Thursday, 12 January 2012

Shouldn't We All Be Free to Buy Whatever Books We Like, and Hit Our Kids Too, If We Want To?


Nearly ten thousand people have now signed my petition to ask Amazon not to stock books which advocate the physical abuse of children. Over the last four months since I began the campaign the support has been incredible, and I'm grateful beyond words to all those individuals, groups and organisations who have signed and spread the word. I'm sometimes especially thankful to the total strangers who send me emails; warm, kind words that randomly land in my inbox, renewing my vigour to continue in spite of Amazon's silence.

But there have also been critics. For some people, the petition represents censorship, a threat to freedom of speech which they cannot approve of under any circumstances. Pottering around online, following the many Facebook threads or chat room discussions about the campaign, I have read with fascination several such discussions, and commented on a few. I think it's very important to listen to what people are saying, to mull over their views carefully, and to consider that their points may be as valid or more valid than our own. If we don't, we risk becoming completely convinced of our own self righteousness, entirely closed off to the possibility that we might be wrong; bigoted, self righteous, extremist, even dangerous.

So, believe me, I have listened to all sides of the argument, and searched my soul (often whilst breastfeeding in the wee small hours!). Is this petition right? Is it helpful? Is it censorship? An infringement of freedom of speech? Of freedom itself?!

Firstly, let's get one thing absolutely clear. I've said it before but sometimes, it seems, these things need repeating: This petition is NOT calling to BAN the book To Train up a Child, or any other. It is simply asking Amazon not to stock this and other titles that advise parents to hit / beat / spank or smack their children. Amazon themselves 'draw lines' ; they have a policy not to carry 'offensive' material, and the petition asks them to consider that the content of such books is offensive. If, and it's a big if, IF Amazon decide to pull these books from their stock, they will continue to be published, bought and sold. BUT. At least two things may happen. Other book sellers may follow suit and refuse to carry such material, meaning the books are harder and harder (but not impossible) to get hold of. And, as Dara Stoltzfus put it in this guest post on The Mule:

It is not just the act of getting those books removed from easy sale; it is the “why". It is the fact that everyone who looks for those books will have to ask “why” are they not available on Amazon, and then, they will be made aware that spanking is not the universal only and best way to raise kids. 

In other words, the petition carries a message: this is not an appropriate way to treat children. 

And let's just remind ourselves of just what kind of treatment we are talking about here, with a few quotes from To Train up a Child:

"If he continues to show defiance by jerking around and defending himself, or by expressing anger, wait a moment, lecture again, and again spank him until it’s obvious he’s totally broken."

"Switch him 8-10 times on his bare legs or bottom. While waiting for the pain to subside, speak calm words of rebuke. If his crying turns to a true, wounded, submissive whimper, you have conquered; he has submitted his will. If his crying is still defiant, protesting, and other than a response to pain, spank him again. If this is the first time he’s come up against someone tougher than he is, it may take awhile…if you stop before he is voluntarily submissive, you have confirmed to him the value and effectiveness of a screaming protest!"

"If you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he has surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring, and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally…A general rule is to continue the disciplinary action until the child has surrendered."

We have to ask ourselves, if we are arguing the case for 'freedom', whose freedom we consider to be most important, whose human rights do we value the most highly? The authors of such books, to sell their content via mainstream booksellers? Or the rights of children to be protected, as far as we possibly can protect them, from such treatment?

There are similar arguments to be made about the case for banning, or not banning, the corporal punishment of children entirely. There are those who argue: smacking or spanking should not be made illegal, the state should not interfere in my home affairs in this way, this is an infringement of my liberty. But again, the liberty of the parent to hit their child is being prioritised here over the liberty of the child to grow up protected by law from the threat of physical assault, a protection that all adults enjoy without question.

What one generation or society holds dear as their right as a free human can be seen as immoral or corrupt by people enjoying the clearer vision provided by geographical or historical distance. Here in the UK, we no longer flourish under a slave trade. We no longer prevent women from voting. We do not think it acceptable to put our criminals to death and we don't allow teachers to punish our children by hitting them with birches, canes or paddles. But it would be arrogant of us to assume that right now, in this culture, in this moment in time, we have got it 'sussed'. That there are no more problems left to solve, no more rights being violated, no more causes to fight. That we won't look back on this time, as we do on ALL others and say, 'Can you believe they used to DO that? It seems UNTHINKABLE now, doesn't it?!'

I believe we will look back on our treatment of children in this age with a degree of shame and regret. We will feel sad that we did not recognise their right to be protected from being intimidated and hit by bigger, stronger adults. Future generations will read the text of To Train up a Child and other similar books with even more horror than we do now, and wonder, why didn't anyone DO something? And no one will refer to 'freedom' in these contexts any more than they would now wonder if the abolition of slavery was an infringement of civil liberties.

So yes, I have thought long and hard about these questions, and the conclusion I come to time and time again is, No, I don't think this it is censorship to ask Amazon not to carry these books, and No, I don't think it is damaging to people's liberty to make it illegal to smack children. Freedom, I'm sorry to have to say, is never 'absolute', and nor should it be. Some actions are wrong, and should not be condoned or allowed by a society or it's laws. What actions we decide to place in this category shift and change with the zeitgeist. Often, perception follows policy - it takes a change in law to change people's thinking.

No one should be free to hit a child, any more than they are currently free to hit an adult. The defence that it is 'only occasional', 'only if they are really pushing it' or 'it's a family matter', no longer works for husbands, so a parent should not be free to use this defence any more, either. And no one should be free to 'switch' a child until he 'surrenders' or is 'totally broken'. We need to work together to move our society, our world, forward on this one. It is time.

Of course, there are grey areas and fine lines to be investigated here. And as I said, I'm never completely convinced that I'm right about anything. That would be worrying. So do, please, contribute your thoughts. Oh, and, sign the petition!


  1. Excellent blog (came by it via Olive Branch). What you've said makes so much sense to me! I am strongly anti smacking in a country that is moving the law in that direction - and it has raised a lot of discussiong - which I can only see as a good thing. That said I find it so overwhelming thow many people (not all of whom are bad parents) feel they still need to hit their children in discipline. I accept parenting is a difficult job and try not to judge my fellow parents - but I can not reconcile their view of hitting their children with my own. I look forward to the day when we look back of such a time as ludicrous that 'once upon a time' it was acceptable! And people continuing to take a stand is a part of making that happen.

    1. Thank you Anon! you are right it is tricky - we feel we should not judge but sometimes it's impossible not to! And i would say that it is better to protect the child from harm than to protect the parent from having to ask themselves difficult questions or feel criticised. Thanks again. x

  2. Love this article! I've always said that we can't teach our children to not hit by hitting them. I think many who believe "spanking" is "okay" are thinking of a swat on the bottom or smack on the hand which may seem harmless to some but in doing this we are still teaching our children that it is ok to hit another person. My only wish is that every parent would take the time to read about the damage that striking, humiliating or degrading a child causes.

    1. Thanks Mona. You are right that the issue of the 'occasional' smack is difficult. What do we mean by 'occasional'? How often is it ok to smack? For what reasons? Where on the body? How many times? ... There are two many grey areas here - for me, a blanket ban would clarify this for parents and help protect children from harm.
      Thanks again for your comments.

  3. I'm with you on this and have said as much before in your comments.

    If I'm honest I don't buy your argument about not banning the book, but only wanting Amazon to de-list it. Removing the product from the key distribution channels (you hope others will delist it too) is effectively one and the same. But why apologise for that. Instead , let's be clear - we don't want people to be influenced by this book.

    I work in media and publishing industry - I'm also a writer. And yes we want free speech but only in so far as it does not affect the right and freedoms of others - and that's the key objection to this book: it encourages the corporal punishment of children to an extent that is borderline illegal and certainly to a level that most rational people find appalling. Call it censorship if you will, but banning that sort of publication is not a problem in my view.

    And just for good measure it's worth remembering that we already censor huge amounts of potentially offensive, degrading and dangerous material (the obscene publications act for example has very strict guidelines). We need to be extremely cautious of any censorship, but we also need to be equally cautious when people use the word as catch-all justification for publishing material that is clearly wrong.

    All power to your campaign.


    1. Mark, I got half way through a reply to your comment, and something happened with the kids, and I never finished it! And then I forgot...sorry!
      Anyway I just wanted to say thank you, I always appreciate your thoughtful insight.

  4. There is very little here that I disagree with. I continue to be puzzled at your resistance to the definition of the word "censorship." You believe your cause is right, you have argued it quite eloquently, and explained very clearly why it would be beneficial for booksellers not to stock the books you disagree with. But you balk at admitting that what you are calling for is censorship of material you find harmful.

    No, you are not calling for the book to be banned, that is quite clear. What you are calling for is inhibiting *distribution* of the book you consider to be harmful. That's still censorship, even if the cause is just. Words mean things.

    I submit that this resistance is worth examining because there seems to be an element of this campaign, indeed of your own action, that you are hiding from.

    1. Hi Algernon
      I guess the answer to your point is that I don't like to think of this campaign as censorship because when people use this word they almost always mean 'this is wrong' and of course I don't like to think that taking this action is wrong.
      I don't feel I am hiding from anything. If you want to say that this is a positive form of censorship then I am happy to agree to that. It is true, I suppose, that there is 'positive censorship', for example stopping documents that promote racial hatred. So if it makes sense to you to think of this campaign in these terms then that is fine by me.
      I am only resistant to the idea of the campaign being called 'censorship' if this implies, as one of the book authors put it, that I am a 'book burning thug'. !
      Best wishes

  5. I think that authors should not profit on something so despicable. This is basically a Manuel on how to mentally and physically abuse your child. I agree that Amazon should not offer this disgusting book.

  6. This book should not be sold at Amazon or anywhere else. this author should not profit from child abuse. This is a manual on how to mentally and physically abuse your child. Amazon should be ashamed to sell it.

  7. I have devoted my life to helping parents treat their children with dignity and respect. Even though I agree that the recommendations in these books are dangerous, I am troubled by the possibility that this kind of action will only help these authors to sell more copies, by giving them free publicity. Banned books always have increased sales, and Amazon isn't the only book store in the world. They are also very unlikely to comply with your request, so all that will be accomplished is that the books will become better known. Please consider other ways to protect children.

    Jan Hunt, Director
    Natural Child Project

    1. Thanks Jan. As you will see from the top of this post, the campaign has now been taken over by the U.S Alliance to End All Hitting of Children. Please do take your point up with them, I am sure they would be very pleased to hear from you. Best wishes, Milli x