Alex de Waal recently opined that “in the West, we like morality plays with clearly identified heroes and villains, in which we can play the role of savior.” He is discussing the balancing act human rights activists must play between speaking out and remaining silent as driven by the reality that naming and shaming activism is only successful when people respond en masse; when the world pays attention. He acknowledges that Western public outrage is best stimulated by “these fairy tales.”
I am well aware of this dynamic, and have groused about morality play narratives before. I do not claim to be pure as the driven snow, by and large reject de Waal’s views about where to strike that balance. For me, the old school Amnesty International position, which de Waal describes as “dry factual accounts of prisoners of conscience, victims of torture, and people sentenced to execution,” is both the instrumental and proper route. But I am not someone you would want to hire to mobilize public opinion.
I offer this as backstory to a recent post I put on Facebook in which I lambasted a BBC “The Inquiry” report titled “Why Can’t Egypt Stop FGM?” I have a bunch of podcasts I listen to as I drift off to sleep, and “The Inquiry” is on that rotation. The title set alarm bells in my head [eye roll, with internal voice: Will their next report be “Why Can’t the US have a Discussion about MGM?”], and I almost deleted the episode. But I decided to risk it. Not long in the reporter set me off, and I sat up, copied the link, deleted the episode, and put this on Facebook, before settling into a different “drift off to la la land” podcast. This post unpacks why I reacted that way to the reporting.
I understand Orientialism to be a specific form of ethnocentrism produced by British colonial academics, and echoed by its government and public, that understands non-European “lineage” human beings as members of “inferior races” that, inevitably, produced “uncivilized societies.” It is racialized, for example, as “brown people doing backward shite.”
This is not the place to do more than assert that the Orientalist school of British academia provided the intellectual foundation for Western Imperial Colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade, genocides of native peoples in Australia, Canada and the US, and the 20th Century’s episodes of eugenics-inspired genocide, nationalist-based claims for statehood, social movements like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Ku Klux Klan (which both sought to keep WASPs “pure” from Jews and the Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Spain), and so on. Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights provides a very accessible account of this intellectual backlash to the Enlightenment claims of inalienable universal rights adhering to all members of the species Home Sapiens, and the ensuing culture war is alive and well to this day.
OK, with that as backstory, let’s have a look at my post. My opening sentence is
For the record, I am opposed to genital mutilation of children, whether carried out in hospitals, homes, or places of worship.
Two things are noteworthy. First, I use the word “mutiliation” in reference to genital cutting of both boys and girls. Second, I include the clause “whether carried out in hospitals, homes, or places of worship.”
Why do I make these efforts in that opening sentence?
Two “morality play” narratives bug me in the anti-FGM movement. First, around 1990 some in the movement advocated for the term “mutilation” rather than the more neutral “cutting.” Second, is the use of “worst case” short-term outcomes.
Mutilation, not Cutting
I assume it is apparent why the use of “mutilation” rather than “cutting” is more effective for generating outrage and public pressure. When I first started noticing the terminology change I became uneasy because of the predominance of Orientalist narratives in Western (news and film) media about African, Arab and Asian people. Among those most heavily influenced by the narrative, a response to a story about “mutilation” might be: “What do you expect from those fucking _____s? Those people are animals.” And granting that sensitizing people with such views to care about human suffering is, shall I say “challenging,” I am a big fan of not driving that chance to zero. And it seems to me that the more neutral “cutting” stands a much better chance of getting such a person to pause and think about a similar practice in her culture whereas “mutilation” guarantees that pause will not occur.
What of the impact of the term switch upon the “base,” liberals who are aware of the Orientalist narrative and made efforts to unlearn it, etc? Here I can see a “bang for the buck” case for “mutilation” over “cutting.” I have no evidence that it is more effective, but I have a very strong prior belief that it is [this sentence contains a subtle dig at a friend of mine, Bill].
So human rights activism is about mobilizing the base, right? Yes. Naming & shaming does not work unless the base responds. But, I am not comfortable prioritizing one fight over all overs. I want to consider the cost to reinforcing the Orientalist status quo. My discomfort with the switch from cutting to mutilation is driven be the extent to which it plays into the Orientalist status quo.
For me, the harm done there does not justify the mobilization benefit. But, if you are going to go there, then I want to see some positive action taken to press against Orientalism as well. How? That’s the activist / reporter’s job. Figure it out.
Returning to my opening sentence, I used the term “mutiliation” in reference to children as setup to my use of “male genital mutilation” to follow.
Worst Case Short-Term Outcomes
I trust most readers share my prior belief that “if it bleeds, it ledes.” In other words, gory and deadly outcomes get attention. Naming & shaming requires attention.
Turning to the ending clause tries to get the reader to think about where these procedures take place, and how that differs across the UK/US v Egypt. I am trying (unsuccessfully, it turns out!) to head off those who would take a “worst case” short-term consequence approach (e.g., death from infection) and ignore that where such an event takes place is a function of wealth, and that the health outcomes of such an event will be very different across those three settings. Because male genital cutting occurs predominantly in the UK and US in hospitals, the risk to infection is far less than it otherwise would be. The relevant counterfactual to circumvent Orientalist thinking, then, is to imagine that the genital cutting of Egyptian girls took place as does the genital cutting of boys in the UK and US. That counterfactual adjustment is required before we allow our heads to make a judgment based on the short-term medical outcomes of the procedure: fever, pain and in some cases, death. Unsurprisingly, early in the BBC story they begin the story by introducing us to a little girl who died within two days of having her genitals cut.
Next, I rant, saying: I am upset by this.
But the Orientalism with which FGM is covered, and consumed(!), in the West makes me bonkers.
My frustration stems from my belief that lots and lots of Western reporters and news consumers have made little effort to give themselves distance from the Orientalist narratives that dominated 19th and 20th Century Western education and public discussion, and are increasingly being challenged in the 21st. In my view coverage and consumption of the FGM issue exhibits this. And that upsets me.
It upsets me because I am troubled by both genital cutting of children and Orientalist narratives. With respect to the former, I would like to see us halt all removal, by whatever means, of the flesh of “healthy” children. With respect to the latter, I believe it is pernicious: it is hard to see, and propagates via repetition.
You may disagree that reporting and consumption of the FGM issue in the West exhibits Orientalism. Fair enough. After all, I do not offer a breakdown of that particular report, or provide examples from others. I am asserting that “I see that” and encourage you to listen to it and/or consider the issue as you consume reporting on the issue. Is it devoid of Orientalism?
Back to my post, I next describe the specific part of the report that “made me bonkers”:
Here, the BBC reporter breathlessly intones about the estimated 92% of women aged 19-49 in Egypt who have had their genitals cut, oblivious to the rate of “male circumcision” (MGM) in the UK, etc.
You may know that there exist classifications of female genital cutting. I am willing to wager [have a strong prior belief, Bill!] that few BBC “The Inquiry” consumers are familiar with the distribution of types female genital cutting across women aged 19-49 in Egypt. But drawing on my own consumption of reports over the past several decades, I also believe that reports are strongly biased toward the types that remove the most flesh (II and III).
I recognize that critical thinking skills levels and numeracy education dictate that “hair splitting” and discussions of distributions are not going to dominate news coverage. Indeed, human rights activists are self-selected populations that have only recently begun to attract sizable portions of people highly skilled in both those domains.
Yet, I want some sensitivity from the BBC (and activists) that Orientalist narratives are pernicious. So if you are going to tell us that 92% of women have had their genitals cut, and intone, if memory serves, that such a number is “almost beyond belief” or “shocking,” I cannot recall which, then I want some comparative context in which to consume that. Why? Absent such context I believe that the modal listener is going to think about type II and III cutting, in a home, absent contemporary UK/US pain relief and wound care. Here is an Atlantic journalist in a piece about Western misperceptions: “I thought African girls were held down and butchered against their will.”
There is a small chance that is reality, but I am pretty confident [have a strong prior belief, Bill] that–at a minimum–among wealthy Egyptian women aged 19-49, such a perception is extremely unlikely to be accurate.
The 92% figure also led me to think about the prevalence of the practice of male circumcision in the US (and, I assume, but do not know, the UK). For the reasons explained above–an effort, however ineffective, to combat Orientalist driven perceptions of inferior peoples with savage cultural practices–I wanted to explicitly draw this comparison.
Further, doing so set me up to rail against a frustration I have with how many of my students, and some reporters, respond to learning of female genital cutting. The Atlantic reporter is again helpful, explaining that she misbelieved “that it is forced on women by men,” when “in fact, elderly women often do the most to perpetuate the custom.” Many of my students have responded to that information with the question: “How could women/mothers do that to girls?”
This question is prima facie evidence of ethnocentric thinking: the speaker is effectively saying “I cannot imagine the women I know making a decision like that.”
Here my concern for context really takes hold. What “that” do you find so difficult to imagine? Such a question invites inquiry into alterations of aspects of the unimaginable “that” to see if one can locate something similar in one’s own cultural experience to make “that” imaginable.
Well, as you undoubtedly appreciate I, for one, do not find it terribly difficult to find a comparable situation that can help bridge the divide and produce discussion that might not only reduce Orientalist thinking, but also expand our understanding of the “barbaric” cultural practice of genital cutting.
To wit, I closed my post with this:
How can “their” mothers permit that, indeed.
My quoted reference to “their” is an effort to highlight the ethnocentric othering in the question I have experienced so many ask. And I hoped, vainly it appears, that it would stimulate readers of the post to appreciate the cultural pressure involved. Importantly, such “pressure” is most effective when it is not perceived as pressure. That is, norms are most easily observed in violation.
When I teach norms in my undergraduate human rights course I ask my students raise their hands if they have walked about naked in public. They giggle, smile, look around and do not raise their hands. I feign surprise: “Really? None of you? Why not?” They giggle some more and struggle to answer.
Why? Because the Western norm that it is offensive to bare ones buttocks, genitalia, and, for women, breasts, is so strongly ingrained that nobody even thinks about it.
Let us now consider the issue of altering children’s bodies. Costly behavior is a common form of signalling, from calorie burning mating dances singalling fitness among male animals, to long curly locks and black garb; grills; tatoos, etc. to signal community membership among male humans.
It may not be immediately obvious to others, but it is immediately obvious to me that the genital cutting practices persist in many various human societies because they are strongly ingrained norms. In the US, insurance companies routinely cover, as part of childbirth, the male genital cutting despite the fact that it offers no medical benefit and violates the Hippocratic Oath. I would be surprised should I learn that European countries where male circumcision is as widely practiced as it in the US did not cover the procedure in their national health insurance programs.
Anal Bleaching, Labiaplasty & Vaginoplasty
Though I did not raise it in my post, it seems to me remiss not to mention the rise of cosmetic anal bleaching, labiaplasty and vaginoplasty in the US and elsewhere. There is literally a growing industry that caters to cutting and reshaping/coloring women’s genitals/ anus to help them “fit in,” whatever the fuck that means. OK, I lie. I know what it means: approximate a culturally produced “beauty standard.”
And this, too, raises the question “Why would she do it?”, though now let us include moms who direct others to cut their children’s genitals and women who choose to direct someone to cut their genitals. Yes, I am leaving dads and men out of the question, not to absolve them or minimize their role. I leave them out to highlight the problem with coverage of female genital cutting that leads people to ask: “Why would she do that?” I think we know the answer.
 If you are interested in Hunt’s argument, but access to her book is beyond your means, shoot me an email and I will send you a PDF of the two most relevant chapters.
 I recognize that the phrase “healthy” is culturally defined (because all human language is!), and yes, that is a soft underbelly in my position. And I am going to ignore that. 🙂