“When I was in school, I was beaten like a rented mule, and it did me good.”
Ronnie Sutton, Robeson County, North Carolina.
The above quote is from a state legislator that has fought to keep corporal punishment legal in the state. I think the quote really gets at the irrational way that some people view corporal punishment.
So did corporal punishment really help Mr. Sutton? We'll never know for sure, because that was his only experience. And this brings me to my first point, his conclusion is a classic case of n = 1. On the other hand, I wasn't subjected to corporal punishment and turned out just fine. So was not being subjected to corporal punishment better for me? Based on my n = 1 experience, there's not enough evidence to say.
But going beyond n = 1 is the whole point of science. You look at groups (a large sample size) of students exposed to corporal punishment and groups that are not. Then you compare the results. And repeat. Then you can start to a pattern that has indeed emerged in the research: corporal punishment has negative effects.
You would hope that a state representative would have enough awareness to separate his own personal experience from the issue of whether something is good or bad in general. It really only takes one degree of awareness, "hey, this stuff didn't seem to have a negative effect on me, but it is having a negative impact on others." It doesn't take much extra thought.
Second, if you look at the psychology literature, people often have a tendency to take a negative event and turn it into a positive. In this example, Mr. Sutton was "beaten" in his own words, but now claims this as a positive. You can see extremes of this when some people suffer a traumatic event such as getting cancer or becoming paralyzed. Some say it was the "best day of their life" because they became aware of things, treasured things more, etc. But are these events really positive? No. Would anyone sign up to get cancer or get hit by a car? No. Once you are dealt a bad hand, your mind often tries to make the best of it. Sometimes it is pushed to the extreme when people then believe negative events are actually positive events. The event doesn't change, but the mind's perception of it does.
Third, there is the issue of variation in personal characteristics, which is a hallmark of evolution. Some people are more sensitive than others. So while corporal punishment may not bother some, it will surely have a lasting, negative impact on others. You can read plenty of sad stories on the internet about people who were deeply troubled by the use of corporal punishment in their childhood.
Fourth, there is the issue of the tenacity of misconceptions. I happened to read a number of education papers today about how misconceptions are resistant to change. This happens across the board in physics, psychology, economics, etc. People build an intuitive sense of how things work over time, and these beliefs can be remarkably resistant to change. Even if the face of plain evidence against it. In short, people like to stick with their preconceived notions because it's just easier. Actually looking at evidence and turning an irrational belief into a rational belief takes work.
Ever notice how they are no legitimate advocacy groups out there in support of corporal punishment? That's because there is not one shred of evidence showing that it does any good. If anyone would take the time to actually look at the evidence and think, the conclusions become obvious. This is why groups all over the world are against corporal punishment – because they actually have evidence to support their position and therefore rally around it for change.
Saying "when I was in school, I was beaten like a rented mule, and it did me good” is not real evidence of anything. There was not a control group and a treatment group. It is simply a knee-jerk reaction – "this is what happened when I was young so it must be good". It is no grounds to decide a public policy for an entire state.
Corporal punishment needs to end right now.