Guilt versus Shame

Not long ago, a fierce debate concerning the public caning of their pupils by schools in Singapore was triggered off by a letter to TODAY written by Dr Rachel S Kraut, who is an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University. She wondered “Will public caning lead to better behavior? Was caning the right course of action in this case? Wouldn’t psychological counseling have been both more humane and more effective, as well as less damaging to the collective morale? What sort of repercussions will the witnessing of this event have on other students?”

All good questions. In the same letter, Kraut described caning as “public display of barbarity.”

Not surprisingly the majority of the locals who responded disagreed with Kraut, saying, among other things that it is naive to think children witnessing corporal punishment would suffer psychological trauma. Many were in favor of caning, some even citing their own experience at the receiving end of the rod and how it has made them better human beings in the end.

Many probably felt that just reprimanding a wayward child is like prescribing a couple of aspirins to someone who needs heart paddles.

Sentiments like this were common: “Caning is not ‘barbaric’. It is part of education to tell children what is right or wrong, that they will be in for worse punishment if they commit any crime when older. It is also to show that we are not afraid to punish wrongdoers. People commit crime because they think they will not be caught and punished.”

One writer thought that Kraut’s sentiments were “purely subjective, not objective, and the result of a parochial attitude.”

Others were rather harsh saying things like “international talent who want to be a part of us is that they should make the effort to understand our system and not preach to us that theirs is better.”

One even did a bit of research on Kraut and wrote “It’s great to see that Dr Rachel Kraut and family are settling well here. They were quoted by a Hong Kong newspaper in 2004 that they are ‘at ease in a city largely free of homelessness, crime and corruption.’ I would dare say some ‘barbaric laws and policies’ we have here have a part to play in this, compared to the environment where they came from. All these laws and policies are made known openly to all and as the saying goes ‘When in Rome…’you know the rest of the words. If Dr Kraut and family feel that their way of bringing up their children works, then they have no fear of any ‘barbaric’ practices in this country.”

Many were eloquent in arguing their case: “Singapore’s move to attract foreign talent should not be viewed as a carte blanche for any foreigner to expect Singapore to pander to his or her cultural beliefs. Singapore has been to be open to adapting foreign ideas on a pragmatic, not indiscriminate, basis.

“Singapore is also equally open and welcoming to ‘Eastern scientists’ from Asia (Japan, Korea, India, Egypt etc,), so ‘Western scientists’ should not presume they have any privilege over their non-Western counterparts.

“What should be expected by any foreign scientists coming to cosmopolitan Singapore is to be open-minded, to respect the differences of the locals and of other nationalities living in Singapore. Those who do not want to prepare themselves for any shock should stay at home.”

Another writer said “contrary to what Dr Kraut thinks, I do not think this will deter Singapore from attracting foreign talents. In fact, foreign talents should be attracted to Singapore because it is precisely this environment that will allow them to flourish. In a country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world attributed to a myriad of factors, including meting suitable punishment, does Dr Kraut still insist that such an education system is undesirable?”

One foreigner, Caireann O’Neill was also in favor of caning but hers was a lone voice. She wrote “I am from one of those ‘liberal’ countries where teachers can’t even talk with a loud voice to students…To me, the Singapore system is not horrifying. Nowadays children hardly get caned at school and the negative consequences to society can already be observed.”

A Duncan Edwards wrote “When Dr Rachel Kraut asked ‘What sort of repercussions will the witnessing of this event have on other students?’ Quite simply put, they will think, ‘I’m not going to do that, else I will get caned!’ It’s called discipline. Carry on, schools, Singapore has a respectful, decent, honest society that we should be proud of.”

Another writer who taught school kids for 40 years, starting in 1965, shared his disappointment with the way things are today: “Twenty years on, in the 1980s, better-educated and more liberal parents ventilated their abhorrence against this ‘barbaric’ means of discipline. The groundswell of public opinion changed decidedly against the use of the cane.

“School heads made it abundantly clear to their teachers that MOE (Ministry of Education) standing orders strictly prohibited the use of corporal punishment by teachers.

“Complaints against teachers who dished out corporal punishment shot up markedly.

“Cane wielders were warned, had their pay increase held back, bypassed for promotion, and a few could have been given the marching orders.

“School heads and their senior staff (who are authorized to cane the kids) shied away from caning pupils, even if it was effective as a last resort.

“Kids’ discipline across the schools and at home, dipped significantly.

“A new generation of over-protective, vocal and articulate parents would march right into the school head’s office, demanding redress over a perceived wrong their kids had suffered at the hands of a teacher.”

He reminded readers that “in the 1960s, a renowned American childcare expert advised American parents to bring up their children with love, lots of it.

“They misread his good intentions. They mollycoddled and spoilt their kids in the name of parental love.

“A decade later, those parents roundly castigated the expert when their children grew up to be defiant, uncaring, selfish or beyond parental control.”

But Kraut had her supporters too.

A Sarah Sum-Campbell wrote “I agree whole-heartedly with Dr Rachel Kraut…Our daughter is two years old and my husband and I have already sworn off Singapore schools as we believe in a nurturing and enquiry mode of learning. We agree not to reprimand or put her down in public, especially in front of people with whom she has regular contact.”

A Natasha Hamilton claimed that caning is no different from assault; she wrote “Yes, caning is assault – if you did it to me or any non-consenting adult it would be a criminal offence. It is distressing to read that well-intentioned adults, including a medical doctor, condone inflicting physical pain on the smallest and most vulnerable members of our society.”

She quoted data: “To those who believe that caning or other forms of corporal punishment induce good behavior, the scientific evidence is unambiguous: it does not. This conclusion is replicated in countless peer-reviewed studies, but to cite one meta-analysis of no less than 88 scientific studies (Elizabeth Gershman, writing in volume 128 (2002) of Psychological Bulletin): corporal punishment is associated with ‘decreased moral internalization, increased child aggression, increased child delinquent and antisocial behavior’ and other negative effects. The common finding in most research is that corporal punishment can induce short-term compliance (but no more reliably than other methods of discipline), but children subjected to such punishments behave considerably worse than those who are not, once the immediate threat of punishment is removed.”

I enjoyed reading the exchange of views.

However I feel that debate completely ignored one thing – the role of guilt and the role of shame in the disciplining of our kids.

Most of the western writers come from a society where the primary method of social control is the inculcation of feelings of guilt for behaviors that the society defines as undesirable.

The European and North American cultures, claiming a Judeao-Christian heritage, embrace guilt-cultures. Psychologically, guilt is proclaimed to be a more “advanced” emotion than shame.

The sense of guilt might also preserve people from engaging in wrong-doing   Guilt creates a social conscience, it is argued.

Here in this part of the world, the primary device for gaining control over children and maintaining control over adults is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism.

The assumption is that shame is such a horrendous emotion that people will do almost anything to avoid the feeling.

Those of us who advocate public caning of our kids in the schools think that such public shaming is the most effective means of preventing recurrences of recalcitrant behavior. We quote anything from Sun-Tzu to Lee Kuan Yew to support our position.

Others who think counseling works better believe that making the culprit confront his act through remorse and guilt would have better long-term results.

Well, the jury’s obviously still out.

For me personally, I’ve felt heart-wrenching guilt before and I’ve been shamed as well and I must say both guilt and shame have made an impact on my psyche. Both these emotions overlap and on those occasions when I felt both guilt and shame I think the effect was longer-lasting.

So maybe the schools should combine caning with counseling?

We can’t assume they’re not already doing that, can we?

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