Punishing – external.

I’ve been talking with Rory (hi, Rory!) about punishment, and in particular how some environments are set up to punish success and/or failure. It’s all still pretty mushy in my head and I have no idea where it’s going to go, so here’s a random regurgitation of possibly disparate concepts.

Punishments of both failure and success is waaaay more common than people seem to believe. Some bits are so ingrained in the way people do peopling that they’re almost invisible. The whole thing also seems to be tangled into chaos, to the point that half the time I can’t tell wtf people are being punished for. I reckon half the time the people doing the punishing haven’t got a damn clue themselves.

[Though this may be my blind spot, because my family’s parenting would have been dramatically improved if they’d just dropped me into the penguin enclosure at the local aquarium as a toddler and left me there, I routinely talk to people about it and they’re shocked when they start to disentangle the underlying mechanisms. Selection bias could well be at play, though.]

Example: A kid does badly in a subject or activity. The kid is punished for that failure, often without any considerations as to why the failure took place. Were they lazy? Or were they ill, tired, emotionally or mentally drained, overwhelmed by other problems that took up too much of their bandwidth? Are they simply not very talented at that thing, requiring more support than the average bear? It is in fact possible for someone to be very, very bad at something, even though they are very good at other things (for me it was physics; it’s the wrong shape to fit in my brain). Our school system is often not geared up to accomodate that. When parents can’t or won’t parse the issue, the problem can be compounded. Facing a challenge knowing that you’re likely to fail, because it’s set up at a level you can’t operate in, and that you will likely be punished for that failure, because nobody gives a fuck about your problems, frankly kinda sucks. If you did that to an animal you’d get reported. And all of that discounts that for some people knowing that they’ve failed is punishment enough. A bad grade, for someone who cares about grades, is a punishment. Everything on top of that is just putting the boot in.

Is all of that punishing a failure, though? Half the time the issue seems to be worst for kids who actually do well at most, if not all, other things. If you’re good at most subjects, that creates an expectation that you will do well in general. Suddenly you find yourself entirely unable to parse a subject or part thereof, or your performance dips because of external issues, and people are disappointed. Doing well has become part of your identity. You’re not “a student who does well”, let alone “a student who works hard”: you’re a “good student”. If you fail to perform up to your normal standards, that failure is measured against your successes. An A student who suddenly gets a D often attracts a lot more notice than a C student who does the same.*

Behaviour attracts the same problem. A ‘good’ kid is expected to behave in a certain manner. Something that would be considered a minor slip or just the usual crap on the part of a ‘bad’ kid attracts more attention when they do it. It’s the drop in ‘performance’ that is punished (failure), but the reason that drop is noticed is that the performance is normally high (success).

To a certain extent, all systems where you advance kinda punish success. A yellow belt is supposed to perform better than a white belt. An orange belt, better still. We rail at the egregious behaviour of trainers who punish students who perform better than they do – and we have a right to, because that is truly shitty teaching and those people have no business being in education in the first place. But the way in which a lot of standardised training systems operate is effectively geared to ask more and more the better a student gets. The Peter Principle and people’s personal needs and wishes are often disregarded. Whether that’s a good thing, because it expands students’ skills and comfort zone, or a form of subtle but effective torture depends on how the game is played and by whom. It really can go either way. People have been broken, sometimes beyond recovery, by being pushed by people whose stated purpose was to help them learn and developed.

It all gets even more funky when you take into account that it’s easier to punish good people. Good people respond to punishments. They actually give a fuck about that kind of thing. Bad people often don’t: if you want to put a truly ‘bad’ kid on the naughty step, you may have a fight on your hands. Suspending kids who don’t want to be in school in the first place is no punishment at all. People who flip a finger at society at large can often only be punished by the use of force.

[Interesting personal revelation: I was a good student and a shit-awful kid. My performance was usually stellar. My attitude was, in a school setting, beyond reprehensible. I’d learnt at a very young age that the adults in charge did not necessarily have my best interest in mind and did not necessarily warrant my respect. I wasn’t even anti-authoritarian; I didn’t care enough about authorities to rebel against them. I just did my own shit because I wanted to do my own shit. Whether that aligned with the system’s wishes for me was largely immaterial. That was treated as grossly offensive, regardless of whether the shit I was doing was in alignment with the authorities’ wishes. It also caused them a huge degree of internal conflict: when I’m misbehaving by performing better than my peers, better than my teachers, how the fuck do you punish me? Particularly when I’m not one to take it lying down.]

Punishing ‘good’ people – those who will not fight against the punishment – is easier. It’s also more tempting, because their falls from grace are more noticeable: they are falling from a greater height. It’s also the most unwarranted kind of punishment there is, because their are probably already punishing themselves internally and trying to do better.

I’m increasingly unsure that this kind of punishment is devised to improve behaviour. I reckon a large proportion of the time it’s meted out either out of habit (this is how we parent/teach/relationship because this is how we parent/teach/relationship) or out of a thirst for retribution. Either way, it’s pretty damn shitty.


*If you really wanna fuck people up, you can make perfection the minimum requirement. For instance, you can make a 100% mark the pass grade. It makes sense if you squint: after all, it’s the grade that shows that you did everything you were supposed to. Everything below 100% is a fail, because you failed to do what you were supposed to do. 100% is not a win, though: you just did what you were supposed to. There can be no ‘winning a system geared up like this. Put this system into someone’s head, and you can make a victim who is going to go on victimising themselves throughout their lives.

A lot of ‘gifted’ students struggle with perfectionism, performance anxiety, depression, etc. I will forever wonder how  much of that stems solely from the fact that they are the children of people who identify as the ‘parents of a gifted child’, and demand they perform accordingly.


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