The Case Against “The Case Against Intactivism”

If you’ve read my work here (or on Twitter) for any length of time, you know that I don’t agree (e.g.) with every tactic used to argue for genital integrity. I’m not arrogant enough to assume I’m always correct, but my experience has to inform the means I endorse in pursuit of the necessary, noble goal. Where I think we’re making mistakes, particularly predictably ineffective mistakes, I speak out. I know enough people within the genital integrity movement to know that the principled, decent strategy is the most common.

That said, I’m not willing to paint broadly based on the actions of individuals. This can be either good or bad actions. One person expressing an idiotic excuse for circumcision do not mean everyone who shares a characteristic would defend that excuse. I do this because it’s fair and because I do not want this approach applied to me. It will always be possible to find genital integrity activists who engage in inexcusable behavior, such as anti-Semitism. I can make my case without that, as can most activists. Principles and tactics are associated, but the former exists apart from the latter.

This is why the website The Case Against Intactivism frustrates me so greatly. It is run by blogger “paper0airplane”, who is against routine infant circumcision while lumping any bad behavior by those opposed to circumcision into the “intactivism” category. This is wrong. For example, I spoke out when issue #2 of “Foreskin Man” appeared, long before it made news during the San Francisco ballot initiative in mid-2011. I was not alone. Should we all be blamed for this comic book, or are individual – sometimes egregious – mistakes inevitable in any decentralized movement? The answer is obviously the latter, but paper0airplane consistently writes as if it’s the former. That is what I wish to reject here.

In July paper0airplane posted this:

… My opinion also hasn’t changed. I do not circumcise, I don’t think circumcision is necessary. I also do not approve of the tactics used by intactivists, and were they to change those tactics, I would support them wholeheartedly. Much like the rabid pro-life crowd, intactivists generally resort to appeals to emotion, twisting of facts, offering up studies (that they haven’t even read) claiming they say one thing, when in fact they do not (relying, instead, on the fact that many will not actually read the study, simply providing one counts as support of their argument), sometimes outright lying. That includes setting up studies in such a way as to pre-determine the outcome. These are things that I disagree with, and will continue to disagree with. Since most intactivists, instead of actually reading my site objectively, believe that I am actually pro-circumcision and that my site advocates for circumcision, I’m attacked quite often. …

People who can be classified as intactivists cannot be neatly stuffed into a box labeled “Endorses These Tactics”. I am an intactivist, although what I wrote in 2006 still holds. The term intactivist is cute and descriptive, but because it’s cute, I do not like it. It does little more than give reporters an excuse to fill in stories with details at which typical readers will roll their eyes. That’s not helpful. The term has gained wider acceptance, but it’s still treated in much the same way in many places. And paper0airplane uses it as a convenient stereotype.

So, from that July post, in order:

  • Generally suggests stereotyping. That should be a signal that the critique is shaky. Not necessarily flawed, but evidence is required and should be drawn from and applied to the person(s) using the criticized tactic.
  • Appeals to emotion as a tactic is the least effective approach. Those who use it exclusively need to expand their repertoire. But its use, even exclusively by some, says nothing about intactivism as a whole.
  • I do not twist facts. Grinding this axe with a blunt dismissal of all rather than against the few who deserve it impedes my efforts. If paper0airplane insists on grouping everyone together, prove that I’m the hack caricature with examples. Otherwise, I’m left to assume that paper0airplane is a lazy thinker and writer. (The body of work that assumes any intactivist is all intactivists is evidence of this.)
  • I do not defend studies I know to be flawed. I’ve long held that the “estimated number of deaths” study is flawed¹. Conversely, I’ve also demonstrated that the “circumcision makes no difference to sexual sensitivity/satisfaction” studies are flawed. Should this count as an argument against all proponents of child circumcision or just those who fallaciously treat this issue as settled science based on these flawed studies? There are proponents who are very much lying propagandists. There are also proponents who are sincere and honest but insufficiently informed. I prefer to deal with who is in front of me rather than the worst of everyone I’ve ever encountered.
  • I’ve read enough to know that paper0airplane is opposed to routine infant circumcision. I also know that paper0airplane defends ritual circumcision. I disagree with this because the arguments against non-therapeutic circumcision, both ethical and scientific, apply to males born to religious parents. I do not wish to imply that change will be easy, only that change is necessary, as various reforms throughout history have been necessary. We are not at the pinnacle of balancing religion and rights. (More on this in another post.)

Going back to paper0airplane’s first post, this:

There are many many very reasonable people that label themselves intactivist. They’re nice people are are just as interested in the truth as you or I. Unfortunately, the loudmouths at the front are doing all the damage. They color public perception of what intactivism is. I think we can greatly reduce the number of circumcisions without being total A-Holes or alienating all our circumcising friends and family. Without being bullies. Because that’s what intactivists are represented by. Bullys. To the reasonable people that label themselves intactivist, I beg you! Find another way to label yourself! People will be more likely to listen if you don’t have to carry the intactivist baggage around.

This paragraph demonstrates my point. There are intactivists who use problematic and/or unethical tactics. Again, this is inevitable in any decentralized movement, just as one can easily find examples of the same among circumcision proponents. It’s possible to challenge, refute, and/or discredit “the loudmouths” without dismissing everyone by stereotyping on the behavior of a subset. I wish paper0airplane would make that effort instead of indiscriminately smearing good and bad activists as the same.

¹ While this study is not something I trust or cite, the number of deaths from non-therapeutic child circumcision is objectively non-zero. That is a fact. How many deaths from non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting minor do we need before we can demonstrate the ethical case against prophylactic child circumcision? The mere risk of one is enough, but one death is certainly too many. I suspect paper0airplane agrees, although that makes the accompanying defense of religious circumcision of children indefensible. Ritual circumcision of minors is no less an affront to human rights than cultural circumcision.

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