Discussing a Thorny Topic

I (Matthew) had a fascinating dialogue on g-chat earlier today with Anne, another one of the contributors to this blog. At one point we began to discuss a recent post on the blog Sociological Images about the practice that is variously known as female circumcision, female genital cutting, or female genital mutilation. The fact that people can’t even agree on what to call the practice speaks to the fierceness of the debate surrounding it. The growing comment thread on the original Sociological Images post speaks to this debate and to the emotions and passions it engenders. It is with these passions in mind that Anne and I wish to assure readers that we both are NOT in favor of ethnocentrism or of the mutilation of women!! I would also like to apologize in advance for the mispellings and imperfect sentence structure you’ll find in my portion of the conversation – I assure you that I do know how to spell the word “certain” and that any indication otherwise is a reflection of accidental transposition resulting from typing too fast!

Matthew: Hey speaking of Sociological Images, did you see their latest post? I put it on facebook – it’s becoming quite the brouhaha.
Anne: I saw that
 I don’t disagree with the original post…there should be a way to see things in less black and white
it is weird because she has to start from the position of defending an unpopular practice
Matthew: Yeah, but why should she feel obligated to defend it? Because it’s associated with a group of people (Africans/Muslims) that are targeted with unfair generalizations and discrimination? It seems like you should be able to denounce the generalizations and discrimination without having to accept every single practice that’s associated with that culture. In fact, if Lisa Wade feels she must defend it because it’s associated with Africans and Africans are targets of oppression and discrimination, it seems like she’s undercutting her own argument that we shouldn’t call it an “African practice.”
Anne: Is she an Africanist?
Is that even a thing?
Matthew: It’s really like the old orthodox/progressive divide. Are some things (like female gential cutting/circumcision/mutiliation) inherently bad or is it a matter of perspective and dependent on the culture and circumstances in question? On this issue I do sort of have some orthodox inclinations, at least as long as we’re talking about minors.
Anne: I definitely feel like it is a silly thing for Westerners to get up in arms about because the judgement is one way
It is like how I don’t always think that human rights are universal
Not that some women deserve to be cut but if it is done in a way in which there is no lasting damage who are we to say they can’t do it
In Timore there was a woman who was being abused by her husband and an NGO told her to divorce her husband because she had equal rights and shouldn’t be treated that way
but when she did leave her husband no one would take her in and she was shunned from her community and the NGO had to take care of her
It just seems like there could be a middle ground between do it our way and extreme abuse
Matthew: Yeah…I feel like you might get an argument in terms of no lasting damage…what do you mean by “the judgment is one way”?
Anne: Timorese and Haitians have plenty to critique America about but their criticism won’t result in policy changes
and our criticism of them does
Timorese were shocked by our treatment of Katrina victims (especially since we were so nice to tsunami victims) and Haitians think it is terrible that people are homeless in America
but they can’t force legislation in America to address those things
Matthew: True…it sort of seems like maybe the furor over female circumcision is an example of how much easier it is to target and address things like direct infringements of bodily integrity than it is to untangle the knot of structural factors that produce things like homelessness.
And I recognize that “direct infringements of bodily integrity” is kind of a normative judgement. But I feel like some notion of universal human rights is justified or desirable…
We already have that to a certain extent….slavery in the direct notion of “person a owns person b” is pretty much universally condemend. What gets trickier is if you start talking about something that’s not as specifically boiled down to indviduals, like “Americans are enslaved to capitalism”
Anne: I feel like people attack FGC(M) and not other instances of bodily integrity (i.e. teeth shaving, facial tattoos, piercings, etc) because it is sexy
if you care about protecting bodies than you should work to end all forms of “mutilation”
*teeth filing
that is what it is called and it seems horribly painful to me
Matthew: True, but that’s sort of like “if you care about slavery you should work to end all forms of slavery, like how Americans are enslaved to capitaism.” Ideally we could do that, but if we want to minimize human suffering that’s happening right now, we have to make normative judgment calls about “bad, worse, worst.” And I think there’s a unique context surrounding female circumcision that, for many people, places it as a higher priority than something like a face tattoo – the fact that it’s minors involved, the entaglement with gender norms, the santitation of the procedures, and so on. And I know that mentioning sanitation can be seen as a reinforcement of overgeneralized nonsense like “Africa is dirty,” but again, we have to weigh certian goals against one another in order to make any sort of progress in fighting injustice
Anne: yes, in an ideal world that is what would happen. But ending the practice every where even where it is safe in clean is more like fighting against the slavery of capitalism than weighing the damage caused by the practice and trying to eliminate the worst
 which is what I think that person’s point was but people get so upset about it because they have this generalized image that all cutting is extreme and happens in dirty huts in Africa
 I am happy to say lets end the extreme end or encourage culturally sensitive campaigns to have it happen in controlled environments and limit damage (like what we do with male circumcision)
but it seems that people can not rationally discuss FGC(M) because they have an intense emotional response that tells them it is always wrong
You should blog about it 🙂
Matthew: True…but I think that this particular intense emotional response is a byproduct of the fact that sociologists/progressives have tried, quite rightly, to encourage those sorts of response to things like gender-based oppression (as well as other things, like racism). Describing them as “emotional” is kind of perjorative and might provoke an argument, but I do think that progressives do good work by encouraging people to often hold firmer on things like this – instead of saying “well, it’s not so bad that women are paid less because men have to support their families” or “it’s not so bad that women get harassed on the street, it’s just a passing annoyance” – we encourage people to stand against this and not make excuses for oppression. What makes the whole female circumcision debate so fascinating is the fact that it represents in intersection between two of these goals – the fight against gender oppression and the fight against ethnocentricism.
Anne: I guess…but I feel like it is similar to how people get upset about AIDS and malaria but not diarrhea and cancer in the developing world
they have ideas about things that want to change and there isn’t much flexibility
there isn’t lets reduce dangerous practices and encourage safe ones
it is “this is wrong” get rid of all of it
*I think AIDS and Malaria are bad but it is almost impossible to get funding to fight the diseases that people want to fight
like diarrhea which kills more children
it isn’t sexy so people don’t care
Good luck getting funding for a project to make FGC safe

3 thoughts on “Discussing a Thorny Topic

  1. The original post included a link to The Hastings Center Report:


    …which I am guessing very few people clicked on. Just one of many reasons to take a balanced look at FGC: “The horrifying, stigmatizing, and frequently erroneous or hyperbolic messages of the media, some activists, and well-meaning health educators and doctors may provoke what could be called “psychological mutilation”: being told that one is mutilated or is a victim of mutilation and that one should expect no sexual pleasure can compromise the development of a normal and healthy psychosexual life” this is in reference to the “victims” that find themselves now living in Western countries.

  2. I like this format, but I think instead of just saying it was a gchat, you could call it a conversation and clean it up a bit for publication on the site. Otherwise – I like the back and forth interview-y kind of thing! Also, if we ever meet famous people, we can ask them to do an interview with us if they don’t want to do a guest post!

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