Dear Chris Grayling: I was smacked as a child and it DID do me harm

If this is going to be a match of anecdotes, don't devalue mine, argues Glosswitch.

Chris Grayling, justice secretary, has defended a parent’s right to smack his or her child. In an interview with the Mail on Sunday (the main purpose of which appears to be to demonstrate just how rock hard he is – criminals, beware!) Grayling offers the following parental guidance:

You chastise children when they are bad, as my parents did me. I’m not opposed to smacking. It is to be used occasionally. Sometimes it sends a message – but I don’t hanker for the days when children were severely beaten at school.

Well, that’s all reasonable, isn’t it? Nice, loving parents shouldn’t have to spare the rod, although teachers – who are not to be trusted anyhow – bloody well should. I’m guessing, of course, that Grayling doesn’t mean all parents (one middle-class parent’s reasonable chastisement is another working-class parent’s beating the living daylights out of an innocent child). Still, Grayling was smacked as a kid, and he smacked his kids, so that’s all… fine?

The argument most commonly used in favour of smacking seems to be “I was smacked as a child and it didn’t do me any harm”. It is, on the face of it, a ridiculous argument. I was accidentally thrown into a half-frozen pond filled with ornamental carp as a child and it didn’t do me any harm. That’s not the sodding point. The question is not whether it harmed you personally but whether, potentially, it could be damaging to others.

And yet, on the other hand, it’s a very clever argument, because it silences dissent. You don’t want to be the person who says “I was smacked as a child and the experience scarred me”. After all, it makes you sound like the less rational person in the debate, seeing as you’re already admitting to being psychologically damaged. Plus it positions you as the kind of tosser who blames his or her parents for everything. Mummy and/or Daddy hit me and I’ve never forgiven them. Waah! That’s what it sounds like, even if actually, you now get on with your parents pretty well and consider them to be good people. You’re trying to make a point based on limited personal experience – in response to one which is similarly based on limited person experience – yet you sound like Kevin the teenager while your interlocutor somehow appears to have the wisdom of Solomon.

Well, I’ll stick my neck out here (please don’t hit it): I was smacked as a toddler, child and teenager and yes, the experience did cause me a great deal of fear and distress. This has lasted well into adulthood. I’m still terrified of people “turning” and becoming violent with me if I do the wrong thing. And yes, this might sound like I’m blaming Mummy and Daddy for my own personal flaws. And yes, perhaps you were hit too and you coped with it more successfully because you’re so much stronger than me. Frankly, I don’t think it matters (and yeah, I’ve effectively confessed to being less resilient than Chris Grayling. Although that in itself probably takes a certain amount of courage). Anyhow, let’s just not hit children. It’s surely not a risk worth taking.

I realise I might be pulled up due to the way I’m slipping between using the words “smack” and “hit”. Apparently they’re very different things. Great. Just tell me the cut-off point, because it’s not all that obvious to me. It might just come down to pressure that’s been ever so slightly misjudged, or the edge of a door getting in the way, or someone losing their balance, or the chair that you’ve been hiding under turning out to be more fragile than everyone believed. Nobody’s fault, all an accident. Because “reasonable chastisement” is, by its very nature, “reasonable”, and as for the rest, well, nobody’s perfect. A “loving slap” might occasionally be administered in anger. After all, we all get angry, don’t we? As long as it doesn’t leave marks it’s legal, and if it does? Well, some children bruise more easily than others. The law is a blunt tool. It’s messy. Hence it’s a good job that, for the most part, no one ever finds out what goes on behind closed doors. We just have a halfway-house legal compromise that, to take Grayling’s own words, “sends a message”, namely that administered correctly, physical violence can be an expression of love.

I don’t smack my children. I presume at this point in the argument I’m meant to list all the alternative forms of discipline I use. It’s something I’m loathe to do, on the basis that I don’t smack my partner, parents or colleagues either, and I doubt I’d be expected to offer up alternatives for dealing with them, too. All the same, I know it will be suggested that since children are less rational than adults, they form a special case. I don’t buy this. If they know enough about cause and effect to link being naughty with feeling pain, they also know enough to link it with things they value – praise or favours – being withheld (at least, mine seem to, and I definitely wouldn’t declare either of them to be more rational than the average child). Moreover, I’ve been around adults whom I’d consider less rational than my five-year-old (I’ve spent time in a psychiatric hospital and no, I’m not blaming my sodding parents for it). Some adults who are delusional strike me as less susceptible to grasping the long-term consequences of their actions than children are. I don’t see anyone making a moral case for hitting them (even if, in reality, that’s what some carers – the ones we regard as abusive – end up doing).

Clearly we don’t grant very small children the same rights to bodily integrity as everyone else, and there are reasons for this. I wash my children; I dress my children; I brush their teeth and rub shampoo into their hair even if it makes them cry. I do it “for their own good”, but I’m not always comfortable with it. Even so, there is difference between this and causing them fear and pain for the sake of it. Our children’s bodies are separate from our own. The older they get, the harder it is to just pick them up and plonk them wherever you need them to be. You have to use persuasion instead, and clearly that’s a pain in the arse when they’re ranting and raving about not wanting to wear pants on a Tuesday or needing to watch one more episode of Peppa Pig. When is it right for me to drag my children by the wrists and when is it abusive? I don’t know. What I do know is that unlike Grayling, I wouldn’t sit in the cold light of day, miles away from the complexities of family life, and calmly defend physical assault.

I don’t think I’m a better parent, or indeed a better person, than those who smack. The cultural acceptability of physical chastisement means it’s not the same as other forms of abuse. I think it’s possible to feel conflicted, and even guilty, for not smacking, given the number of people insisting it’s what parents should be able to do. Non-smackers face insinuations that if you don’t hit, you must be using psychological abuse to discipline your children, with the implication being that that’s far worse. But you can use both, one or the other, or neither. Surely at least attempting the latter is best.

And now I’m due back on parent duty to prevent someone from smacking my five-year-old. Obviously I’m against this, but at least this someone has an excuse; unlike Chris Grayling, he’s three.

Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt