Getting into this box is what's best for both of us. During your time in the box, you will learn so much, and yet experience so little. It's a wild ride, my friend, one well worth the time spent...and let's face it, you don't have much to do these days anyway.

Friday 7 June 2013

On social shame and punishment.

Been reflecting on this in the past day or two:
"Lead through policies, discipline through punishments, and the people may be restrained but without a sense of shame. Lead through virtue, discipline with the rites, and there shall be a sense of shame and conscientious improvements."
- Analects, Chapter 2, verse 3.
Thinking back to when I was sixteen or thereabouts, longtime readers of this blog (do I have any?) will remember that the complete narcissist of a principal who headed my school at the time mandated that every student join a uniformed youth organisation for the ostensible purpose of "promoting leadership". By some freakish coincidence, my class was the first to have this inane rule apply to them, so during the four years I was in secondary school (your rough approximation would be junior high), I was able to track quite keenly the...ah, decline of the uniformed youth organsiations during my time there.

When I was a junior police cadet, my seniors had all joined up of their own free will. they treated us with...well, most of them were even-handed, even if there were a couple of weasels who were clearly getting off on making thirteen-year-olds do pushups on hot tarmac at midday. But there was a sense of order, for lack of a better word. They meant it when they sang those songs, carried the traditions of the unit, and did their best to instil said traditions in us until we "got it", or at least pretended to.

In short, they took the whole business seriously.

Which my class, in turn, didn't. In my second year, the principal was getting embarrassed by massive absenteeism rates from the uniformed youth organisations, and hence instituted "detention parade" for defaulters. That quickly put paid to the problem of people not showing up, but in turn created another problem: we who had stuck with regular attendance over the last one and a half years were suddenly swamped with people whom we hadn't seen for months. The teachers in charge quite frustrated, and conferred with the senior cadets as to how best bring these new bodies up to speed. The principal, of course, didn't care - I suspect that so long as the attendance rates shot back up, all was fine and dandy.

The kids were whipped back in line by the threat of punishment, but none of the defaulters actually seemed to give a honest damn. Attendance every week, at best, was to be suffered and at worst to be avoided. The standard of everything - from drills to campcraft to singing - plummeted, and for all the talk of everyone in the same class and being one squad, the division of us between those who halfway gave a damn, even if only to avoid punishment, and those who would take every excuse to skive, was clear.

Other uniformed youth organisations were affected differently; the army-oriented national cadet corps retained a greater percentage of people who actually gave a damn, since it was reputedly disciplined and "difficult" and hence the young rabbits in my class steered well clear of it, while the St. John's Ambulance Brigade...hah, I won't even speak of them.

And when we became senior cadets in our own right? Well, things still didn't change, so instead of grunts who didn't give a fuck, we got leadership who didn't give a fuck. We went through the motions, but without a sense of shame, the substance was lost. The cadets beneath us? Without leaders who gave a damn, who can blame subordinates for not giving one, either?

If anyone's heard the saying that a kid can play for hours in the snow and yet catch a chill within moments of shovelling the walk, then I think you can get what I mean. Or perhaps a more direct analogy would be exercise being so much easier when one embarks upon a regimen of one's own accord, rather than being forced to it. Sure, our inane principal might have whipped everyone into line in order to make his wonderful school look good, but at what cost?

I can recount my year as a senior cadet and storeman: people tracking mud into the store, refusing to properly sign out the wooden rifles, losing the wooden rifles and hoping I wouldn't notice by returning them all in one lump (with some small satisfaction, they were ordered to comb the bloody parade square and environs until they retrieved it), my own peers trying to filch syrup from the cupboards for personal use, so on and so forth -

Months before I was due to pass out, the two teachers in charge decided they were going to quit along with my batch, despite having more than a decade heading the police cadet corps unit. I don't blame them.

Policy and punishment isn't enough if you want more than the bare minimum. Part of the power of shaming is that it makes you feel bad, that you want to change, if only to avoid this feeling of burning embarrassment. That makes all the difference in the world.

How is this reconciled with the my view that strong legislation is required in order to deal with the inherently amoral underclass? Personally, I'd view it as a failsafe when social shaming, censure and punishment fails. You're always going to get the odd psychopath who resists all social pressure, and the least you can get out of them is the bare minimum. My cadet unit might have been able to absorb one or two loafers, but not the torrent that resulted from my principal's inane policy.

Lynching is one thing, but I'd definitely be in favour of bringing back some component of social shame back into punishments. Corrective Work Order for littering worked for a while in Singapore, but of course, since the only allowable shaming in today's society is in shaming shamers, the deterrent effect of that has gone down quite a bit. Public executions - fuck, bring them back, or at least the stocks and shunning.

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