13 October 2015

The Case For Roughhousing

The modern trend is to have zero tolerance for violence.  And, as Steven Pinker reminds us, this trend has been going on for a long time.

But, have we taken it too far, at least, for kids who are going through normal parts of growing up? This is especially an issue for boys.  Was there a glimmer of truth in the proverb that "boys will be boys" within all of the clear misconduct it was used to gloss over?

I'm inclined to say, yes, that we have grown too intolerant of any kind of physical contact. But, I'm also disinclined to think that much of what we used to consider tolerable violence is rightly considered intolerable.

Corporal punishment for children, and for spouses in the form of legal domestic violence, used to be the norm. Our sense of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable conduct in sexual interactions has likewise changed greatly. Even respectable men used to waste each others lives in duels in much of the United States, and there are still parts of the country where resolving disputes with fists in the back alley is regarded as manly.

Now, corporal punishment has been largely disavowed outside the Muslim world, even for convicted adult criminals.  But, is long and often dangerous incarceration really a preferable alternative to swift but swiftly completed physical punishment in every case? What if the corporal punishment takes a form, such as castration, that dramatically reduces the change that a violent criminal will reoffend? What can we learn from the fact that some countries manage to maintain orderly societies with shorter sentences and more humane prison conditions?

We used to tolerate hazing and bullies to a much higher degree. Now, even Marines and Army soldiers in boot camp are treated with a certain degree of freedom from excessive unwanted physical contact from their Drill Instructors (DIs) (but some of this may be strictly PR for public consumption and may not reflect reality). Yet, can a certain amount of hazing-like activity product powerful pro-social outcomes? (Via this post).

Our tort system permits very large civil verdicts, through combinations of non-economic damages (e.g. pain and suffering) and exemplary damages (i.e. punitive damages), for physical harms, particularly physical harms that are intentional, relative to the economic damages involved.

There is also the question of proportionality.  Even in cases where inflicting physical harm is clearly impermissible, are the civil and criminal sanctions we impose for that conduct more severe than is reasonably justified, particularly at the less extreme low end of the scale.  Wide public concern for the excess of long periods of incarceration for non-violence crime does not necessarily translate into similar levels of public concern of excessive incarceration terms for violent crimes.

Our distaste for violence in our own lives has spilled over into sports.  We have taught our children the low contact sport of soccer in lieu of the higher contact sport of (American) football, although full contact sports like hockey and lacrosse and rugby don't seem to have experienced similar contractions.

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