Wednesday, July 25, 2012

one little prick and it's all over

It was a double helping of early morning shouting at the radio in the car last week. And a good thing too as I find it really sets me up for the day. Last Thursday's discussion was regarding circumcision, which has become a bit of a sore point (you see what I did there) again recently in the light of the German ruling against it. There's been some tremendously bonkers articles written in the British press about it in the last couple of weeks, for instance.

This particular bit, crammed into a 5-minute segment at the end of the Today programme, was a discussion between Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association and Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain; naturally I don't need to tell you who was on which side of the debate. Basically there are a few arguments generally trotted out in favour of ritual male circumcision, some of which Dr Romain managed to tick off on his Bullshit Bingo card during the short time available to him. Here we go:
  • It's traditional, innit? And cultural and religious and stuff like that. And any suggestion that things done for religious reasons are morally wrong in some way is literally an attack on the very right to exist of the people who hold that particular set of beliefs, so shut it.
  • Yes, it's primarily faith-driven, but it's also simultaneously totally for health reasons. Look, here's a study that says circumcised men are at lower risk of HIV infection.
  • Female "circumcision"! That's bad, isn't it? I think we can all agree on that. Well we don't condone that at all, goodness me no. And in comparison, male circumcision doesn't look so bad, does it?
  • We only do it on tiny babies, and they essentially either don't experience pain and trauma, or don't remember it afterwards. 
The problem with the first and third ones is that they contradict each other. Female genital mutilation is done for cultural and religious reasons as well, so really it should be immune from criticism, shouldn't it? Or, to flip the argument around, if your objection to FGM is that it's pointless violation for no good reason and to hell with the religious tradition stuff, well then that torpedoes your argument for male circumcision as well, doesn't it? As for the health benefits, well, it may be true that there are some statistics (though opinions differ as to their reliability) pointing to lower rates of various STDs in circumcised men, and of cervical cancer in their partners, but it seems highly likely to me that these statistics are skewed somewhat by the strong cultural prohibitions in societies that routinely practise circumcision (i.e. Jews and Muslims, mainly) against pre-marital sex and all that sort of fooling around. In any case, it would be possible to reduce the risk of these things to zero by removing the male genitalia altogether at birth, but I don't see anyone advocating that. I could also completely obviate the possibility of my baby daughter ever suffering from corns, ingrowing toenails or athlete's foot by chopping both of her feet off with a cleaver, but I'm not about to do that either. And as for the fourth point, well that's just bollocks.

Just as with the gay marriage thing, it's the remnants of the lily-livered cultural deference to certain particular brands of voodoo nonsense that's the problem here. I mean, if I went round carving lightning bolts into baby boys' penises with a Stanley knife because I totally believed that the Harry Potter stories were true and that this was what adherence to the books required, they'd put me away, and rightly so.

Two other things: firstly it's instructive to compare this furore with the one about tail-docking of dogs which has resulted in the practice being outlawed in most European countries, and question whether our collective moral compass is balanced quite as well as it could be. Secondly it does seem to me to be a pity that this ruling, which penalises Jews among others, should have been made in Germany, with all the associated cultural and historical baggage that entails in terms of policies which might be seen as discriminating against Jews. It muddies the waters a bit in terms of what is actually a pretty simple issue, i.e. - you're cutting baby boys' foreskins off? Just stop it, you mentalists. That's not to say, incidentally, that it's impossible for otherwise admirable anti-circumcision activism to have overtones of anti-Semitism about it - the slightly bizarre "intactivist" superhero Foreskin Man, for instance, while no doubt motivated by good intentions, is all a bit square-jawed Aryan crusader thwarting evil hook-nosed Jewish baby-mutilators to be an entirely comfortable read. Superheroes are inherently fascist anyway, as we know.

Then again, as I said before, the Germans are admirably tetchy about religious stuff in general, which I of course salute, particularly with regard to the Scientologists.

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