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Joseph Gelfer: Smacks of Denial

Smacks of Denial

By Joseph Gelfer

I am currently waiting on the findings of the Broadcasting Standards Authority concerning a complaint I made about an item, “Extreme Punishment” that aired on the “Sunday” show on 9th April. In short, the story was about some foster parents who hit a child in their care with a wooden spoon. CYFS later removed the child from their care. The story gave the impression it was unreasonable for CYFS to remove the child from loving foster parents who on one occasion physically disciplined the child. The title of the story, “Extreme Punishment,” while no doubt intending to be very clever in its ambiguity, clearly refers to the punishment meted out to the foster parents by CYFS rather than the punishment suffered by the child at the hand (or rather wooden spoon) of his “carers”.

I’m not here going to talk about the reasons why it’s wrong to smack children: a good start on this information can be found at the website of EPOCH New Zealand ( Rather, I want to highlight a flaw in thinking that seems to be prevalent in much of the current debate. Sunday’s item, “Extreme Punishment” was a good example of this flaw. The item’s producer could not seem to grasp the wrongness of the situation. The fundamental message was that foster parents should be allowed to continue their care of already vulnerable children, despite inflicting physical punishment. The flaw in thinking is a blind spot in which otherwise reasonable people think violent behaviour is acceptable.

Many of the supporters of the repeal of Section 59, commonly referred to as “the anti-smacking bill” are attempting to accommodate this blind spot, this flaw in thinking. This is achieved by attempting to isolate the act of punishment from its context. Parents are reassured that they will not be criminalized for their actions, and that the bill is about sending out the right message. To a certain extent this is true, but the reality is that physical punishment is carried out by real people and has real consequences. There is a lot of dancing around this subject that correctly seeks to show smacking as unacceptable, but which falls short of actually holding parents responsible for it. I can understand this strategy: it seeks to make people aware that smacking is wrong, but without alienating them by saying “YOU are wrong”. This strategy implies that people will not buy in to an idea if they are being made to feel uncomfortable or, worse still, like a criminal. But we don’t have time for this strategy, for tiny increments of progress building one generation upon another. Children are dying as you read from violence in New Zealand homes. I think it’s time to tell it as it is, to set a few things straight.

Smacking children, whether it be a slap on the wrist or a whack with a riding crop, is abuse. You need to get familiar with the word “abuse” because most people need to own it in the following two ways:

If you were smacked by your parents, you have been abused. If you have ever smacked your child, you have been an abuser.

It’s that simple.

Now most people will shake their heads at this statement because they feel that although they were smacked, and although they may themselves have smacked, such smacking does no real harm and therefore is not abuse. The reason why people come to this conclusion is also simple: they cannot grasp the idea that nearly everyone in New Zealand has either been abused or is an abuser: popular logic states that it would be impossible for nearly everyone to be wrong (or wronged). In other circumstances we might call this logic “mob rule” or “tyranny of the majority”.

So I suggest that nearly everyone in New Zealand has been wrong (or wronged), has abused or been abused, and that the reason why Kiwis aren’t up in arms about this injustice is because of a mass, self-imposed state of denial. This means that Kiwis (indeed, most of the world) do not want to face up to the truth, because the truth is painful. It is painful to acknowledge that your parents were abusers. It is even more painful to acknowledge that you may yourself be an abuser. But here’s the thing: while acknowledging this abuse is painful, it is not as painful as perpetuating abuse for generations to come.

Acknowledging abusive behaviour in yourself or your parents does not mean you are bad people. It means that like most other people you have been duped by a global lie. That lie is the acceptance of violence. More than this, by acknowledging abusive behaviour, you are stepping up to a future with no abuse: this makes you a good person.

There are lots of historical issues that were once thought to be reasonable by the majority, but which we now see to be wrong: that the world is flat or we should make Black people sit at the back of the bus spring to mind. In due course most people will consider smacking children to be equally wrong. Hopefully this will be sooner rather than later. The question is: Are you going to be among those who history views as the last to get it wrong, or the first to get it right?


Joseph Gelfer is a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington researching religious masculinities, and Managing Editor of the forthcoming "Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality" ( You can find more information at

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