Faith in Our Fathers — one more shot at the circumcision debate

Over the past couple weeks the circumcision debate has been heating up again in the international news and blogosphere. I don’t think I have anything further to say about the medical aspects of the procedure itself, but I basically agree with the sentiments one of my young Muslim friends posted recently: “You know what I’ve never said in my life? ‘I wish I had me some foreskin. How dare my parents make a decided improvement to my penis! And in safe medical conditions At that! Whilst I was too young to be bothered by the idea of penis surgery! Those bastards!’”

I realize that the issue of it being a “decided improvement” is controversial, but this further demonstrates that boys who’ve had this done really don’t see themselves as victims. Most men, whether theirs are cut or uncut, adore their penises just as they are and don’t long for them to be the opposite way, especially among those whose are cut. So those who claim to be defending the boy’s potential choice in the matter don’t seem to have a particularly strong case.

But there’s another underlying question that seems to be worth discussing here: To what extent do children “belong” to their parents? To what extent are parents free to physically, emotionally and ideologically do as they please with their children; and to what extent should governments be ready to step in and do something to protect children whose parents’ ideas and behavior are against the child’s best interest?

The short answer has 3 parts:

1)      A workable solution on this one will not be found in the extremes –– it’s always going to be a balance question.

2)      These situations require wisdom rather than logarithms, but that’s nearly impossible to achieve in a state free from certain cultural prejudices.

3)      Parents should be given the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. If anyone should be considered innocent until proven guilty, it’s a child’s parents.

Now let me try to unpack that a bit.

As with most political questions, there are two extremes here: those who want the government to play the role of all-knowing nanny wherever possible, and those who believe that the solution to all social problems is to just get governments to leave people alone. Let’s just say that those who are prone to be helpless cry-babies would be more inclined to lean towards the first option there, and those who tend to be bullies and psychopaths would lean more towards the latter opinion; but not everyone who takes the extreme views can justifiably be accused of being a crybaby or a bully respectively.  It might, however, be fair to say that the extreme you lean towards the most says something about what type of person you are more prone to sympathize with or relate to, and which you are more prone to reject and eject from your social circles whenever possible.

I must confess from the start that, as a school teacher, I have a distinct dislike for behavior of both of these extremes, but I tend to be more angered by bullying than by whining. So that would make me a moderate, leaning more towards the “liberal” than the “conservative” side on this one. In other words it is particularly important to me that kids do not get emotionally abused or beat up on, and I believe that the government should play some role in preventing such abuse.  Conservatives, on the other hand, are prone to take the stand that kids have to learn to stand on their own two feet as early as possible, and God has given them parents to take care of them until they are ready to do so. So governments need to largely stay out of it and let parents do their job. Otherwise we raise a generation of helpless whiners who always expect the government to take care of them.

But let’s start with some “liberal” moral principles that even the most radically arch-conservative pundits can agree with: No child should be forced to live with a parent who is a violent alcoholic or drug addict, and no child should ever be subject to sexual abuse within the home. The basis for such judgments should be rather self-evident. It should follow from there that, given the breakdown of traditional social control mechanisms within societies –– neighbors no longer automatically stepping in to take care of each other’s children –– we need specialized organizations to step in and help kids in those situations, both in the form of branches of government and NGOs.

We can probably also reach a consensus on the matter that no parent should have the right to physically mutilate or damage their child in a way that results in a diminished capacity for normal adult life later on. Any parent who intentionally scars or cripples his/her own child, even partially, certainly doesn’t deserve to be allowed to freely raise that child as he/she sees fit! Even a Fox News follower could agree to that.

The open question is, how far do we want to see controls go over the amount of dysfunctional behavior we will allow parents to exercise before someone steps in, and how strict we are going to make our automatic child protection laws? In response to that we need to ask, what sorts of parental misconduct are most likely to do lasting damage to a child, thereby justifying imprisonment for the parent and/or foster care for the child?

To be honest with you, aside from the extreme mentally disturbed types of parents mentioned above, there’s really only one type of situation where I’ve regularly seen parents do irreparable damage to their children: messy divorces.

My own parents were divorced long before it was the popular thing to do, but if there is one thing I have to give them both credit for, it’s being very careful not to fight over the children or use the children as weapons against each other.  I’m not sure how successful I was in following their example, but attempting to do so was one of my main priorities in dealing with my own divorce. I do know my sons were used as weapons against me on many occasions though and I’m sure at times I retaliated in ways I shouldn’t have, but I always made a serious point in avoiding such irresponsible behavior. I sincerely hope that my sons’ scars from that mess do not run too deep, and I have reason to be optimistic in that regard.

However as a teacher and as a friend to many children of divorce I’ve seen some serious nightmare situations, well beyond the messes I’ve had to deal with in my own family experiences. I would go as far as to say that, passing childish stupidity aside, in every case of serious behavioral disturbance among middle school students that I’ve had to deal with, there has been a divorce situation –– usually a very fresh and very messy one –– somewhere in the background.

In these nasty and painful situations parents seem to forget that the children are neither pets nor mutual property to divide up, but important individuals with their own human value that parents have the initial opportunity to nurture and care for. While looking for ways to vengefully hurt the offending ex, parents often forget that, as resilient as kids are, they are too fragile to be used as clubs to beat the other with or as projectiles to throw at each other.

Another variation on this theme is when one parent, usually the mother, becomes so lost in the pain of rejection that she grabs onto her child(ren) as an emotional flotation device –– clinging to them for dear life to keep herself from drowning in her sorrow.  There’s no easy solution for this kind of problem, but children shouldn’t have to deal with the stress of being a parent’s therapist and care-taker.

There have been many times that I have wished that social workers were more aware of these problems and on top of things –– taking the task of child protection and child welfare more seriously –– but of course I recognize that they too are human beings, with their own human limitations and prejudices. How much can I honestly expect from them? Looking at the situation in Finland, which I really know best, I can see that honest efforts are being made to overcome biases against men and against cultural minority groups within the social service system. Is there really anything more –– besides speeding up this cultural and gender diversification process –– that I can ask for in the system?  Should they be more gung ho to intervene and remove children from their parents? Should there be more laws limiting what parents are allowed to do with their children? I would actually hope not.

Determining what dangers parents should be allowed to subject their children to is in itself a dangerous thing for authorities to do.

We don’t need more rules to substitute for thinking and active involvement where children’s well-being is concerned. This is a point that Barry Schwartz has made extremely well. What we need is social workers and other public employees who are deeply and personally motivated to help both children and their parents deal with problematic situations. In doing this they must learn to set aside certain cultural prejudices, such as belief that women are inherently better care-givers than men, or that members of religious minorities should not be trusted to love and care for their own children. They need to look at what is actually causing children harm and reducing their chances of flourishing as human beings later in life. While there are continuous studies in the field of youth research in particular to help identify such risk factors, and to enable concerned parties deal with such risks more wisely, ultimately each case will be unique. Tolstoy may have said it best: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” We need public servants who recognize this and cultivate personal wisdom in dealing with the needs of each unhappy family.

Not that I expect to see that happening any time soon though. Many who get into the field of social work, in both the public and tertiary sectors, do so because they have a certain zeal to see things operate according to their own preconceptions and prejudices. A classic example would be the American missionary group that was attempting to remove a bus load of children from Haiti after the recent earthquake there, to keep them from evil of being raised in a Voodoo culture. It’s not as though public sector social work has succeeded in weeding out morally equivalent motivations among its own. Thus there is probably a greater shortage of morally objective people in this field than any other which I know of. System-wide, I don’t see much hope of this changing within my lifetime, but on a case-by-case and worker-by-worker basis there is hope that some individual children and families with problems who would have slipped through the cracks before might start to get the sort of help that they really need.

Meanwhile though, we have a number of parents who are trying to raise their kids with the loving hope that they can make these little people as much like themselves as possible –– only smarter, prettier, healthier and richer. This includes parents doing everything in their power to pass on their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), their political perspectives, their ethnic cultural identity and often their professional identity to their kids. These kids are sent to religious confirmation classes and political party youth gatherings, brought to holiday get-togethers with others of “their kind,” and even hauled along to their working parents’ “office” or “shop” with whenever possible; while being given little say in such matters. Sometimes this form of social conditioning can be rather restrictive or even abusive towards the kids in question. Parents’ desires for their children can be an incredibly bad fit for the kids themselves; and at times it seems like the worse the fit, the less likely the parents are to acknowledge that their expectations might be problematic. This can happen regardless of what religion (or lack thereof), what profession (or lack thereof) and what sort of ethnic identity the parents have. All parents are capable of screwing up at times by trying to make kids into something that they’re not. Does that mean that we should the model of Plato’s Republic and prevent parents from raising their own children though? Hell no!

There is no cultural system that can be proven to outsiders to not entail risks of traumatizing children every now and again. Human life is inherently messy, right from the start. The best we can do is to bond with those close to us and choose to respect those who differ from us, who still share our goals in terms of trying to mold in their children in their own image.  If we have valid scientific, medical proof that parents are preventing their children from enjoying a significant part of human life through their traditions (e.g. in the case of female genital cutting) or if we see that due to significant life management problems in their own lives parents have lost track of trying to do what is best for their children (e.g. in the cases of divorce trauma or alcoholism) then yes, we need to do something about it. But other than that we need to put the human rights of those of other cultures ahead of our tastes as far as how we would like to see them raise their children.

So getting back to the matter of traditional infant male circumcision, what is the case against it? Does it disable the boys in question in any significant way? Does it emotionally scar those who have undergone such an operation? Does a lack of foreskin cause widespread resentment towards parents who chose to have it removed? If not, where’s the problem?

Yes, like any medical procedure, if those who perform it are fundamentally incompetent it can result in serious damage. But the obvious solution there is simply to make sure that, as with any medical procedure, there are adequate controls in place to keep incompetents from performing the operation.

Beyond that the objection seems to be that since it is a matter of (trivial) body modification, based only on masculine identity within religious minority communities, it shouldn’t be allowed. I’m sorry, but to me that stinks of prejudice against both men and religious minorities. It assumes that any group that differs from the cultural mainstream should not be trusted to decide things regarding their own children, especially where masculine identity is concerned.

Another argument, which is stressed less in public debate (though I did hear it mentioned on BBC this week) but which has probably has as much practical effect as any in terms of grounds for attempting to ban circumcision, is that mothers often feel traumatized about having this done to their little boys. Fathers want their sons to be like them in this regard, but mothers are more hesitant to go along. The implication here is that when it comes to decisions regarding children, female perspectives are inherently more important than male perspectives –– even with regard to the treatment of the male organ. Anyone else have a problem with this sort of cultural assumption?

As I’ve said before, for me, at the end of the day, foreskins are a fairly trivial thing. The bigger issue is cultural freedom and control. In particular there is the offensive matter of German courts now telling Jews and Muslims that they are not allowed to maintain what they consider to be an important part of their tradition –– involving one of the oldest, safest and most harmless medical procedures known to mankind. Given that, when done competently, this does not in any demonstrable way reduce the boys’ quality of life, I really do believe that governments should leave this matter up to parents to decide on (together). Rather than attempting to outlaw this practice, civil authorities should be working to insure that it is always done professionally and under safe conditions.

If someone really wants to help insure quality a high quality of life for the boys in question and prevent them from being traumatized by parental mistakes, there are much bigger things than infant foreskins for these “helpers” to worry about.

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7 Comments

Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, Parenting, Politics, Religion, Social identity, Tolerance

7 responses to “Faith in Our Fathers — one more shot at the circumcision debate

  1. “Another argument, which less stressed less in public debate (though I did hear it mentioned on BBC this week) but which has probably has as much practical effect as any grounds for attempting to ban circumcision, is that mothers often feel traumatized about having this done to their little boys. Fathers want their sons to be like them in this regard, but mothers are more hesitant to go along. The implication here is that when it comes to decisions regarding children, female perspectives are inherently more important than male perspectives –– even with regard to the treatment of the male organ. Anyone else have a problem with this sort of cultural assumption?”

    I think you have this the wrong way around.

    Fathers want their sons circumcised and Mothers feel traumatised at seeing their sons circumcised indicating that they do not want to inflict this on their sons.

    Men don’t recognise their own privileges when they have been immersed in them for so long. It is clearly the female perspective that is getting dismissed here not the male!

    I think we should listen to women more when it comes to decisions regarding children.

  2. Thanks for pointing out that quote. It had something to be improved on as far as sentence clarity. Sorry for being so sloppy in that regard.

    That being said, I actually did understand the argument being made as quite the way you summarize it, but I fundamentally disagree. I don’t believe that things should be legislated on the basis of the general will of mothers against the general will of fathers, based on an assumption that mothers know better. I believe that parents should negotiate on matters related to the child’s well-being, that neither should have the right to make a unilateral decision on such matters, and that the parent whose life experience the issue relates to most closely should have the stronger right to be heard on the issue. In fact I consider this general principle a far more important matter than the specific right of parental choice regarding circumcision itself.

    Does that make sense?

  3. I must admit that I was taken aback when I heard the ruling in Germany about this. In South Africa there are ads on TV encouraging men to get circumcised (for free at certain medical facilities), even though it is painful to do it later on in life – the premise is that its more hygienic and thus serves as an aid in preventing AIDS (Note: it obviously doesn’t prevent HIV and AIDS). That whole trauma to the boy is nonsense – and my parents were well on the same page in this debate…
    As for further debate on the topic of parents and children – it leads to the case of spanking – and does that constitute abuse. Dr. Phil had a debate about that. FYI, I was spanked and I turned out fine, though this too is quite a sensitive topic, crossing cultural barriers

  4. Yes it does make sense.

    Whilst I agree that there is an issue of cultural freedom and control. I am not sure about this comment claiming circumcision being safest and harmless practice considering that some of the risks from this practice when it is done under the best conditions are:

    a) scarred penis
    b) loss of head of penis
    c) loss of penis
    d) death (17 a year known in the US – not many but still)

    I have just written a short summary of this topic on my blog (first post for a year). I like the way you have incorporated those images in your writing – to make it more interesting. I am not a seasoned blogger like yourself!

    Cheers
    Julian

    • Ah, Julian! Didn’t recognize you there.
      Practice makes perfect with this hobby, and I still have a lot to learn on formatting.

      I agree that besides parental control the issue of the medical harms and benefits deserves very careful consideration, and if there are a significant number of deaths that result, not from incompetent execution of the procedure, but due to the dangers of the procedure itself, then that would trump all of my other arguments. I haven’t had time to carefully research that particular factor yet.

      Cheers, David

  5. I don’t think it is up to parents to decide medical harms. Medical harms and benefits are decided by evidence based trials. Regarding circumcision I know of no evidence that a circumcised cock is more appealing than an uncircumcised one. Are uncircumcised men rushing to get some of their foreskin cut off? No.

    The case against male circumcision is simple.

    It is not morally permissible to cut off part of another’s sexual organs, or to cut parts off another in general for non-medical reasons i.e., as part of a religious ritual.

    The same principle is at work with female genital circumcision or mutilation.

    It is simply not enough to say that this is not a big deal as was said of female genital circumcision and physical punishment as a way of disciplining children. Human introspection is on the whole a fairly rubbish faculty when taking place over long stretched of time and looking at those who have already had this practised on is open to all sorts of distortion.

    We know that cutting infants involves a harm to them that they do not want (we see them bleed, they try to resist, that is why they have to be held down) even if many adults can no longer recall this (those that can recall it are less fortunate). I think a better test of this practice is whether adults would want to voluntarily sign up as a test of commitment to their religion or for whatever reasons they want than ask whether those who have already undergone think it damaged them or is a big deal. If someone stabs me in the arm or leg with their small pen knife today, I am not likely to think it a big deal come my last hour. This doesn’t make the practice of stabbing people with your pen knife morally justifiable.

    The other issue that complicates factors is that the state is inevitably involved in this because this operation is being requested by parents for the state to perform. Without the state interfering the practice would incur even greater risks.

    Like I said at the start it strikes me as a basic moral principle that cutting infants for non-medical reasons is just wrong.

    I think that if you want to cut someone in the name of your faith cut your own dick.

    • That last bit I find more emotional than rational. I’m not going to challenge your right to a loving relationship with your foreskin; I’m just saying that I have no qualms about life without one, and I really don’t feel at all deprived.

      The only benefit of keeping it that has ever been pointed out to me is that many guys with one enjoy rubbing the fluids that build up underneath it around on the head of their cock. So circumcised guys might have a slight disadvantage in masturbation technique. But as I pointed out here a couple months ago, that has never seriously limited our capacity to get ourselves off when we want to. When it comes to penetrative sex there is plenty of other lubrication naturally available, making those fluids irrelevant.

      The disadvantages of a foreskin are that it collects bacteria and other toxins around the head of the penis, increasing the risk of things ranging from minor infections to the nastiest of STDs. (For those who are stupid enough to expose themselves to risks of HIV/AIDS, circumcised guys are actually only half as likely to catch it by putting their cocks in dangerous places.)

      When our ancient ancestors were running through the bush in the buff, the foreskin also served a very valuable purpose of keeping the penis head from getting scratched up by passing branches and briers, but for the past 5000 years that hasn’t been a serious consideration, and so a number of cultures began a practice of removing this extra bit of skin. Eventually it became encoded in some religious texts, but only after it had shown some benefit as a medical expedient.

      The argument from emotional trauma of the operation itself I find rather weak. If it is done to boys as teenagers, in part as a test of courage (as Nelson Mandela tells about in the early part of his autobiography), then I can see where it could have lasting psychological effects, but I have never seen any evidence that circumcised men are in any way less psychologically balanced than uncut ones, nor that they become more violent or reactionary because of a subconscious memory of such pains.

      So the one valid argument I see as worth considering is whether the risks of the operation itself in terms of infections, improper healing and risk of fatality outweigh the hygienic advantages and traditional identity factors associated with the operation. On that I consider the jury to still be out, and therefor I still strongly recommend the choice being left up to the parents.

      You can have a last word on this, but then I think I’ll close off this discussion here.

      Cheers, David

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