State Should Stay Out of the Circumcision Debate
When Win was born in October of 2010, Tara and I had long before decided not to circumcise. Indeed the decision was made prior to the birth of our daughter, Theory.
The decision was a journey on my part. While one of my cousins had chosen not to circumcise their kids, everyone else in my family was circumcised. I had not given it a lot of thought. But when Tara became pregnant, and not knowing the sex of Theory, the issue suddenly was in front of us.
In general I have found that advocates on either side of the debate engage in a lot of inflammatory, manipulative, illogical reasoning to rationalize their point-of-view. For example, I was recently listening to Lloyd Schofield the author of the proposed circumcision ban. He was asked by Gena Kirby on her show about the medical reason to circumcise. He argues that evolutionary forces resulted in the foreskin, and therefore it was healthy. This is similar to the line of reasoning that birth is safe because it evolved. One could argue that you should never remove a tooth because it evolved…
Where to begin – we don’t live in the EEA, the environment of evolutionary adaptation. So while you could argue that the foreskin, and birth, were successful, you could only do so in the context of the EEA, which included really fit people have children at a very young age and having at least, on average, a bit over 2 offspring per generation.
It is a lame argument and it is a red herring.
So are stupid arguments that infants are tolerant to the pain. Proponents of circumcision likewise put forth ridiculous arguments about cleanliness and health.
Likewise the argument about a boy looking like his father also always seemed odd to me, more of a reverse engineered justification then a cause. My child does not look like me in all kinds of ways so the penis image seemed like a non-issue. Where is the evidence of psychological trauma? If your aim is to convince people not to circumcise, using bogus claims is not the best approach.
Another concern is the feeling of being an outcast. This would be more of an issue if the plan was to raise our children in a strictly Jewish community. In fact, we are not, so the chances are small that our boy would only see circumcised penises. Circumcision rates in the US are now around 33 percent in the general population. Even if this was not the case, I would not want to have simple conformity be a driver for our behavior. We do a lot of things that are non-conformist and this is a value that we would like to teach our children. Besides, this is a function of the community’s intolerance to begin with.
At the end of the day, there seems to be marginal costs and benefits of circumcision most of the time, assuming you don’t live in Southern Africa. Now if you believe in a non-interventionist approach to the body, in the absence of any other reason, you would leave the foreskin intact.
Other than being Jewish (Muslim, etc), in my mind there was no compelling reason to circumcise.
So the only reason to circumcise would be because I am Jewish. But this was an emotionally powerful issue. Not so much because circumcision is significant to me as an ethnic marker, but because I understood its symbolic significance to my family. That is, the emotion comes from empathy with my parents – a second-order reason.
Circumcision and Tribal Identity: Being Jewish
Now I have long been an atheist, and I am also an anthropologist. So the idea of body modification as a form of tribe identity is not so foreign to me- nor of course, circumcision as a Jew.
Indeed, I am proud of my heritage and having an ethnic marker on some level is appealing to me. There are a lot of assets, cultural-capital, to be mined from my historical heritage as a Jew. This is quite different from the notion of a Jewish lifestyle. It is a pivotal difference.
A few years ago I attended a cousins orthodox wedding and spent most of the time observing the community that had come together. I had strong mixed feelings.
On the one hand, the sense of community was visceral. Within the safe space of the synagogue I could see the impact of extended family and networks at work – kids running around, confident, at home. I remember how this felt – attending Camp Ramah from age 7 to 13, going on ulpan.
It is the one thing that I miss for my own kids and family.
But I feel like it also comes at a cost. The orthodox communities that I have been exposed to are also closed, intolerant, judgmental. It is essential to the creation of the boundary between us and them. And I have made a hard choice to forgo the benefits of community to avoid the requisite definition of in-group versus out-group. Indeed, some have discussed the decision to not be religious to be the “unnatural choice” in the sense that the brain is inclined to religious thought. But then again, you could make the same argument about being monogamous.
I don’t keep kosher. I don’t daven. More importantly, I don’t have congregation. So by extension I don’t circumcise.
But should I be allowed to?
That is the question that has been raised by the proposed circumcision ban in San Francisco.
Circumcision and Parents Rights / Religious Freedom
Circumcision pits two core rights against each other – parental rights vs rights of minors
Tied up in the circumcision debate are a number of other issues that need to be unpacked as well.
On the one hand it is the right to not have the government reach into your personal life. In this arena, I tend to fall a bit on the libertarian side. Like all good Americans I fear a government that over-reaches its boundaries and begins to dictate about how I live my life.
This plays out in a number of ways. Take the vaccine debate. Unless the government can demonstrate a clear and present danger, I do not want them to be dictating to me what I need to be injecting into my child. Hep B? No thank you. The reason being that I do not trust government and believe that policy is subject to corruption by money and power. Plus as I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, there are often conflicts of interest between the individual and the group. Unless public health is a critical factor, one should expect a tragedy of the commons to take place.
When it comes to education, vaccine, etc., I want individual rights to trump government rights.
This bleeds into religious freedoms. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a non-theist and have a real issue with religious thought. But I am not comfortable with government trying to regulate thinking, no matter how ridiculous, unless it impacts others.
In the case, religion is impacting others — newborns. In my mind, this is the core issue.
I am a strong proponent of the rights of minors. Children should be endowed with inalienable human-rights. But the rights of parents should be very broad before the State can step in. There is a biological imperative built into our legal system that gives parents power, as they are generally concerned about the welfare of their children and in a better position to make decisions about this welfare than the state.
This is not always the case. Hence there is great latitude in the Family Court system. Indeed, in some ways the family courts are the most powerful institutions in our country, as they do not recognize any private sphere. Sufficient to say, the State probably already have too much power when it comes to intervening between me and my child. It is much more likely that I will disagree with the State about what constitutes the best for my child than the chance that I will no longer be driven by protecting my child’s welfare in the first place.
Perhaps if mainstream culture was more inline with my own I would be more inclined to give the State more latitude – as the chance of finding myself on the outside of the norm would be small. But that is not the case – and the thought of a civil servant making decisions about the welfare of my family sends chills down my spine.
For me, the issue of circumcision was more of a personal nature than a social policy issue. I do not feel comfortable making permanent body modifications without a medical reason. I also do not feel comfortable tattooing my child, in that it is irreversible. That is my personal emotional response.
Despite my personal feelings about circumcision, from a social policy issues, given the marginal nature of circumcision, I cannot advocate that the State should be able to intrude.
Politics and Language
What bothers me is how the debate is playing out.
The choice of language is calculated. Mutilation vs body modification. Partly this is an issue of the emic (insider) vs etic (outsider) perspective. Jews see circumcision as non-medical body modification, part of the covenant. Intactivists see it as mutilation. But those activists must then also classify ear piercing as body mutilation, as an anthropologist would. Should we outlaw under-age ear piercing? If not then we should be consistent with the language we use to describe these practices. Otherwise it is more about a culturally-bound judgment of circumcision, not a judgment against body modification.
The analogy between male circumcision and female circumcision seems disingenuous and fallacious, an exercise in political framing. But, if we are going to start to have a continuum of body modification, we need to have very clear criteria. Why is ear piercing okay? Why circumcision? Why (or why not) female circumcision.
Unpacking why one is okay and the other is not IS the essence of the debate, not the semantic assignment to the same category.
Complicating the discussion of circumcision is the subtext of anti-Semitism that invades the issue.
Take the case of Foreskin Man. The stench of the anti-Semitism that pervades the comic undermines the position of the intactivist stance that the issue is not veiled form of an attack on Judaism. The portrayals of Jews as evil monsters does not progress the debate. Rather it further entrenches the us vs them thinking.
Why Matthew Hess, President of MGM Bill, would choose to use a graphic novel genre is beyond me – taking an inflammatory issues and throwing fire on it by conveying the debate in medium that inherently dehumanizes. Suddenly the topic is no longer about circumcision but about anti-Semitism. It demonstrates in some ways, perhaps, the very nature of racism itself – a topic for another post.
(For references, here are movie posters from Der Ewige Jude
But perhaps Foreskin Man elucidates what is the core of the issue in terms of the ban. The ban is rooted in conflicting world-views. The Hess world-view in which Jews are outsiders who are engaging in unethical behavior. The behavior is so intolerable that the State needs to step in. Jews on the other hand see this as the single most important act of their identity.
I am not sure it passes the litmus test for me of requiring State intervention. But I also believe the State should extradite itself in many other ways from parenting too.
Rather than turning anti-circumcision into an attack on Jews, a very unproductive tactic, those people who want to eliminate the practice should engage in culture-change. What is the fundamental cultural issue that drives circumcision? Ethnic identity and the cultural cognitive biases, such as conformist transmission and frequency-dependent transmission along with the other biases that make religious thought infectious in the first place (see folks like Pascal Boyer and Boyd and Richerson).
Circumcising is a strong visual de-marker, a high-cost high-fidelity ethnic marker in the words of my friend Francisco Gil-White. If you want to eliminate it you need to make the marker unimportant or the demarcation unimportant. I would rather concentrate on driving for a society that is secular then waste too much energy on each and every practice that derives from the religiosity of the society.
To me , it is a symptom of the a much larger problem.
I just saw the following video which I think is a good encapsulation of the two positions on the subject: