Tasmania’s Commissioner for Children has again called on the State Government to review laws covering the circumcision of baby boys for cosmetic reasons.
“If I have a religious obligation, a religious belief that my child should do X, Y and Z and that conflicts directly with a human right of the child, then the human right of the child will prevail,” Mr [Paul] Mason said.
That’s exactly right. The right to remain free from harm is primary. When an action will cause objective harm to another without his or her consent or need, it is not valid to subjegate that most basic human right to any claim made by another person. Any other right, particularly the alleged right of one person to act on another, is secondary (if it is legitimate).
Compare that to the follow-up to the John Tierney entry on female genital mutilation I discussed last week. Mr. Tierney seeks a clarification from University of Chicago anthropologist Richard Shweder. In his clarification attempting to dispassionately explain the realities of genital cutting for cultural reasons, Dr. Shweder states:
“Female genital mutilation” is an invidious and essentially debate-subverting label. The preemptive use of that expression is just as invidious as starting a conversation about a women’s right to choose by describing abortion as the “murder of innocent life.” Pro-choice advocates rightly object to the presumptive disparagement implied by that label; many African women similarly object to naming a practice which they describe in local terms as “the celebration” or the “purification” or the “cleansing” or the “beautification” as “the mutilation”. Notably in most ethnic groups where female genital surgeries are customary, male genital surgeries are customary as well and are named with the same terms.
Overall I felt Dr. Shweder presented a dispassionate analysis of the objective issues at hand. The point, as I understood it, was to leave out cultural and value judgments on the actions. One can say “this is what it does” without ruling on whether that’s valid. Making that judgment is valid, of course, but we should all start by understanding the facts.
I submitted a comment, which can be read here. I conceded that I’m not dispassionate about this, and stated the basic truth that each individual must be left to decide. However, I also read a subjective acceptance of male genital cutting into Dr. Shweder’s initial comment, which I mistakenly retracted here. I say mistakenly because Dr. Shweder posted a further clarification:
Secondly, some components of the statement of the right (a right to “develop…in conditions of freedom…”) seem to deny the reality of normal and healthy developmental processes and development promoting social relationships, which are often commanding and hierarchical and always constraining and limiting of options, often to a rather high degree. For example, children are not free to decide not to go to school or not to have an inoculation; they are not free to decide to move to some new residence or location, or to select the religion that will be practiced at home, etc. etc. A very particular and culture-specific (and perhaps social class specific) kind of liberationist or radical autonomy perspective (of the kind advocated by one commentator) seems to have been written into this rather ideologically loaded (and hence subjective) formulation of a supposed “natural right.” The moral order consists of many and often conflicting “goods” and values, of which unrestrained freedom of choice for every individual is not necessarily the only good.
Even the idea of a right to bodily integrity seems problematic as a possible foundation for criticizing this particular kind of socially endorsed genital alteration. For one thing, if there is a natural human right to bodily integrity of the type supposed, it would extend to the practice of male genital surgeries as well, and might well run counter to the rights to religious freedom and family privacy of Jews and Muslims around the world. (I am prepared to defend the rights of Jews and Muslims, and others, to circumcise their infant sons and have discussed the issue of gender equity in this regard in the essay for which a link was provided above. One of the many reasons I became interested in this topic was because of my awareness of an association of ugly attitudes toward Jewish minority groups with the ready and rhetorically loaded description of them as barbaric “mutilators” of their children.)
Secondly[sic], it is not at all clear what “the integrity of the human body” actually amounts to, once the overheated and sensationalized morbidity, mortality and sexual dysfunction claims are viewed with a cautious or skeptical eye. As noted above from the cultural perspective of Jews, Muslims and those Africans (Muslim and non-Muslim) who “circumcise” their children (both boys and girls) the human body lacks integrity (contains unbidden, immature, problematic or even ugly and disgusting components) until it is improved, purified and made “normal” by means of cultural intervention and the status conferring procedure of a genital modification.
To be fair, what comes before this is mostly sensible in challenging the notion that all female genital cutting is uniform. I can’t vouch for the validity of his specifics, but the human imagination’s ability to create invasive rituals is not rigid in its degrees of cruelty, nor does it obsess on gender as a dividing criteria. Opponents of forced genital cutting of either sex have a strong enough stance on principle that it would be wise to stop falling into unquestioning assumptions that rely upon female oppression and male benefits as the sole storyline.
Unfortunately the excerpt above is so maddeningly idiotic that it destroys whatever credibility Dr. Shweder built before this mental detour. I could spend all the bandwidth of the Internet rebutting these three paragraphs in sufficient detail. Most of the ridiculousness seems to stem from Dr. Shweder’s refusal to acknowledge the individual’s place within a culture. If enough people value something, the dissenter’s opinion may be ignored. That is simply wrong in the context of rights. Dr. Shweder’s preference does not fit that reality, so he creates his own structure of societal obligations masquerading as rights.
Rereading Commissioner Mason’s statement above clarifies what Dr. Shweder misses. Cultural perspective is not objective. Just because a large number of people believe something does not make it true. Humans are fallible. Ultimately, Dr. Shweder (and all proponents of forced genital cutting
, in general) misses because his foundational assumption is flawed. Whether or not an individual rejects the beliefs of his society is not the issue. Whether or not he has the option to reject them is.
In my view, the culture’s opinion is valid if the individual wishes to submit. In Dr. Shweder’s view, the individual’s opinion is not valid if the group wishes submission.