Politics  •  April 8, 2018

What Circumcision Can Teach Us About Ethnocentrism

I recently had a heated argument with my friend about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa. Like most people in the US, he is passionately against it. In fact, he brought up this example to illustrate his point that certain acts are universally evil.

I was born and raised in Japan, and moved to the US when I was sixteen. I’ve since straddled between those two cultures. I find that the most difficult concept to explain to those who are monocultural is ethnocentrism. I often get into hot water when I attempt to do so.

For instance, most people assume that they would have never supported the Nazi party if they had been living in Germany at the time. What they do not seem to grasp is how powerful the process of normalization is. From where we stand today, yes, it’s abundantly obvious that what the Nazis did was wrong, but when something is normalized, we breathe it like air and we don’t notice it. We as the foreigners have the benefit of seeing it without the influence of normalization, but when we morally criticize other cultures, we must hold ourselves to the same standard. How guilty are we of being under the same influence of normalization? What are we doing today that we would clearly see in the future as evil?

The best example I can think of to illustrate this point is male circumcision. In the US, it is so completely normalized that most people don’t even think about it. As a matter of fact, the friend I argued with told me that he doesn’t have any opinions on it because he doesn’t know much about it even though he himself was circumcised. This is the ultimate example of normalization. In Africa too, FGM is usually performed by women who were also circumcised.

Male circumcision is so normalized in the US that the idea of comparing it to female circumcision in Africa would probably outrage many Americans; they would feel like they are being compared to Hitler. But if we compare them rationally and objectively, there is no moral difference. In both cases, the genitals of infants and children are being mutilated without their consent. The practitioners of both rituals tout their benefits but none of them hold up under scientific scrutiny, and because these presumed benefits are so subjective that the morality of performing them without consent is still questionable.

I advocate the view that, if we have any time, energy, and money on righting the wrong, we should focus on what we ourselves are doing wrong. Firstly, it’s much easier to change our own behavior than to change that of others. Secondly, we are the best critic of our own culture because we know it the best. Criticizing something we barely know would obviously be less effective. Thirdly, why create unnecessary conflicts if we are equally guilty? Why not lead by example and encourage others to examine and improve their own behavior?

Understanding how normalization works requires a great deal of imagination. What was it like to be an ordinary German during the rise of Nazism? What is it like to be part of a community that performs FGM? We can flip these questions and imagine a foreigner who doesn’t even know what circumcision is, observing the practice of male circumcision in the US. Suppose he watches the scene of circumcision. How would it look to him? He wouldn’t even know who these people are in the room. Why are they surrounding this crying baby and mutilating his penis? What for? To him, it would make no difference whether they are cutting off the baby’s ear or finger. He would not understand how anyone can perform such an evil act on a helpless baby.

But to us Americans, this is normal. Many of our friends have been circumcised and have circumcised their own children. And, we like and respect them as friends. They are perfectly decent people. So, it is hard to imagine them doing anything remotely evil. We can’t even conceive of it as being wrong. This is how normalization works.

A more benign example would be how we take for granted the filth of our rivers in metropolitan cities like New York. They are essentially huge masses of dark green slime. Imagine if you time-traveled from, say, 300 years ago; you would be so shocked and alarmed by the filth that you would try anything in your power to stop the filth from flowing into the river. But most of us today, stroll along that same filthy river and enjoy the view.

Once we realize how normalization works, we become less arrogant and more self-critical. You might accuse me of being a moral relativist but it’s actually the exact opposite. Moral relativists lack their own sense of morality and that is precisely why they are more easily influenced by the process of normalization. They blindly go along with the established moral standards and are easily outraged by the foreign ones. In moral confrontations, these moral relativists would typically defend their positions by invoking the majority view, like “You are wrong; just ask anyone, like your friends or wife.” But if you are not a moral relativist, such a suggestion would make no sense because your moral position has nothing to do with those of others. Even if you stand alone in the world, you would not care. You are not going to change your position relative to the majority view.

Being a moral person starts with minding your own backyard. Because you understand that your moral position is not determined in relation to those of others, you also understand that the moral positions of others are not determined by your moral position either. So, you would see the pointlessness of criticizing the moral positions of others. Ironically, our society views such a person as being amoral.

Addendum

Here is my response to the questions on Facebook:

It’s easy for us to criticize people in Africa who mutilate their own daughters because we don’t know them and because we don’t depend on them for our well-being. Just think about what it would take to accuse your American friends (and even families) of doing something evil to their own children. It would instantaneously destroy your relationship with them. It could mean you lose many of your friends. Even those who did not circumcise their children may start avoiding you because you are such a social pariah. We, humans, are a highly social creature; without the help and support of others, we cannot survive in this society. This is why the forces of normalization are so strong.

This is what compels people to mindlessly go along with the forces of normalization. Even if they have an independent thought on the topic, they quickly suppress it because they intuitively know that it can lead to trouble and misery. It is precisely because they have strong incentives to repress such thoughts, and because they unconsciously feel guilty about repressing, that when they see it manifest in others (especially those who live far away to whom they have no connection or dependence), they angrily point their fingers at them. They are projecting their own moral failings on others in order to keep denying their own.

If your criticism of FGM in Africa is truly motivated by your moral principle, then the same principle should motivate you to fight against male circumcision in the US. And, if you are a passionate critic of the latter and are willing to destroy your own network of friends over it, then those in Africa could see that you are not motivated simply by bigotry. Your argument would have much more weight.

On the other hand, if you are not critical of the evil performed in your own backyard, then your criticism of a foreign culture is clearly bigoted. They then would have a perfectly legitimate reason to be offended by your argument. People have a right to be offended by bigotry. Such an act of bigotry doesn’t solve any problems; it only aggravates them. If you are truly concerned about those problems, why would you do such a thing? It’s likely because you are more interested in proving your moral superiority and feeling good about it than you are about solving them.