Thursday, June 28, 2012

A sensitive subject

When I read about the German court that ruled against circumcision for religious reasons (i.e. as practiced by Muslims and Jews), I confess that my thoughts immediately, involuntarily, embarrassingly, went to that scene from Europa Europa, where the Jewish boy hiding out and trying to pass as a Hitler Youth is confronted with the anatomical alteration that would immediately give him away. It was probably in that context that I first learned about circumcision.

Because I suspect I'm not alone in having been raised in such a way as to be let's say startled when I see something in the news about the German state restricting the behavior of Jews and other religious/ethnic minorities, I want to be very clear that Germany banning circumcision of minors is in no way 'history repeating itself.' (In the words of Basil Fawlty, incapable of taking his own advice, "Don't mention the war!" A tenet I realize I violated in the paragraph above, but in the interest of explaining how not to look at this issue.) There are plenty of reasons to oppose chopping off part of a child's genitalia that have nothing to do with anti-Other discrimination. If Germany really thinks male circumcision is harmful, then this shift is about protecting Jewish and Muslim boys. Germany should not feel compelled, on account of that-which-shall-not-be-mentioned, to allow Jews and other ethnic/religious minorities to continue traditions that it deems child abuse.

This issue brings to mind the French "ostentatious religious symbols" ban. The point of the measures is not to exclude everyone of a certain ethnicity, but to force assimilation to the country's values. That said, as with the headscarf law, these interventions can't always be taken at face value. While we don't interpret the headscarf law to mean that France is gearing up for anti-Muslim genocide, we do wonder if the French tradition of anti-Muslim (esp. anti-North African) xenophobia, rooted in French colonialism, doesn't enter into this, alongside genuine concerns about sexism and the veil. Laws like these do exclude, but they do so on the basis of behavior. Which is still bad, from an "Anglo-Saxon" (U.S. and U.K.) multiculturalist perspective, but it could be worse. 

Still, if there's reason to suspect that a "concern" for minorities is, in part, a pretext for go-back-where-you-came-from, let's-stay-homogeneous, you should be allowed to point this out. It should be possible to have a conversation about where the enthusiasm for banning religious circumcision is coming from, without accusing everyone with this stance of malice (some people genuinely think it's child abuse), and without accusing whichever contingent is acting for less-than-savory reasons of being a Nazi.

Anyway, the issue is compelling, and not just because we get to read about Putzke the penologist in an article about male genitalia. It's compelling because it's incredibly complicated.

It shouldn't be all that difficult even for, for example, American Jews, doubly used to the idea of male circumcision, to see that if you think about it in the abstract, the practice sounds bizarre. And any argument along the lines of, 'but this is how our religion has always done things' is, on its own, unconvincing. This argument basically invites a list of the harmful things done in the name of religion, things the state absolutely has the right to outlaw, such as honor killings, and most obviously female "circumcision," which in fact causes harm.

The complicating detail with male circumcision is that, as odd as it is if you stop and think about it, as weird as it must sound if you grew up unfamiliar with the concept, it's unclear that the act constitutes harm. It has some benefits, most obviously the STD-related findings. We vaccinate young girls (and boys) against HPV, as backup in case abstinence/barrier methods fail/are not used, not in lieu of encouraging safer sex. Depending where you live, I suppose the choice your parents made (whichever it was) might make you more or less appealing to sexual partners, although this is the sort of thing I suspect neither makes nor breaks any relationships other than the ones that begin under the absolute sleaziest, swapping-of-photographs circumstances. Claims that uncircumcised men will never get a date in America, or that circumcised men will never enjoy sex are self-evident nonsense.

The "harm" the German court referred to - that "the child's body would be 'permanently and irreparably changed', and that this alteration went 'against the interests of a child to decide for himself later on to what religion he wishes to belong'" - doesn't quite make sense. An irreversible change, yes. Not definitively a change for the worse, but if you believe any choice parents make that's permanent is a problem, then this would be a problem. It's certainly "harm" if you think of it as, imagine if parents abducted their 20-year-old son and had this done to him against his will. How much of that aspect carries over when it comes to those much younger is debatable.

Meanwhile, and this is what I really can't fathom, how does being circumcised determine your religion as an adult? It expands your options, right? Makes it less of a problem if you do want to join up with one of the ones that require this. I've never heard of a foreskin requirement for atheism or Christianity. Is a baby who's been baptized not allowed to change its mind later on? There are plenty of kids and adults whose parents did whichever ceremony, often to please the grandparents, and the kid's hardly even aware of it, perhaps entirely unaware. (In the U.S., of course, being circumcised, even if you're Jewish, doesn't mean you had a bris.)

As you may have gathered, I'm something of an agnostic on this issue. I see the arguments for OMG-it's-barbaric, and for OMG-Germany-is-calling-Muslims-and-Jews-barbaric. All I know is that this practice should be banned, and that if I ever have a son, you're not going to know either way.


Britta said...

Well, barrier methods can't really prevent the spread of HPV all that well. Circumcision has been shown to somewhat reduce STD rates in certain sub-Saharan countries, but there's no general link to higher STD rates in countries which don't circumcise vs. countries which do. The US has higher STD rates than most (all?) Northern European countries, so it's not really a compelling reason for first world parents to base their decision to circumcise on.

I'm also agnostic on circumcision. Personally I lean towards not making permanent body modifications on an infant, especially ones which do have some marginal risk of potential harm (even if mild), however I don't feel strongly enough about it that I think it should be outlawed, or that I think that it outweighs everything else.

I also think the religion issue is sticky. My general tendency is to be pro-religious freedom, so I have an attitude of "hey, I'm not Jewish/Muslim, so I can't really have a strong opinion on this," but I know that if circumcision were Christian and being justified based on religious tradition, I would probably be against it, just like I am unsympathetic the Pope's claim that birth control or gay marriage violates religious tradition.

In fact, given the strong Kantian morality of Scandinavia and Germany, to allow circumcision for religious minorities actually signals their Otherness, because the categorical imperative strongly means that if X is moral in one case, it is moral in all cases, no exceptions. So if you decide that circumcision is a harm to baby boys, to decide it's ok to allow harm to X group's baby boys is in essence to say that these babies don't count in some fundamental way. In a way then, to outlaw circumcision with no exceptions actually signals, "we treat Muslims and Jews how we treat all our citizens, rather than holding them apart." Of course, this can be a limitation of Kantian morality, but knocking it as knee-jerk racism is the wrong way to criticize it.

Britta said...

To state the 2nd part better, the circumcision ban is based on a seeing citizens as liberal individual subjects all deserving of state protection of rights (whatever those might be). For the state to fail to protect the rights of certain individuals based on group affiliation is, from one framework, to profoundly fail those individuals, in this case Jewish/Muslim baby boys. In this sense, this is a relation of the state to an individual deserving of rights separate from family background. The idea of freedom of religion, like the exercise of any right, stops when it causes harm to others, much like certain groups aren't allowed to refuse medical care for their children based on religious beliefs, since the harm committed to one individual (the child, who can't consent to give up rights) is far greater than the harm to the parent (the harm of having one's religious practices infringed on.)

Again, cases like this show the limitations of the liberal framework. I can also how what claims to be a neutral form or framework (rights protection, the categorical imperative, whatever) actually does have content which is culturally specific, as people like Talal Asad have pointed out in different contexts.

Phoebe said...


Kant, perhaps? Is the categorical imperative what explains why promoting assimilation over multiculturalism is something common to liberal Western nations that are neither the US nor the UK? Even France?

I get that there are different ways of approaching difference, but an ostensibly pro-assimilation, everyone's-the-same approach will often enough coincide with discrimination and efforts to further exclude. If you take this into account, it becomes harder to take the 'we'd welcome them if only they played by our rules' arguments seriously. I mean, some are sincere, many are not.

In terms of "racism" here, my impression when I hear that a judge has decided to make fighting religious circumcision his cause is very much like my impression when I hear that a European leader (or Westerner of Christian ancestry more generally) has decided of all the causes in the world, the one he cares about is Israel-Palestine, or when right-wing French politicians who are not otherwise such great feminists all of a sudden oppose the veil because they think it's oppressive to women. It's tough to call individual cases, but it's clear enough that sometimes, issues like these are used as a pretext for discrimination against already-disliked groups. Even if, taken in isolation, their critiques of circumcision/Israel/veiling are valid and important, if the broader picture reveals more sinister concerns, that needs to be taken into account. Which is difficult, because the point isn't to turn these into taboo subjects. People shouldn't feel preemptively silenced on them, but at the same time, members of the relevant minority groups and their allies should be allowed to notice when a person/state only cares about some bleeding-heart issue when it offers an opportunity to denounce them.

But it isn't necessarily even something as dramatic as coded racism. Sometimes Western Europeans who identify as secular, enlightened, etc. will accuse minority groups of backwards, superstitious religiosity forget that much of what they're looking at is Jewish/Muslim/etc. culture (variants thereof), forgetting that their own culture is not The Universal but in fact a particular culture with massive, inescapable Christian influences. Sundays and Christian holidays, stuff's closed, and, in the case of Cologne, where this case was, a massive (and gorgeous) cathedral that dominates the town. But these things aren't Christian, they're just normal!

I mention this because so much of the response to this on comments sections and the like has been about these barbarians who mutilate children so that God won't strike them down. When Jews and probably Muslims are often doing it for cultural reasons, and are otherwise barely- or non-observant, and thus certainly don't expect to be struck down by a god they might not even believe in if they don't abide by tradition. This, in turn, brings up Postcolonial Studies 101 issues about power, definitions of civilization, etc. It feels a bit as though this is Germany (well, some in Germany speaking for that nation) looking for ways to present Jews and Muslims as uncivilized.

All of which was my longwinded way of saying that I think it's possible to be both unenthusiastic about circumcision and wary of any movement that would make this the issue of the century.

Britta said...

Well, insofar as Kant was a philosopher of liberalism and read and was read by other philosophers all over western Europe, it's not all that surprising that one finds this sort of general attitude in Europe. One difference wrt Kant's moral philosophy is that it was never tempered by Utilitarianism in Scandinavia, and less so in Germany. Also, Scandinavians credit their less shameful WW2 behavior to adherence to deontological morality, and Germans tend to berate themselves for abandoning it.

Also, Kantianism isn't the only strain of political thought prominent in Europe or Germany. A notable alternative was German Romanticism, which was a backlash to liberalism. Its early proponent, Johann Herder made many prescient points about how liberalism could be used to justify colonialism and cultural oppression in the name of 'individual rights.' Of course, Herder later got a very bad name (pretty unfairly, if you read his actual writing) from promoting 'ein reich, ein volk, ein sprach' and thus Nazism. Since German Romanticism was later blamed for Nazism (along with anti-humanism), there's a strong sense that if one abandons liberalism, Fascism is the only alternative. While not true and sometimes used to stifle the conversation, it has some sort of historical resonance, so it's not always made in bad faith. If anything, this idea is more common in France than in Germany. Certainly the rhetoric of the mainstream French press and even in some French social science writings around the headscarf ban was essentially "laicite or Vichy." Surprisingly, this view was held by the French center-left as much as the French center-right, including prominent anti-racist and Muslim rights groups in France, like SOS Racisme or Ni Poutes Ni Soumises.

I'm not saying this ban is a good idea or that it isn't based on anti-Semitism, but that there are good faith (if wrong) reasons why someone who thinks circumcision is harmful would be against religious exemptions. Also, given the timing of the bans, I would say these bans are aimed at Muslims, and Jews are collateral damage. Sweden banned circumcision a few years ago, and allowed for religious exemptions within the first few months of birth, effectively allowing Jewish circumcision but not many forms Muslim circumcision that are done at age 12-13.

Phoebe said...


I completely agree that at this moment in history, and given the case that instigated it, a ban on religious circumcision in Germany or probably anywhere in Europe is about Muslims more than Jews. That said, there's an important Jewish angle, esp. in Germany, which is that in the early 20th century and earlier, German Jews felt themselves German (despite, presumably, practicing circumcision, although I feel as though this was contested even then), only to be told that they were a foreign element. My point isn't in some general sense, Think Of WWII, but rather that there's something unsettling about Germany treating circumcision like it's this strange foreign import, something done by unassimilated immigrants. This is something that I suppose I think whenever discussions in Europe are of "Jews and Muslims," when the "Muslims" in question are relatively recent immigrants (although not necessarily that recent, and there are also problems when multigeneration Europeans of Muslim origin are referred to as "immigrants"), as though it's something new for these countries to have Jewish minorities, as if Jewish traditions are this wild and crazy thing they've never had to contend with until the last few years.

Re: Fascism vs. the pro-assimilation approach, I think that does explain the pro-assimilation left in these countries, and is helpful to point out to baffled American liberals, who can't understand why a progressive would favor restricting, say, the veil. But what I was getting at in the previous comment was that the exclusionary impulse and the aggressively inclusionary one can often be found in the very same people and policies.

PG said...

Isn't an anti-circumcision movement on the grounds of cruelty to minors a relatively recent trend? I think even in San Francisco, it's only been around since 1990.

However, there's been a pretty longstanding discussion in bioethics circles about how much pain babies actually feel, and how best to deal with it, not only in the context of circumcision but with regard to any pain caused to babies. I remember someone in my internship seminar who was placed in the NICU did his final project on anesthesia for infants, and talked about the Jewish tradition of dipping a clean piece of cotton in very sweet wine, and giving the baby that to suck on during circumcision. This use of anesthesia was really unusual because historically non-Jews mostly thought that babies didn't really feel pain, I think something to do with lack of memory.

In evaluating underlying motives for government officials to take an interest in this, I'd be curious to see if they also want to mandate an age minimum for piercings. The impetus for such a rule probably still would be somewhat Other based, as I don't see white people getting their daughters' ears or noses pierced before the girls ask for it themselves. But it could help to break out whether this circumcision ban is only seeing certain religion-based cultures (Muslim, Jewish) as barbaric, or if there's a genuine opposition to inflicting pain on kids for *any* cultural, non-medical reason.

David Schraub said...

I'm probably not going to have time to get to this on my blog, but I hate to leave my readers hanging (especially with so little time left on the blog).

So my main thought on this is that multiculturalism attunes us to the idea that alternate cultural practices have independent worth that ought play into our moral calculus. Not infinite worth, of course -- saying "it's my cultural" doesn't and shouldn't outweigh everything -- but it should enter our minds as an important consideration. When one doesn't think that way, one tends to look at what practices are important to ourselves, say "well, I don't really care much about circumcision, therefore, it's nothing essential or important", and weigh that "objective" unimportance against countervailing considerations (like not doing optional medical procedures on infants). It's the implicit belief that those in power have a view from nowhere, and can sort other cultural practice into "acceptable idiosyncracies" or "barbaric tribalism" that's the problem. It displays neither proper levels of epistemic humility, nor due respect for pluralism, and either way it contributes to cultural domination.

Phoebe said...


"Isn't an anti-circumcision movement on the grounds of cruelty to minors a relatively recent trend?"

No idea. Googling for two seconds hasn't shown me anything pre-1980s. Evidently laws against kosher animal slaughter are older than that. But it would seem that increasing awareness of child abuse would be needed for many to consider this issue through that lens.

"[...] I don't see white people getting their daughters' ears or noses pierced before the girls ask for it themselves"


Plus, even if there were no such law re: ear/nose piercings (and it seems like there isn't, going by the first thing that pops up of you google 'ear piercing babies germany' - three year olds aren't infants, but that's still a decision coming from the parents), the point could be made that piercings close up (which they don't, in my experience - the double pierce I begged for as an adolescent and forgot about soon after isn't going anywhere), and that the genitals are not involved. Part of the problem people have with circumcision is that it involves an adult touching a child's genitals for non-medical, non-bathing reasons. That alone is, to some, "rape," even before the knife comes out. Whereas you can touch a child's ear or nose in a playful way (not sure why you would, but it's conceivable) without that alone counting as assault. And there isn't, for ear-piercing, at least, as far as I know, any religious component, so you're not determining a child's religion. (Not that you are with circumcision, but that's what they're arguing.) Point being, even if ear/nose-piercing are allowed, there'd still be non-xenophobic justifications for banning circumcision.


Thanks for weighing in when summoned! And for providing exactly what I'd have said if I could manage to be concise. Because you get right to the point: we shouldn't assume that because 'a religion/culture demands it' isn't enough to make something OK, these considerations shouldn't factor in at all. There's a spectrum from honor killings on down. Where circumcision falls on that spectrum... doesn't need to be taken for granted, and certainly might change over time, differ according to different societies, etc. (As in, there was no right to same-sex marriage in settings where no marriages were love matches, and there was no presumption they'd be anything but symbolic alliances.) It's quite plausible that in some Jewish communities, the practice will come to seem abhorrent. But given how ambiguous the "harm" issue is in this case, and that "harm" could actually be attributed to either decision (liberal societies also valuing reduced incidence of STDs - and Britta, re: the U.S. vs. Europe on that front, different values/sex ed probably account for this), it's not self-evident that banning male circumcision is OK.

Britta said...

Ok, lest people think my voicing of European liberalism is my actual opinion, I generally agree with David and Phoebe. Religious or cultural tradition isn't an unimportant reason and should be weighed carefully against things like causing pain or body modification of those who can't consent. My main point is that "ooh, Nazism" or "ooh, racism" isn't a very helpful or accurate lens for viewing the assertion of very pro-assimilation policies in Europe. It's not that I think assimilation is good, or that people ought not to be allowed to practice their religion (I think headscarves in schools and circumcision ought to be legal), but rather, from a European perspective, there are much worse alternatives to assimilation, and a collective memory of this informs the conversation. That said, these sorts of pro-assimilationist policies can be made in bad faith and be a way of simply masking racism or anti-Semitism, but that's not the only interpretation.

CW said...

Isn't the relative lack of political power also an issue here? The Jewish community in Germany is very small and much of the Muslim community is disenfranchised (I believe even those born in Germany found it hard to become citizens until relatively recently). I think it may be a little too easy for a German judge to give no weight to the importance of circumcission as a Jewish/Muslim cultural practice, and that it wouldn't be the case if either or both groups were more visible and powerful.

Phoebe said...


I think you and I (and David, but he can speak for himself) agree: that the pro-assimilation approach is flawed, but that it isn't inherently racist. A strict postcolonial-theory-type approach would probably say otherwise, that any such intervention is a "violence" to the marginalized groups in question, but that's not where you or I stand on this. It's possible to have something of a multiculturalist approach when looking at how different open societies deal with difference. France has its way, the U.S. has another, etc.

What I'm trying to get at, and perhaps being insufficiently articulate in explaining, is that while pro-assimilation is indeed, as you say, seen as an alternative to racism, Fascism, that part of modern European history, it's also, I believe, an attitude that very often coincides with less progressive impulses. Racism and xenophobia did not vanish from Europe in 1945 (while Nazism, which was specific to a time and place, largely did), but are now expressed in different ways. One of those ways is in the guise of progressivism. It's not always so easy to tell when you're looking at the European alternative to America's approach to dealing with difference, and when you're looking at the guise variety.

Point being, while I don't think 'OMG Europe's at it again' is the right response, I also don't adhere to the 'those folks learned their lesson and then some, so don't dare ever accuse a European/German of racism unless they're an actual honest-to-goodness neo-Nazi' approach, which might not be precisely what you're suggesting, but which is also out there and needing to be argued against.

Britta said...

Oh no, I do think that the assimilationist approach can be and often is underlaid by racism. I mean, what's hard is that both assimilationism and non-assimilationism 1) can be racist, and 2) are used to argue that the other one is racist. On the one hand, what is considered 'neutral' or 'objective' in a society is usually based on implicit cultural norms, and thus assimilation, even when claiming not to do this, often requires the minority to conform to the majority, often in culturally compromising ways. At the extreme, it leads to the complete loss of a culture ('cultural genocide'), like with residential boarding schools for Native Americans. On the other hand, 'celebration of difference' can turn into an argument that the other is just different, and can lead to segregation and blatant, "justified" unequal treatment. At the extreme, it can lead to claims of radical alterity incompatible with a nation state, the remedies of which are usually expulsion or just straight up genocide.

These viewpoints aren't totally separate but can coincide, like, in the worst case scenario, you can have genocide and cultural genocide mixed together (assimilate or we'll kill you), as with American/Australian indigenous people, or the Spanish inquisition. Ideally, you can also have recognition and acceptance of certain cultural differences alongside the idea that people are fundamentally similar in certain ways, and can successfully cohabit a nation-state or public sphere.

Of course...what's hard is how do you deal with cultural traditions which aren't compatible? Or, if you do have a sense that individuals ought to have some sorts of rights and the state's job is to protect them, what counts as a right? As you point out, it's easy to do that with certain traditions, like the right to kill your daughter for violating your honor or the right to deny your child medical care because you think prayer cures everything, as we can say the right to life of the child outweighs the right to kill someone for your religion. With circumcision, IF you do see it as legitimate harm, then yes, it would be natural to see it as something babies should be protected against. ( PG notes, the trend away from routine circumcision in the US can be seen as part of a larger questioning of science and technology as automatically improving our lives. Home birth and suspicion of GM foods are also related to the trend of questioning modifying what's natural in the name of hygiene or safety. Obviously, in N. Europe there's always been an ethnic aspect to circumcision, but who's supporting the ban and what sort of rhetoric is being used would have to be empirically investigated. As of now, it's hard to know if this culturally oblivious and insensitive crunchiness, racism, or some combo of the two.)
Of course, the problem is, of course, whether it actually is a harm. I haven't done an in-depth study, but AFAIK Jewish men for the most part don't feel harmed by circumcision, and many men see the sense of cultural/religious group connection as a positive.

/novel over

Britta said...

Oh, I'm more circumspect about this now than I would have been 10 years ago because I wrote my BA thesis on the headscarf ban in France. When I first heard about it, my initial response was "oh, racism." I spent time in Paris interviewing Muslims, people at anti-racist organizations, school children and employees, plus following the French media and reading French academic stuff on this, and I realized that my initial understanding of the issue was basically totally wrong. While racism and France's colonial past weren't not involved, and at no point did I change my mind and think the ban was a good idea, my American viewpoint involved taking lots of people in very bad faith and misunderstanding motives and issues involved in a way no one else involved--including the people affected by the ban--did. Anyways, now as someone who's supposed to study complex cultural phenomena, I'm always reluctant to make an initial prognosis on things without knowing more about what's going on.

Phoebe said...


I think, when we're talking about the possible racist angle of pro-assimilation policy, we're talking about two different things. One is when pro-assimilation is actually forced assimilation, and does in fact constitute a major imposition/violence. (Your "residential boarding schools for Native Americans" example.) The other, and the one I had in mind, was more that the actual request is on its face reasonable, at least within a European framework (no veils at school, for example), and is supported by some for good reasons, but the only reason X% of those worked-up about the issue have gotten involved is that they already have it in for Muslims, and this is a socially-acceptable outlet for that sort of expression. That's the angle I think applies in this case.