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Waterboarding, Hitting Your Kids, Empathy and Politics

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Message Brian Enright
In my years as a family therapist I talked to hundreds of parents.  One of the biggest brick walls that I would frequently run into was the fact that MANY parents of children who had emotional/behavioral problems believed STRONGLY in, and defended, the practice of regularly "disciplining" their children by hitting, even beating them.

I'm not talking about an occasional light tap on the butt.

These parents couldn't seem to understand the difference between discipline and abuse--both physical and verbal.  Most of them fiercely defended their behavior.   And they seemed totally blind to the negative effects that such behavior had on their unfortunate children.

It turned out that many--if not most of these parents--had been hit or beaten themselves when they were small. I remember one man who almost proudly told me, "My father hit me with a wooden two-by-four and it did ME good!"

from Wikipedia:  1860 Political cartoon of Stephen Douglas being spanked by Columbia as another figure looks on

Was this an example of unconscious "loyalty" to their own parents?--not wanting to admit or believe that their parents were abusive?  
Was it an  unconscious "defense mechanism' in which the child unknowingly denies and buries his pain from his young memory and blindly "identifies" with his abusive parent, only to later take it out on others, like his or her OWN children?

George Santayana wrote that "When experience is not retained those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it."

One wonders about why so many people grow up with a "lack of empathy" for others.  That, and the lack of a conscience, are the chief characteristics of what we call "sociopathic" behavior.  Researchers now now say that many people--not just ruthless criminals--display sociopathic behavioral traits.

Alice Miller wrote that Adolph Hitler once told his secretary how, during one of the routine beatings that his father gave him, he had managed to stop himself from crying, TO FEEL NOTHING and to even count the thirty-two strokes that he received.

What permitted Hitler to later--without any show of conscience or pity--act out such hatred and violence toward others?  Is it perhaps because he had buried his own childhood abuse?

That he had never learned to empathize with his own pain?  That he had had no parental figure available to empathize with him as a child?

One thinks of sexual predators--many, if not most of them, who were once sexually abused themselves. 
How many of us were raised  in "authoritarian" households, by parents who used power and fear to raise "obedient" children?  Studies have shown that many adults who are raised by such parents tend to become authoritarian themselves when they grow up.

Or they tend to admire or and be submissive to leaders who, like their parents, have authoritarian personalities.

I think that is one factor--perhaps a larger one than we realize--that influences the type of Presidential candidate that many of us tend to admire, identify with and vote for.

And that makes some of us see those candidates who are non-authoritarian as "soft."

Which finally brings me to the controversial topic of "waterboarding."

Let me say first that I agree with those professional interrogators,
which includes many who are in the military, who conclude that waterboarding is NOT an effective technique to obtain accurate information from prisoners.

I believe that many of those people who were raised with--let us call it "tough" parenting--tend to believe otherwise, that  only such aggressive methods as waterboarding are effective ways of getting others to "obey"  and "tell the truth".

I believe that such things as waterboardin also serve as an excuse to vicariously act out one's own long-denied fear and anger by"punishing" the prisoner's evil behavior.

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I am a semi-retired 64 year old psychotherapist. I am a Progressive and a Democrat. I admire FDR and Teddy Roosevelt. Despite my disappointment with the Democratic Party I find the far-Right Republicans to be much much worse. I deplore living in (more...)
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