Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a columnist over at The Week, has been busy discussing the implications of a variety punishments, emphasizing the fact that a number of unintended auxiliary evils come along with prison time, e.g., rampant sexual abuse and an education-via-immersion in petty crime. There’s obviously much to say on this point, and he makes some good sense along the way:
Do you think the lash is cruel? Do you think the lash is uncivilized? Is it beneath a modern society to tolerate such a thing? Given that the problem we tolerate literally involves systemic rape, I think even asking those questions is obscene. But let’s go.
No, the lash is not pleasant — it is a form of punishment. A whip rips skin off your flesh, yes. But prison takes away your life.
It is also a form of punishment that has many advantages: It is cheap; it is quick; it is humiliating without being too humiliating. I think there’s a potential that at least some thuggish teenagers might be so shaken by the experience so as to rethink their lives.
In other words, it doesn’t have the drawbacks of prison: the enormous expense; the apprenticeship to more hardened criminality; the manifold forms of torture, sexual and otherwise.
That alone indicates the lash is clearly a superior and more civilized form of punishment than prison.
While reading his column, I couldn’t help but reflect a bit on Chekhov’s “The Bet”. For those who haven’t read it, it is well worth the read, but let me give you a short synopsis here just for clarity. Two men are at a dinner party where they are arguing over which is worse being sentenced to death or life in prison. The two men are on opposite sides of the argument and a bet is struck that one of them (a lawyer) would life in solitary confinement for 15 years. If he did, the other man (a banker) would pay him a sum of two million dollars. The lawyer would be unable to communicate with another person verbally for that time; however, he could have any media (books or music) that he liked, and he could write letters. While I won’t ruin the process for anyone who has yet to read it, I think that everyone would agree that in this story, Chekhov ruminates on the evils of imprisonment and by extension the evils of life itself.
My literary ruminations aside though, I find these discussions are rarely fruitful. In his argument, Gobry does argue effectively that the lash is no more cruel that imprisonment, and he certainly makes a clever case that it is less so; however, I would argue that it is largely dependent upon the individual, and as such, it is difficult to deal with systemically.
Personally, no matter the crime, I would take the lash because I would not take it as much of a punishment at all. I would defiantly accept the lashes while stoically attempting not to show any physical or emotional response for the brief time (a thing that Gobry states is one of floggings virtues) that I am being “punished”. The punishment would do little to alter my behaviors; a fact that my grandmother could have attested to. Limiting my ability to choose though is an incredibly large punishment, and it is something that I avoid at great cost, so if the goal of punishment is to alter behaviors, then there is really only one option that applies to me.
I mention this not because I think that the prison system is the best form of punishment and rehabilitation but because I think that when we talk about these things, we have the wrong discussion. The question isn’t whether flogging or imprisonment is the best form of punishment. Both are rather pernicious, in their way, beyond the desired punishment, but they are also both effective, in their way, when used in the correct situations and scenarios. The better question is, how do we construct a system that is versatile enough that it uses the most effective punishment for the situation? That question isn’t really the correct one though. After all, that question is built upon a mountain of presumptions that are all bound up in our cultural tradition and milieu. A better place to start is at the beginning. What is the outcome of an effective punishment? I think that, as a culture, we too often assume the answers to these large questions without ever really looking into them, and when we build systems off of faulty assumptions, those systems will always be faulty no matter how well constructed they are.