Punishing the Body or the Person? Why Some Cannot Accept Physical Punishments

Punishing the Body or the Person? Why Some Cannot Accept Physical Punishments

By Farish A. Noor

In his book ‘Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Modern Iran’ (1994), the scholar Darius Rejali looks at how the processes of torture and punishment have evolved over the centuries in Iran, from the period of the Qajar dynasty all the way to the regime of the Shah and the Islamic Revolutionary government. He makes one interesting and important observation which remains relevant to all of those who are concerned about the use of corporal punishment and torture by modern states today: that corporal punishment dates back to the medieval era where the popular perception of punishment was that it was a public spectacle that ought to be enacted upon the body of the individual, and not the subject him/herself.

In this respect, the modes of torture and punishment that were used in pre-modern Iran were no different from the modes of punishment that were used in China, India, Africa or Europe. Throughout the world during the pre-modern era the popular understanding of punishment was that it was meant to be a form of public humiliation, operating through the mode of public violence, that was intended to compel the guilty to repent and alter his/her ways through the threat of violence and force. Hence we see how in medieval Europe, Asia and the Arab world the modes of public punishment were all equally gory and bloody: Heads were chopped off, bodies were impaled, whipped, burned, branded, broken, quartered and sliced to pieces. Most of these punishments were carried out in public, ostensibly as a ‘lesson’ to others. But as many modern psychologists have pointed out, these public spectacles of violence also served the voyeuristic inclination of those who relished the sight of bodies being violated in public, and were thus also forms of bizarre public pornography.

In his study on the evolution of torture and punishment in Iran, Rejali notes how this medieval mode of punishment gradually developed to become a more sophisticated mode of care and policing instead. The violent spectacles of state-sanctioned violence that involved public enactments of torture eventually gave way to the regime of the prison and the culture of pastoral care and reform of the Self instead. Why?

Simply put, the reason behind this evolution lay in the growing consciousness that the medieval modes of punishment of the past were simply barbaric, primordial and missed the point. Particularly after the advent of the Iranian revolution, Iranian lawmakers realised that the aim of law enforcement was not simply to exercise legitimate state violence upon citizens, but to help citizens reach their full potential as rational agents and responsible individuals. Medieval modes of violent punishment could not do that for the simple reason that by abusing and violating the bodies of the condemned, they were targeting the body, and not the conscious Self.

The argument can be illustrated thus: Pre-modern modes of punishment assumed that if an individual had committed a crime or a wrong against society, then the offending organ or part of the body of the individual would pay the price. Hence in many primitive societies we come across instances of bodily abuse and torture that target the organs or parts of the body that were to ‘blame’: The person who lies or slanders, for instance, would have his tongue cut out. The voyeur would have his eyes gauged out. The thief would have his hand cut off. The rapist would be castrated, and so on.

Such modes of physical punishment were, however, deemed to be less and less effective and furthermore failed to solve the problem of criminality itself, for the punishment was not being inflicted on the truly offending party, namely the subjective Self. For it is not the tongue that lies, but the person. It is not the hand that steals, but the person. It is not the penis that rapes, but the person. Addressing the responsibility of the person entailed going beyond the body, and dealing with the psychology of the individual itself. This in turn meant that violence was not a solution to the problem, but in fact only made things worse: For a state that endorses violence as a means to achieve justice eventually arrives at a different destination altogether. Such a state merely normalises violence and makes violence more and more commonplace and acceptable. Rather than morally uplifting society, it debases and brutalises society even further. An example would be the case of the French Revolution, where the revolutionaries who executed the leaders of the old regime eventually ended up being murdered themselves too, including Robespierre, who died at the guillotine that he himself introduced.

The development of the related notions of justice, care, reform (of the Self) and responsibility (of both the State and the Individual subject) only came about much later, with the development of modern social sciences that included political sociology, psychology and notably the psychology of criminality. The modern age marks its difference from the medieval age by accepting that bodies are not to be blamed, but rather subjectivities and selves. In other words, modern human beings relinquished their obsession with violent torture and punishment when they realised that torturing and abusing people would not make them better human beings.

Which brings us to the current debate about caning in Malaysia, be it caning that is enforced by civil secular law or by Islamic law. Already in Malaysia we have the instance of a woman who may soon be caned for the Shariah offence of drinking beer. And meanwhile in Malaysia we have illegal immigrants being caned for over-staying their visas and entry permits in the country. Human rights activists who oppose caning and other forms of state-sanctioned physical violence do so on the grounds that we believe that such violent punishments do nothing to solve the attendant problems and issues that need to be addressed in another, more intelligent way. Caning an illegal immigrant does nothing to reform the person, but merely violates and abuses his/her body. Likewise caning someone for what is perceived to be a moral crime by religious law does nothing to reform the person’s subjectivity, but merely abuses the body of the person instead. Why, even in the Islamic Republic of Iran the regime of the Ayatollahs realised that physical torture was never and could never succeed in making someone a better human being, but would actually lead to the opposite and create a society that was more and more violent and accustomed to violence. Hence their use of public education and counselling instead.

Malaysians are now faced with a similar question and we need to ask ourselves whether the time has come for this society of ours to understand and accept the fact that violence is not and will never be a solution to the social problems of our times- be it criminality, corruption, abuse of power or the breakdown of the social contract. The modern human subject realises that one cannot be forced to be just or good, and that a good society cannot emerge out of violent compulsion. State violence merely brutalises us further and denies the value and primacy of human reason and the capacity for human beings to think rationally and to alter themselves rationally too. Whipping someone into submission cannot ever do that; for violence and reason are never complementary.


Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


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