With Friends Like These…

Posted: September 20th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, Logic, Parenting, Science | 1 Comment »

The provocative cliche in the title is a two-way argument. As it was in the AHA Foundation post, and as it is with the frustrating, losing argument comparing circumcision and rape, people can insist on behavior that risks their own credibility. There’s satisfaction in being right, but it’s a seductive mistake to assume that counts for anything. Advocacy is about changing minds. Advocacy requires meeting people where they are, not where one thinks they should be.

Jill Filipovic posted on Mark Joseph Stern’s smear in Slate. Her post is a mix of good and bad.

Every time female genital cutting is mentioned on Feministe — every time — someone from the “intactivist” community shows up to derail the conversation and make it all about the alleged horrors of male circumcision. Intactivists, for the unfamiliar, are men (and a few women) who oppose male circumcision. They claim it’s a violation of human rights, that’s it a physical mutilation, that it’s medically unnecessary and that it reduces sexual pleasure. They’re incredibly active online, and I was interested to see that they aren’t just trolling feminist blogs — they’re showing up in the comments of every article written on circumcision.

As I said in the AHA Foundation post, “those against forced male genital cutting need to be responsible when interjecting into a discussion on FGM/C, including by doing so less often.” Considerably less often, probably. That’s the key point in that paragraph and the one I hope people grasp first.

She leaves open the possibility that the negative behavior she mentions is limited to a few when she wrote “someone from the ‘intactivist’ community” rather than the intactivist¹ community. She makes this mistake in the comments when she writes, “Wait, you mean the intactivists come onto this thread and act like total misogynist assholes? Weird! No one could have predicated that.” A few people do not constitute “the intactivists”. This is the obvious mistake Mr. Stern made. “Never read the comments” is hyperbole, but there is truth in understanding that the comments are not the entirety of the debate. The conclusion against those who oppose non-therapeutic child circumcision is too generalized to be defensible. The way some people use an open forum irresponsibly isn’t indicative of what everyone believes or how they behave.

She continues:

It’s not that intactivists are wrong about everything. There should be a debate about circumcision, and there is something to be said for the position that it’s ethically wrong to remove a piece of an infant’s body where not necessary to preserve that infant’s life or health. It’s an interesting and important bodily autonomy question. On the one hand, from the strictest perspective, it seems wrong to circumcise a child without his understanding and consent. Yes, circumcision may have some disease-prevention benefits, but it comes with risks as well. On the other hand, parents do things all the time that violate their children’s bodily autonomy; they regularly don’t get their children’s consent on issues that impact that child’s person, and they even directly override their children’s desires. That’s part of being a good parent. Your kid may not want to get a vaccine, but you should probably vaccinate your kid. Your kid doesn’t want disinfectant on that cut, but the cut should get disinfected. Your kid wants to only eat hot dogs every day for the rest of his life, but your kid should probably eat some vegetables.

Circumcision is more serious than a cut and hot dogs, but the vaccination piece is perhaps comparable — it’s an irreversible medical intervention. Personally, I’m sympathetic to the arguments that circumcision is an unnecessary violation of bodily autonomy. Yet if I lived in a place with a high prevalence of HIV, I’d probably circumcise my kid, as recommended by the World Health Organization.

This is an additional reason not to be a jerk to her (or anyone). She’s got the gist. It’s still not acceptable to circumcise minors in areas with a high prevalence of HIV for all the easy reasons. The WHO recommendation is wrong and unethical. The studies only researched voluntary, adult circumcision. The existence of – and continued need for – condoms, as well as the possibility of better prevention or a cure before the child is sexually active, makes waiting for consent a basic requirement. Mr. Stern complained about intactivists not paying attention to studies. It’s not excusable that he made the same mistake by assuming that the studies are transferable to infant circumcision. But see how close Ms. Filipovic is to the complete principle. Being rude is unproductive, in addition to being impolite.

The other problem with talking about this issue with the intactivists who parachute into random comment sections to debate is their nasty habit of playing fast and loose with the facts. Mark Joseph Stern at Slate explains:

[Excerpt Omitted]

The whole piece is worth a read, because circumcision is certainly something worth discussing and debating. But all parties need to come into the conversation honestly. A philosophy or principle may be so correct that it outweighs a conclusion pointed to by the weight of scientific evidence. But then let the philosophy stand against that evidence. Twisting the facts and intentionally obscuring the truth doesn’t help in the parsing of difficult ethical issues.

That’s what I got at in my post yesterday on Mr. Stern’s piece. The observation that some people behave badly is relavent. It isn’t proof against the principle’s validity. His conclusion is too broad, and obviously so. There are honest people in the debate. If a few are to stand as the representatives for all, honest people will be smeared unfairly, as Mr. Stern did.

The debate isn’t just the philosophy standing against the weight of scientific evidence. There is scientific evidence on the side of the philosophy. The normal, healthy foreskin is normal and healthy. It doesn’t require intervention, especially not the most radical intervention. Soap is science. Condoms are science. Antibiotics are science. That isn’t twisting the facts or obscuring the truth. We must stop pretending those facts aren’t involved. We must stop pretending the burden of proof rests with those who advocate against surgery on healthy children.

Citing the HIV benefit, which I concede for the argument, involves stating the facts only if citing the rest of what WHO and the AAP say about its applicability. Ms. Filipovic did. Mr. Stern didn’t. Mr. Stern played fast and loose with the facts.

¹ I wrote this seven years ago.

I’m familiar with the term intactivist. It’s cute and descriptive, but because it’s cute, I do not like it. As the article shows, it does little more than give reporters an excuse to fill in the story with details at which typical readers will roll their eyes. That’s not helpful.

I still agree with it. I think its use here and in Mr. Stern’s essay show the danger in being able to label this way.


One Comment on “With Friends Like These…”

  1. 1 Choose Intact » Blog Archive » Activism is always about marketing said at 8:39 am on February 4th, 2015:

    […] – or can be – receptive to the truth that boys have the same rights as girls. We should challenge mistaken beliefs where possible. But we can’t make enemies of potential allies because it […]


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