When I started writing In Defense of Flogging, I wasn’t yet persuaded as to the book’s basic premise. I, too, was opposed to flogging. It is barbaric, retrograde, and ugly. But as I researched, wrote, and thought, I convinced myself of the moral justness of my defense. Still, I dared not utter the four words in professional company until after I earned tenure. Is not publishing a provocatively titled intellectual book what academic freedom is all about?
Certainly In Defense of Flogging is more about the horrors of our prison-industrial complex than an ode to flogging. But I do defend flogging as the best way to jump-start the prison debate and reach beyond the liberal choir. Generally those who wish to lessen the suffering of prisoners get too readily dismissed as bleeding hearts or soft on criminals. All the while, the public’s legitimate demand for punishment has created, because we lack alternatives, the biggest prison boom in the history of the world. Prison reformers—the same movement, it should be noted, that brought us prisons in the first place—have preached with barely controlled anger and rational passion about the horrors of incarceration. And to what end? Something needs to change.
Certainly my defense of flogging is more thought experiment than policy proposal. I do not expect to see flogging reinstated any time soon. And deep down, I wouldn’t want to see it. And yet, in the course of writing what is, at its core, a quaintly retro abolish-prison book, I’ve come to see the benefits of wrapping a liberal argument in a conservative facade. If the notion of tying people to a rack and caning them on their behinds à la Singapore disturbs you, if it takes contemplating whipping to wake you up and to see prison for what it is, so be it!