Tom Bennett

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The Death Penalty and whole class detentions

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Every now and then I am asked what I think of whole class detentions. And I always answer the same way- I abjure them; they are abhorrent in mine eyes, yea, even unto the Last Days. There are a number of perfectly sound reasons to employ them, because no strategy is perfect, and no imperfect one is perfectly so. Every option, no matter how righteous or fallen, contains germs of its own salvation or damnation. Plato averred that the realm of the ideal was transcendent, and so we find. Nothing in this world is flawless, or flawlessly flawed.

Why would you want to keep a whole class behind? The answers are so obvious that it is fatuous to ignore them, so let us face them manfully:

  • It guarantees that the unjust are skewered, even if the ones you want are obscured by the noise and smoke of the classroom (the Fog of Wah!, as I call it)
  • It lays your vengeance upon them, as Mr S Jackson would agree. They can’t say that you didn’t punish the guilty.

So certainty and the need to sanction against are both satisfied. But what is lost?

Justice. The whole class detention is a carpet-bombing, a daisy-chain detonation that flattens the just and the unjust. It destroys what you work hard to create- the classroom relationship. Every child, guilty and innocent is treated alike, and the good realise, silently and certainly, that there is no reward in this life for kindness, compliance, dedication and application. Might as well, you can hear them think, go rotten. Good luck to you after that.

This reminds me, strangely enough, of the cavernous cement-mixer of moral reasoning that accompanies every debate on capital punishment, as another soul- a murderer, or not- receives the ultimate state sanction in Georgia. To ignore the obvious attraction of the death penalty, to claim that it is ‘obviously’ wrong, is to commit the sin of certainty, which is a death of a more abstract sort: the death of reason. The very human thirst for vengeance can’t be simply dismissed as an aberration of character, or the unsettled aspect of a mind speckled by sadness, grief and outrage. Not one of us would calmly forgive a monster who took some loved one away from us in the gruesome ways that such events inevitably happen. Not one.

But this very human, very understandable response cannot be sustained in the macrocosm of civil society; it cannot. The contradictions are too enormous; the weight of evidence almost unachievable. And even if they were, there is the prospect, however remote, that the guilty would dangle alongside the innocent, like Calvary. And mistakes there are, many, many over the years. Justice, we must remember, is not a utilitarian equation of cost versus benefit- it is an absolute, if it is anything. We do not achieve justice by razing the sinner with the saint; we do so by sparing them all from the irreversible terminus from which nothing returns. We build mercy into our vengeance, and allow ourselves to be imperfect. Because we know we are.

Christopher Hitchens, in a discussion of the Death Penalty, makes this point:
 
‘I used to debate these questions with the late Professor Ernest van den Haag, a legal scholar of the William Buckley National Review school. He was always admirably blunt and concise. In the case of an execution of an innocent person, he once said to me, the necessary point had nonetheless been made: the state and the community had shown that they were prepared to kill. It did not especially matter if they had or had not taken the “right” life: the demonstration had nonetheless been forcibly made. (You might remember the scene in Doctor Zhivago when Strelnikov says that the peasants understand who is boss once their village has been burned, whether they had been harboring the enemy or not. “Your point: their village,” is Zhivago’s.[……] reply.)’

Christopher Hitchens, From Lapham’s Quarterly

The hangman’s noose: the whole-class detention. As far apart in severity as the abstract concept of sanction can sustain without snapping. But both illustrating the same premise.

Your point: their classroom.


2 Comments

  1. And besides, isn't “collective punishment” outlawed by the Geneva Convention?

  2. Ben Trovato says:

    Oddly enough, this worked better in the days of corporal punishment (which I am not a fan of, btw). I remember clearly the whole year being lined up in the playground and the head going down with the toy cricket bat he favoured on such occasions. The bad lads (it was a boys only school) got hefty whacks, the good ones the merest pats. I was somewhere in between. Much closer to justice (and most of us thought he got it about right).

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