that stray from a flock gently back. It’s not used to beat them. If the use of violence in disciplining a child creates an aggressive, even violent adult, a Pap, have we really done God’s work?
I trace a lot of what’s errant in our nation to our founding. The roots of slavery are planted in Jamestown before the Pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock. New England Calvinists gave us religious bigotry and all its evils before they exterminated many of the local inhabitants in King Phillip’s War. The stern face of corporal control glared down from the bench at the Salem Witch Trials and across Southern plantation porches. We disciplined others not to prevent them from harm, but to protect ourselves and how we saw our world. Like Pap, we safe-guarded what we thought was “our due.”
Thomas Kuhn, in his groundbreaking book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, argued that there is always contested debate, even violence, before a revolutionary change. The status quo goes to extreme lengths to defend its position, as do the people who have profited from it. We are accustomed to protestors being angry, but we should also pay attention to anger from those who like things the way they are. How else does one come to terms with a President who champions senior citizens in Florida shouting “White Power?” Or the use of military force to counter peaceful protests? Or the reaction of some police to reform efforts like civilian oversight of their behaviors? Or two white people in St. Louis brandishing guns outside their home as peaceful protestors walked down their road to a mayor’s house? Some people are angry, because we need change; others are angry, because of what change will do to their positions in the world.
It’s beginning to feel like an historical hinge moment. Pandemics often correlate with profound changes. That’s the good news. We need to go in another direction. The bad news is that the resolution of the direction we proceed is dependent on us and, at least in the United States, a majority of us appear to have been raised mean.
An Aside: I am not arguing that our American love for resolving issues through legislative, psychological or physical control of someone’s body is the direct result of a national tendency to inflict physical pain on our children. I do, however, think they spring from the same source and it has proved a dangerous one. There are many Paps abroad in our land and too many of them are in positions of power.