ON OCTOBER 9, The Good Men Project published a piece entitled “Please Respect Our Circum-Decision.” The author, Renee Lute, asks for tolerance regarding the decision to circumcise her son, writing “I could not care less whether other people circumcise their sons or not. Do it if you want! Don’t if you don’t want! But I am begging you—begging you—to not make families who choose to circumcise their sons feel like they are abusers of children, or human rights violators.”
Ms. Lute says she has read blistering assaults against parents on other threads about circumcision. “I wasn’t prepared,” she writes, “for some of the name-calling I found … Terms like ‘pro-cutters,’ ‘circumcision enthusiasts,’ and ‘mouth breathing Americans who have circumcised their sons…’” At 198 comments and counting, the tone of responses to Ms. Lute’s plea at TGMP are mostly polite. Some express anger and frustration in a measured way. Others are so straightforward as to seem emotionless. One commenter, identified as “Dave” (October 9, 2013 at 6:51 pm), responds, “I’m really glad to read the comments to this article; on the whole they are respectful while pointing out just how misguided the author is in her rationale… I would agree that it is important to keep a respectful tone in discussion, but I do not for a minute respect the opinion itself and won’t defer to it.”
To be civil and to be critical are not mutually exclusive. One can criticize, disagree and argue without ugly language. Yes, I’ve seen the kinds of attacks she references: responses which lend credence to the idea that Intactivists are so uncivil as to make their defense of the innocents seem incongruous. But for someone who is already on the defensive, even the most logical argument may feel like an attack. Outrage, however nobly expressed, is threatening to anyone with buried doubts. When Ms. Lute calls for “respect” for her decision, what she is really asking is not to be criticized at all.
The concept of righteous anger, which exists in Eastern and Western cultures, religions and philosophies, is at the root of most activism: channeled anger leading to positive change. But what happens when anger impedes discourse? As someone who opposes non-consensual circumcision, I must check my own anger before reading articles in favor of genital cutting. Usually the Intactivist movement, which opposes routine infant circumcision, is treated with condescension. Men who feel they have been harmed by circumcision are dismissed by men (“my penis works just fine”) and women (“put on your big-boy pants, uncut dicks are gross”) alike. Parents defend their choice to circumcise, holding parental rights above a child’s genital integrity. Intactivists are called loons, conspiracy theorists and anti-Semitic for refusing to budge on exceptions for religious custom.
The Intactivist fight is based on one thing: allowing the child to grow up and decide for himself. Conversely, parents who have given the matter careful consideration are interested in the well-being of their sons. These parents claim, among many reasons, that circumcision, routine in America but NOT in a majority of the world, is necessary for a boy’s health. (Intactivists say this is not so, as do the medical societies of most European nations, Australia and Canada.) For an Intactivist, the instinct to nurture a child negates anything which might harm him: cutting off an infant boy’s foreskin is anathema.
On the other end of the spectrum is the parent whose decision starts with “Ewww… it’s weird,” as if the human body isn’t just plain weird all over. Parents defend their choice across a spectrum from “Ew” to “Medical necessity,” but all cling to the right to make choices for their children, even though that right is not unlimited.
No one I know argues that a parent is not responsible for the child’s well-being. Health care choices, schooling, nutrition – parents accept all of these responsibilities in an unspoken contract when they decide to bear children. But do they have unlimited freedom? No. The law prohibits parents from putting a child in harm’s way. Georganne Chapin, the founding executive director of Intact America, says: “We do not own our children. Our responsibility is to protect their rights, not to violate their rights.”
The necessity for surgical intervention is much lower than Americans believe. Even as I try to understand the rationale of the other side, I must skip reading articles about circumcision because my own anger is just too much. The arguments are always the same: circumcision lowers instances of urinary tract infections (when infant girls suffer UTI’s they are treated with antibiotics, not surgery); it lowers instances of sexually transmitted disease (as if an infant is going to be sexually active); it prevents phimosis (an anatomical malfunction treatable without surgery); he’ll never remember it (probably, but we don’t fully understand what happens to buried trauma); it doesn’t hurt (because a baby has nerves everywhere but in his penis?); it’s cleaner (because you can’t be bothered teaching your child to wash?); most guys are glad they are circumcised (anecdotal – anyway, an assumption is not a good reason to cut off a part of your son’s penis); I want him to look like his dad (because they’re going to compare penises???); what if he is made fun of by other children (if a bully wants to bully, he will find a way); and, finally, I’m the parent so it’s my choice.
The notion of pre-emptive surgery for issues which are a) minor; b) easily treated without amputation; or c) unlikely to occur, is unconscionable to those of us who believe in genital integrity. But the topic of genital integrity triggers a shut-down in which parents’ choice is the most important thing. This is when the debate can turn shrill.
When I reposted Ms. Lute’s article for the benefit of compatriots in the Intactivist community, I asked for civility when responding. Like the comments on The Good Men Project article, some were angry, but none bore the venom I have seen in other forums. One friend said, “I can’t be civil so I’ll hold my tongue.” I understood that answer. It’s a respectful one. Unable to suppress the blinding rage described by some men, he chose instead to share with those of us who understand.
Strong language is used in rebuttal. Some use the term ritual cutting, genital cutting or Male Genital Mutilation (MGM the parallel term to FGM which is applied to women.) “Amputation” sounds horrific but it is the clinical term. Other men feel as if they have been raped. This is not euphemism. Euphemism serves neither side and making someone else feel comfortable is not the goal. The goal is to present the facts, no matter how difficult they may be. Intactivists say parents considering circumcision for their newborn should witness one before making the decision. If you can’t face the the truth, how will you parent?
Ms. Chapin’s opinion on the conversation is that “…the opportunity is in educating the readers – not addressing the parents who made and are defending the decision to circumcise their son. Perhaps some of those reading the comments will listen to the human rights arguments for leaving children’s bodies intact.”
I do my best to follow her philosophy. I do not try to shock, cajole or berate; I simply present the facts. One cannot know what will trigger another person. Keeping the conversation civil while sharing a contrary point of view can be done with non-combative language, though if someone is triggered even the most respectful tone can seem like an attack.