I committed to writing a post a week for the month of May on the above topic, because I attended a session called Social Media, Social Justice at the Northern Voice 2010 conference, and we were asked to make a concrete commitment in some area of social justice that was near and dear to us. This is post #1.
Although of course these posts are going to be about the medical and religious procedure most commonly know as circumcision, but let me first speak about values.
When I use the word values, I mean the moral weight and reasoning that we use to evaluate the world. We all have values, most of which are unspoken and unacknowledged, and they aren’t universal, even though it feels very much like they are. Values also aren’t entirely logical, though we can usually rationalize them, and our values can over time change through education and experience. I think it’s important to be able to speak our values so that people know where we’re coming from, so here’s a few of mine.
Value 1: People who choose to parent children have a responsibility to protect them from harm. This seems perhaps obvious, but there’s a lot of uncertainty on what that protection means. And what harm means, for that matter*. Nonetheless, once you know or suspect that a harm is occurring or likely will occur, it seems to me that by choosing to be a parent (an undoubtedly complicated choice) you also make a choice to take on the responsibility of protecting your child from that harm.
Value 2: People are more important than concepts. Concepts, including values and religious ideas, are intangible. And of course, they can be important. But for instance, it’s very difficult to say whether a concept has been harmed by someone’s actions or how great that harm is. Concepts need people to define them, to explain them and to speak for them. Concepts do not and can not exist without people.
Value 3: Actions should be judged by their effects, not by their intent. Good intentions do not erase the actual bad effects of the things we do. Knowing that a friend meant only good when they served a meal full of allergens doesn’t make the allergic reaction any less, for example. Unintended bad effects are no less bad.
Value 4: Adults, in my world, get to do whatever they want to do with their own bodies. Any marking, piercing, modification or amputation that an adult wishes to do or have done to their own body is or should be their right. There is nothing we possess more totally than our bodies, they are entirely our own.**
Given that these are my values, I know very clearly where I stand with regards to medical or ritual male or female infant or youth genital cutting, sometimes known as circumcision or mutilation. It is, quite simply, wrong.
My values tell me that it is wrong to permanently alter the bodies of children and infants without their consent (and as children and infants they cannot consent to this). It is wrong to cause them pain for no medical benefit, perhaps the most excruciating pain of their lives, and this is true regardless of what the reasoning behind the pain causing is. It is wrong even when “pain relief” is used, as this is rarely sufficient to remove all pain and can cause further problems and damage. It is wrong to risk their lives, their health and their sexual future for aesthetic reasons.
Next post: Some musings on religion and the clash with values.
*I suspect the concept of harm in parenting is based on another set of values. For instance, if you believe that children are inherently “sinful” and/or inherently inclined to be uncooperative, then you’re going to view things like punishment and rigid parenting practices and a child’s behaviour very differently than if you believe that children are inherently community-minded and inclined to want to get along with others. For the record, my beliefs re: children and therefore my practice as a parent tend more along the latter values set.
**I want to state this because I don’t want to be misinterpreted as saying that cutting/amputation/body modifications are a wrong in and of themselves. In my view, these are neutral acts, and their morality is decided by the context in which they take place.