Sat | Sep 18, 2021

Daniel Thwaites | Spare the rod?

Published:Friday | November 10, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The Times of India newspaper reports that last Sunday, November 5, a Qatar Airways plane was forced to land prematurely because a dispute broke out between two passengers. QR-962 was going from Doha to Bali when the fracas erupted, and because the airline crew was unable to contain the resulting mayhem, the pilot diverted to Chennai, India.

The combatants, it turned out, knew each other, and I mean biblically. Actually, they knew each other so well, they were married. And this is where the story takes us into the realm of technology, technological security, rules and regulations of public conduct, and finally, the appropriate methods of punishment for serious infractions.

The Iranian wife, husband, and small child were all settling in after takeoff. The lady, reports the newspaper, had downed a few drinks, which is an interesting detail, because being Iranian, the drink is usually a strict no-no. Anyway, the gentleman had fallen asleep. That's when she devised the brilliant plan of taking his mobile phone (which he had left unguarded) and gently applying the sleeping man's finger to it so as to activate the fingerprint scanner.




Having breached the instrument, our Indian correspondent relays, "she then realised that he was allegedly cheating on her". Why the reporter felt it necessary to use the qualifier "alleged", I can't imagine, so let's assume the evidence was ambiguous. But what with the drink, the altitude, and all that, she began to beat her husband. That's when the flight crew got involved. And that's when she started to beat them, too.

The incident raises a lot of issues. For one thing, people are getting far too comfortable flying nowadays, and the habituation is causing disinhibition and bad behaviour. It feels weird to say, but I'm actually old enough to remember when people would dress up to go on a plane. My own granny was always immaculately dressed and perfumed when she had to fly, and she had a fleet of wigs and hats that were held in reserve for weddings, funerals, and plane flights.

Anyhow, the point is that as people have come to see flying as a mere minibus ride, they have taken to travelling in their pajamas, and their attention to their behaviour, as so commonly happens, matches the attention they pay to their dress.

When people believed that the plane might nose-dive into the ocean at any minute, that threat of imminent death made them more gracious. Or that is my theory at any rate. But, however, that may be, I think it incontestable that the fear factor caused more deference to the authority of the airline crew.

This is something quite ingrained in herd animals such as we are, and as I intend to further illustrate, fear has its uses.

Another issue raised by this airplane incident is that I believe the United Nations could make itself more useful by turning its attention to matters like outlining proper standards of public behaviour that should apply internationally. I'm thinking of practical things like letting Chinese tourists know it's not permissible to snap pictures of strangers without permission, and that spitting in public will be punished on the third proven offence by the death penalty. Instead, it too often has set itself up as the scolder-in-chief, encouraging governments to intrude into parts of civilian life over which they have no authority.




But perhaps the most contemporarily relevant issue raised by the feuding couple is the permissibility of corporal punishment. Significantly, the wife felt it appropriate to apply physical trauma to her allegedly straying husband, and that decision, we're now being asked to accept, is inferior. She probably meant to punish him for infractions, but also to instill great fear in him so that unforgettable negative reinforcement would give him motivation to tailor his ways.

As it happens, Parliament is to debate whether corporal punishment ought to be outlawed in Jamaica. Prime Minister Andrew Holness has told his parliamentary colleagues that corporal punishment doesn't align with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, and that he's opposed to corporal punishment in the schools and even in homes.

Whereas it is the business of Parliament to debate the somewhat complex issue of punishment in state institutions and schools, that debate ought never be conflated and confused with the extremely delicate issue of whether, and how, the Government ought to intrude into the family. The Government has authority over its schools. However, whatever authority it has over the more fundamental institution of the family, it is surely more attenuated and subject to far greater restrictions and competing interests and demands.

Put simply, debate away in Parliament about banning slaps, spanks, beatings, and any other application of physical discomfort in the schools, but draw brakes before passing any mass prohibitions that invade the family space while criminalising 90 per cent of the country.

Corporal punishment has many things to recommend to it: it is cheap and efficient behavioural adjustment, it's quick to administer, establishes clearly who is in control, and provides important negative reinforcement for undesirable behaviour. At times, it is appropriate retribution for wrongs committed.

Indeed, perhaps Parliament will find time to debate those instances where we don't have enough corporal punishment, and where it might be an excellent idea to return it to our books. I envision the whip for child rapists, the scourge for corrupt politicians and civil servants, and the pillory for tax evaders. How horribly old-fashioned, eh?

All of which brings us back to why the irate Iranian woman threw some licks on Flight QR-962. Discipline, if not supplied from within, must be supplied from without. And in the management of people, including the formation of the young, the boundary condition of corporal punishment has proven its usefulness for a long time before current fads.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to