One of the nastier stereotypes about working class people is that they hit their children. Now, however, working class people are being blamed for not hitting their children enough.
The Mail on Sunday ran a delighted front page story this week after Labour MP David Lammy said that restrictions on smacking had contributed to last summer's riots.
There are so many problems with this argument that it is difficult to avoid the temptation to be sarcastic. Can Stephen Hester's desire for a million-pound bonus be attributed to his parents' reluctance to smack him? Was the lack of riots in Kensington and Chelsea due to the willingness of upper middle class parents to beat their children?
These sort of jokes rapidly went round the internet after the story appeared in the media. In response, some appealed to Lammy's critics to engage “seriously” with the argument.
But despite the sarcastic nature of these comments, they made an important point: this is really an issue about class. By focusing on the riots – rather than, say, the anti-social behaviour of the rich – David Lammy is suggesting that it is working class children who need to be smacked more. The implication is that working class children don't have the intelligence to respond as well as others to reason and nonviolent discipline, or that working class children are more likely to cause trouble if they are not disciplined.
Some of Lammy's cheerleaders in the right-wing press have suggested that middle class people should not “tell” working class parents not to smack their children. This argument relies on the prejudicial assumption that working class parents want to smack their children more than middle class ones. Such comments imply that working class people lack the intelligence or sense to operate without violence.
I was born in 1977 to working class parents living in a council house. At that time, of course, it was more common for parents to hit children than it is now. My parents knew that discipline did not have to involve violence. They never hit, smacked or otherwise assaulted my sister or me. As a child, I was appalled that some of my friends and classmates - both working class and middle class - were routinely hit by their parents. I remain appalled by it now.
When I became a Christian, I was further horrified to discover many Christians advocating corporal punishment. This is sometimes done on the basis of a line of the Book of Proverbs snatched from its context, about not sparing “the rod”. As the famous Psalm 23 makes clear, a rod was used by a shepherd to guide sheep, not to attack them, and to ward off enemies. The Christians who make these arguments seem to overlook the words of Jesus. No-one, not even the scribes and Pharisees, was criticised by Jesus as firmly and harshly as those who harm children.
It is understandable that otherwise decent, compassionate people might have supported smacking in times when that was overwhelmingly the norm. We are all influenced by our culture. Nineteenth-century laws against men assaulting their wives triggered significant opposition.
But there can be no excuses for supporting 'smacking' - violence against children – today. This is even more so when the encouragement of violence is aimed at only one section of society, fuelled by prejudice against people who belong to it.
Coalition ministers are slashing benefits, pensions and jobs while failing to prevent millionaire bankers from receiving obscene bonuses. The working class are under attack from the government, from much of the media and at times from the official opposition. It is no surprise that politicians and columnists who back this neo-Victorian approach to society should encourage working class parents to assault their own children. Thankfully, it is a suggestion that many working class parents have the sense to reject.
© Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, which can be ordered at http://www.newint.org/books/no-nonsense-guides/religion.
For links to more of Symon's writing, please visit http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.