In May, Adrian Peterson beat his 4-year-old son with a tree branch, according to a police report that cites Peterson's own testimony. He hit his son so badly that it left open wounds and welts on the boy's back, legs, buttocks, and scrotum. The beating was so vicious that the star running back then texted the child's mother — the two are not married — and confessed she would probably be mad because he "got kinda good wit the tail end of the switch."
What Adrian Peterson did not do, however, was spank his child.
And yet, much of the ensuing debate over the incident has sadly devolved into tangential discussions about spanking. Is it moral? Does it work? Is it ever justified? How does it affect a child's development? Is it a "cultural" thing? Is it a handy technique for superhot sex? And on and on.
Some of these are important questions in their own right. In particular, it's worth asking in a broader context whether spanking leaves lasting emotional scars and perpetuates a cycle of violence, passed down from generation to generation.
However, framing Peterson's indictment on child-abuse charges as a debate about spanking obfuscates the brutality of what Peterson is accused of doing. It implicitly conflates discipline with criminality — spanking is legal in every single state, while child abuse is not — and suggests that Peterson is merely accused of doing something about 70 percent of Americans think is an acceptable form of punishment.
A telling example came immediately after Peterson's indictment, from CNN anchor Chris Cuomo:
#AdrianPeterson faces jail time because his spanking of child exceeded what community would think is reasonable. Is this pc to extreme?
— Chris Cuomo (@ChrisCuomo) September 13, 2014
Cuomo later walked back his use of "spanking" after seeing photos of the abuse, but simply substituted the word "hitting" instead. The debate, in his mind and in others', is about whether beating children in any form is prima facie wrong. But that's not what the Peterson case is about, and framing it in that way creates space for a moral and legal justification for what he allegedly did.
Indeed, there are gradations to corporal punishment. A light slap on the rump is different from a slap across the face. But Peterson scarred his child's legs. This is not simply the "wrong kind" of spanking but a wholly different form of abuse.
This is the problem with using "spanking" as a catchall for hitting children. The term invokes Rockwell-esque imagery of a sage father bending Junior over his knee and teaching him some discipline — in other words, an understandable, acceptable facet of Americana.
In reality, Peterson himself referred to what the child received as a "whooping."
This gets at another problem with the broader spanking debate. People are far more willing to accept child abuse than they are to accept spousal abuse. Vile meatheads aside, no one reacted to the Ray Rice ordeal by opining that sometimes it's all right for a man to hit his wife because she "had it coming."
That's not at all the case with the spanking conversation. It's only through this warped lens that CNN can air a jaw-dropping segment wherein an anchor likens spanking to training a dog and opines that sometimes "you have to do what you have to do" to "teach who's in control." And it's only through the "spanking" framework that Peterson can confidently say he is "not a child abuser" — a claim belied by the evidence — and passively defend the "discipline I administered to my son."
This breakdown in language is especially glaring in the light of the revelation that Peterson was investigated for allegedly striking another 4-year-old son — this one from a different woman — so violently it left a scar above the boy's eye. (Peterson's attorney claims no charges were filed because the boy hit his head on a car seat "while Adrian was punishing him.")
Clearly, Peterson does not believe that bloodying children amounts to abuse. And in casting his "whoopings" in the context of the far more benign term "spanking," we debase the severity of what he is accused of doing, implying that we, too, think abusing a child is sometimes necessary to "teach who's in control."