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Thursday, August 03, 2017


We embrace certain truths as self-evident. “Innocent until proven guilty,” for example, we take for granted reducing the moral principle to a platitude.

Lessons in moral principles come in many shapes and sizes. Some come from books and classroom teaching. Others come from home life and real life experiences. One principle I learned from listening to a conversation between my Mom and Dad.

The principle involved the importance of fair play. My lesson came as my Dad mused over a situation he encountered at work. I came to understand that fairness is a crucial ingredient in administering discipline and punishment. Over the years experience confirmed this principle.

The gist of the fairness principle as my Dad emphasized it went something like this. “If you cannot find the guilty party,” he stressed, “do not take out your frustration on the whole group. Do not punish the group for the errors of one or two bad apples. And, by all means, do not punish the group in hopes of catching the culprit. It isn’t right.”

The memory of this sound instruction stuck with me. The principle seemed so obvious then. It seems even more obvious today. Punishment of a person for the misdeeds of another is grossly unfair. Even a kid understands fairness.

Like all kids, I went about my business of playing and growing up. One day, sitting in my 4rth grade class, the wisdom behind the fairness principle was driven home like a nail driven into wood. An incident occurred on a warm spring afternoon. Kids in the classroom were getting antsy. No matter how patient or determined the teacher, a couple of cut-ups were bound to misbehave. In frustration the teacher announced the entire class would miss recess. The effect was immediate. She achieved compliance. In her willingness to employ mass punishment, however, she rightly earned the resentment of the majority of the good kids in the class.

An opportunity for practical application presented itself to me in 1967. As a young lieutenant in Korea I led a rifle platoon. Sadly my platoon incurred the plague of a barracks thief. Some of the soldiers living in the barracks discovered personal effects missing. A young soldier, newly assigned, was suspected, but there was no proof. Although it never entered my mind to do so, I could have restricted the entire platoon to barracks until the thief ‘fessed up.

My Platoon Sergeant, a no-nonsense and hard-bitten NCO full of wisdom in spite of his young age, offered sound counsel. I heard nothing new from him, of course. What he offered I learned in principle from my Dad years ago. Nevertheless, his words were refreshing.

“Don’t worry, sir,” he said quietly. “He’ll screw up eventually. He did it once and he’ll do it again. Then you can nail him.” Those were not his exact words. Actually, his words were much more earthy and Anglo-Saxon in nature. You get the idea.

My Platoon Sergeant was right. It was only a matter of time. Our trooper, unable to control his behavior, tripped up and was caught stealing.

Whatever became of the moral principle of fair play? A demise of the principle in general may have occurred.

Consider the anti-gun movement. Anti gun advocates seek to punish a whole class of citizens who choose to own firearms. Because some criminals use firearms in committing crimes, a whole class of people must be punished for the misbehavior of a few n’er-do-wells.

Another example maintains that reparations be paid by the US government to black descendants of slaves. In this case, a minority within a minority argue for financial compensation for injuries incurred by their forefathers during years of slavery. If we are talking about former slaves today seeking compensation from their slave masters also alive today, the argument may hold merit. As proposed, however, those who never experience slavery are seeking money from those who never held slaves. Proponents of this argument seek to punish everyone except the guilty persons -- who happen to be dead.

We could explore other variations of the topic. Sports Utility Vehicle owners are punished as a group with taxes because they own “dangerous” vehicles. Tobacco users are punished as a group because some consumers were injured after knowingly consuming tobacco. Tax payers are punished as a group by having to carry others who do not take responsibility for their own lives and actions. Examples abound.

A renewal of the principle of fair play is long overdue. Without it, we acquiesce to a general acceptance of institutionalized group punishment. At the hands of the federal government, that becomes worse than unfair.

Group punishment is not the American way.


Dennis M. Patrick can be contacted at P. O. Box 337, Stanley, ND 58784 or (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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