The Slap

My reading habits can generally be summarised in two categories: books in the poverty / international development sphere, and good old fashioned novels. I generally only read novels that come recommended, as I dislike not finishing a book almost as much as I dislike dedicating hours to the reading of a bad one.

My latest read was at the recommendation of my amazing friend Emma, who juggles her career as a young lawyer with hours reading everything from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, to American political biographies and a range of thought-provoking novels. The book she recommended, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, is definitely one of the latter.

The story revolves around an incident at a family barbeque in suburban Melbourne, where a man slaps a nearly-four year old child – but the child is not his own. From there, the story becomes an exploration of middle class Australia, at it’s best, worst and most exposed. The book manages to cover an (almost excessive) range of social issues and stereotypes, such as parenting, marital relationships, infidelity, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug use among teenagers, sexuality, tensions between ‘classes’, races, religions and cultures, loyalty to family… not to mention the question of how old is ‘too old’ to breastfeed a child!

Smacked as a child

The recommendation to read The Slap came after Emma, myself and another friend (also a lawyer) witnessed an incident in a shopping centre which sparked a lengthy discussion about smacking kids. As we sat in Max Brenner at Bondi Junction, chatting and finishing off a range of ridiculously decadent chocolate treats, we were startled by a tantrum happening outside. A young boy, perhaps five years old, had decided to register his disagreement with some aspect of his current world by throwing a strong, steady, single punch at the glass that separated us. His father responded by grabbing him by the arm, quickly and roughly hoisting him over the table and marching him away. Despite the roughness of the treatment he received, there was no smack. That is hardly surprising as it seems that ‘nowadays’ very few people smack their child, let alone in public – and this led the three of us to an interesting discussion. [Where a five year old learned to throw a punch like that… well that is a separate question we also pondered]

We each tried to recall being smacked as a child. Each of us could recall (or were aware of – it seemed to be an element of family folklore in each instance) just one time where we were smacked as kids. In each instance, it was the result of deliberately disobeying a parental instruction to not do something – often, something which could result in our harm. And in each instance, our parents vowed never to do it again. Not one of us begrudged our parents for this act, or felt it was inappropriate in any way.

As we chatted, we each said we would never slap a child in public. Yet as the conversation moved on it was clear that we felt it could, in certain circumstances (such as those we had each experienced as a child) be ok to smack a child. Interestingly though we were still squeamish about smacking a child in public – admitting that we were concerned about what other people ‘would think’.

This is a strong underlying theme in The Slap, and although it deals with the next level (where someone other than a parent disciplines a child in this manner), the perspectives illustrated in the book show this tension over and over again. Characters publicly deplore the action, while secretly confessing they may well have done the same thing.

Right and wrong

As I turned over the first few pages of the book, as the actual slap drew nearer, I was honestly hoping the kid would get smacked – thinking he needed it, he was out of control [not to mention, I don’t have kids and utterly detest the sound of a whining child – a bias, perhaps??]. But as facts are revealed and perspectives explored, I went back and forth in my opinion on the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ of the situation, time and time again. I found that I was influenced by my perceptions of the character who struck the child, as facts and circumstances are revealed – though nothing new is really unearthed about the actual event at the barbeque itself.

I would have preferred that I was able to formulate an answer to the question ‘is it ok to smack a child that is not yours?’ without so many grey areas and subjective variables that should not really matter. Just because I think the kids’ parents a nutters, is it more acceptable for him to be smacked in that way? No. But my gut instinct sided more and more with the man that hit him, as I grew to dislike the child’s parents and their approach to parenting. I resented their ‘I’ll call Today Tonight’ attitude and their fierce resolve to pursue a legal course of action. Those elements of the scenario should not impact on the question of whether it is right or wrong to slap that child – but invariably I found that they clouded my perception.

Read it

For me the book was an excellent exploration of the relativities of our values and the gross (and often inappropriate) subjectivity of what we hold to be ‘right’. The book itself is not altogether brilliant – at one point or other I disliked just about every character, and I did grow weary of the way they were each derived from clear stereotypes. However The Slap raises a number of challenging ethical questions which are worth exploring for yourself.

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