The deliberate infliction of pain

This was originally published in 2012 on The Reclaim Justice Network website.  The original blog can be read here

The Chinese philosopher, Confucius, once warned of the dangers of language losing it meaning. ‘If language is not correct,’ he argued ‘then what is said is not what is meant’. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of punishment. Punishment is a nasty business. Penal sanctions involve the deliberate infliction of pain. If our language is correct we will be clear that punishment is about pain. At a time of penal expansion we will acknowledge this involves an increased deployment of pain.

Those who have concerned themselves with punishment, from philosophers to practitioners, have consistently downplayed the centrality of pain to punishment.  Philosophers have developed elaborate ‘justifications’ for punishment. These rationalizations, however successful at a theoretical level, have a miserable record of failure in practice. However, despite this failure to achieve their stated aims they have contributed to the concealing of the cold reality of the pain inflicted by penal sanctions. By focusing on deterrence, rehabilitation, reformation and even ‘just desserts’ punishment becomes something noble; the crude infliction of pain at its heart obscured. Likewise those employed in institutions whose function is the infliction of pain seek other ways of describing what they do.  Rather than focus on pain they emphasis other aspects of their jobs; maintaining security, providing treatment, delivering education, protecting the public or reforming those incarcerated. Whilst these other functions are part of their jobs they are all ancillary to the infliction of pain which lies at the heart of penality. However we twist language those subjected to punishment (and their families) continue to experience it as pain. Every time we seek to obscure this reality we deny the reality of their lived experience.

In discussing penal policy we are talking about how much or how little pain we inflict. The Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie has repeatedly referred to punishment as ‘pain delivery’. In doing so his motive is simple. He wants us all to be acutely aware that is what punishment is. His hope is that the more we acknowledge the link between punishment and pain the less attractive an option it will be as a response to conflicts and deviant behaviour. Confucius in his call for the correct use of language argued that ‘if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone’.  By highlighting that punishment is pain delivery and challenging those who seek to manipulate language to hide this reality, we can ensure that debates about the role of punishment in our society and the extent of its use are kept honest.


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