The Ethics Of… Circumcision

So. You actually clicked the link to this article did you? What for, I wonder. I’m guessing the reason most of you opened this link is not that you have a strong view on the practice of circumcision, and while it’s possible you enjoy my style of writing so much you could listen to me prattle on about nearly anything, I’m guessing that the reason you opened this article is simply because you had no idea why I am writing it in the first place.

I mean really? Circumcision is an ethical topic? For the vast majority of you, the fact that there is any debate at all about this will be surprising news – and the fact that it is more like a brawl than a debate is likely to seem completely ridiculous. But ridiculous or not this is indeed the case; go and google ‘circumcision’ and I guarantee you will find a truly vicious argument within seconds. Why is this? Well in large part your surprise that there is a debate is the reason for it; this is one of those rare and wonderful topics where everyone assumes their own opinion is the normal one, and then proceeds to lose their marbles when they find out a huge number of people feel exactly the same about the opposite opinion.

Circumcision is an age-old practice to say the least, dating back at least 15,000 years and common in pretty much every ancient culture. Naturally there are a host of cultural and religious traditions that involve circumcision, but while these traditions definitely made the practice more widespread and accepted, the fact that it predates nearly every modern culture and/or religion suggests that they came to adopt circumcision, rather than introduce it themselves.

The far more likely reason for circumcision becoming so widespread throughout history and up until today is health. By removing the foreskin, the opportunity for infection is significantly reduced, basically by making it harder for bacteria to hide. I could explain this in more detail, but I’d rather not have to draw you a picture.

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If you don’t know what I’m talking about here you’re clearly not old enough to be reading this blog. I swear a LOT on here.

Since this goes for practically any bacteria or virus, circumcision can help decrease the risk of quite a variety of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. It also helps prevent urinary tract infections and erm, ‘penile cancers’, which are exactly what they sound like (enjoy that terrifying idea gentlemen). The procedure can also be done to correct various malformations of the dick, but since that’s basically corrective plastic surgery it’s not really relevant to this topic.

In recent years however, this apparently very popular, traditional and beneficial practice has started to wane – today in Australia, less than 20% of boys are circumcised. With modern medicine, hygiene and health practices, the risks that circumcision once managed are virtually non-existent for anyone with even the smallest of clues. Even in those rare cases where a health problems do occur for whatever reason, most are easily treated without the trouble of permanently removing a part of the patient’s dick.

Still, 20% is not exactly a small number of people who are still choosing to circumcise their kids, either for cultural, religious or health reasons, or often simply because ‘Dad had it done, so son is getting it done as well’ – an extension of what the parents consider normal, as I mentioned before.

But thanks to the bare-knuckle free-for-all that is the internet, increasingly that 20% who support circumcision are starting to run across people that have a problem with it – a very big problem with it. In fact many go so far as calling it child abuse.

For those that consider circumcision to be normal, and especially for those that have already made the decision to have their kids go the snip, this likely seems absurd. But think about it for a second: an operation of a baby’s genitals (which they obviously cannot consent to), the medical benefits of which are largely obsolete, and usually done purely based on the parent’s preferences.

Or to put this another way; the totally unnecessary cutting off of a bit of your son’s dick.

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“You what?”

Ask yourself the question here fellas: lacking some serious medical issue, is this a procedure that you would ever choose to go through as an adult? Rock up to the doctor and ask him to snip the tip off your dick? Why the hell would you do that? Because it’s part of your religion? Maybe, though that requirement seems like a prime candidate for the ‘list of things we prefer to pretend god never said’ that most religions have stashed away. Because of the health benefits that can be replaced by safe sex and a decent shower? Or because it’s what everyone else in your culture does? Mate, if you’ve gotten to 18 years old and your local community still knows the current status of your genitals, then I suspect you have larger problems to worry about here.

Nope, barring some catastrophic medical issue and/or hardcore spiritual awakening, my bet is that you’d likely opt out of the procedure – the fact that less than 4% of adult Australian males do take the plunge speaks volumes. And if that is the case, then why do we apparently feel so comfortable making the opposite decision for our children? Perhaps because they’re not in a position to object, maybe?

So here we have debate about a practice that deals with children’s genitals no less, which one side considers healthy, traditional and normal, and the other considers pointless, selfish and literally child abuse. Oh hell yeah the fur is going to fly.

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And fly it most definitely does.

So two groups that strongly disagree with each other are having a fight? Well blow me down, better stop the presses for such a rare and noteworthy event! Yeah yeah, the anger is hardly surprising, but there are a few things that make this particular internet bitch-fest worth noting;

The sheer ferocity of argument

Seriously, go google any article, blog post or forum about circumcision, read the comments and be amazed. This debate is brutal, almost on the same level as the classic don’t-go-there topics like abortion, climate change and even gun control. Just the presence of the topic and people go into automatic screeching mode, falling back into pre-arranged lines that totally ignore the opposition’s points, throwing around crazy rhetorical fallacies like no one’s business, and generally descending into the internet equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling.

circumcision commentSo here we have not one but two Arguments from Experience, a Bandwagon fallacy, a blatant Ad Hominum attack, and the barest hint of Confirmation Bias to taste. What a busy comment.

Oh course when you consider that most people didn’t even know this debate existed until they run across it in full force, this kind of nastiness isn’t all that surprising – nothing like getting caught by surprise to make someone wig out and get defensive and/or aggressive. And you know what really doesn’t help with that?

Empathy is virtually impossible

One comment you see over and over again in this debate is “I like mine how it is”. Doesn’t matter if you’re cut or uncut, this line pops up again and again and again; “my current genital configuration works for me, so anyone who disagrees is wrong!” The fun thing is that, when you think about it, nearly all the other arguments that tend to crop up are just extensions of this same point. “It’s cleaner”, “The ladies like it this way”, “It’s healthier”, “It looks better”. You know the missing word in all these contradictory statements? ‘Mine’. MINE is cleaner. MINE is healthier. MINE looks better. The ladies like MINE this way. And the reason that word must be missing is the same reason that all of these arguments are completely meaningless: you only have one dick.

How can any man really comment on whether circumcised is better than not when their entire experience comes from one penis? A penis which, unless you’re part of that extremely brave 4%, has never changed state in your entire life? You wouldn’t claim to understand, let alone judge, what it’s like to be a different race, because you have absolutely no experience in the matter – the same applies with your dick. Even the intrepid 4% who do make the cut aren’t fit to comment, because making the switch is in itself a totally different experience from having one configuration from infancy onwards.

A logical person might note that this inability to understand each other’s positions might cause everyone to calm the fuck down and appreciate their inability to comment on an arrangement they haven’t got. But the logical man is rarely happy.

Speaking of which, you know what makes this entire debate completely ridiculous?

It doesn’t bloody matter

Seriously consider this for a moment; what does it matter if someone is circumcised or not? We are talking about a relatively tiny amount of pain here, usually administered long before the child can think straight, let alone retain coherent memories. This minor operation results in a moderate aesthetic difference, though frankly, by the time anyone of significance gets to the point of seeing it, I doubt it’s going to be a deal-breaker. The procedure also provides a health improvement, though it is so minor that it’s virtually irrelevant.

There are no consequences here. It literally does not matter whether a child is circumcised or not; barring a botched operation (which falls under malpractice) or a SERIOUS case of bad hygiene (likely a case of mental illness), whether a child is circumcised or not make no god damn difference to their life whatsoever.

Is it child abuse? Yeah, probably! The lack of consent, plus the unnecessary cutting certainly aren’t something we’d ever subject an adult to. But even if we decide to go nuts with the labels, this is child abuse so insignificant in degree that if so it’s barely worth registering, especially in comparison to some common parenting practices that we don’t seem to upset about. The old ‘life’s not fair’ routine, ‘do as I say, not as I do’, hell even Santa is debatably more harmful to your kids than circumcision.

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Don’t even get me started on this shit.

It’s this last weird quality that makes circumcision a really great ethical topic; since it doesn’t matter what the result of the debate is we can poke around at it without having to give a crap about how it turns out. And what we can learn from it can teach us a lot about how we go about other, far more important debates; the idiotic rhetorical fallacies, the debaters playing the person rather than the ball, the personal insults between people who have never met, the reliance on tradition as a defence, the sheer ignorance of opposing views, the general failure to refer to evidence, and everyone’s inability to recognise the limitations of their own experience all combine to show us a beautiful example of how NOT to have a debate.

And that in turn leads to the greatest irony of all; by descending into this asinine bitch-fest, the debate about circumcision actually risks turning a topic with virtually no real work consequence into one with serious dangers for young boys everywhere. How? By creating an argument where there wasn’t one before, encouraging division between the circumcised and uncircumcised camps, and thus creating an environment ripe for bullying. It’s not like kids need an excuse to make fun of each other in any case, and someone being different to the group is absolute prime material for a bully to work with. As if young men weren’t worried enough about their dicks, by creating this otherwise pointless controversy, we risk creating anxiety, division and hostility based on one of its few qualities they don’t have to worry about.

There are plenty of things to get angry about in life, and yes, circumcision does have its ethical aspects. But one of the things that separates ethics from abstract philosophy and fluffy speculation is that it deals with consequences: real, practical outcomes from its findings. If there are no consequences worth noting to an issue then that issue is ethically irrelevant. It’s always wise after all, to keep a sense of proportion.

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2 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Circumcision

  1. I have to admit that I was one of those, well it seems to have some health benefits, and I seem fine being circumcised so why not get my son circumcised? After doing my research after, if given the choice I probably wouldn’t do it again, simply because as you say it makes really no difference and so why operate when you don’t have to. Also it’s considered elective surgery and cost us $400 bucks. I thought it would be free! lol My mother-in-law accused us however of genital mutilation. Apparently because she misread a Polish Wikipedia entry about female circumcision or something. I can’t remember now, but in Poland circumcision is not very popular. I always felt that was most likely an anti-Semitic hangover sentiment. But yes the debate is pretty ridiculously heated with neither side being overly concerned with any sort of rational presenting of the facts, but being just very emotional and opinionated.

    • Wow, that’s an unfortunate misread! I hope that all got sorted out. As a side note I’ve always found the term ‘female circumcision’ massively misleading – ‘female genital mutilation’ make it far clearer that the two practices are in NO way similar!

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