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Issues I Care About

Male Circumcision

somewhat related to...

The Blight of Religion

only slightly related to...

Taboo English Words

Aside from promoting bicycle helmets in China, I have a couple of issues that I think don't get the attention they deserve.  So this is attention I have given them. 

Male Circumcision:


The First Ever Man in China Survey:  The Circumcision Issue

What does circumcision have to do with China?  It's not widely practiced here, though some misguided people are pushing it at the Chinese as a way to prevent HIV infection, which it most assuredly is not. 
     Westerners often think of China as a country with strange customs,  as if foot binding were still practiced here.  But we don't even notice our own weird customs.  Circumcision,  looked at objectively, is a very weird indeed.  I'm amazed that it is so accepted in the West.  So I thought I would bring this to our attention.   If you feel that our culture is "enlightened" compared to the rest of the world, in particular compared to China, please give this some thought.

This is a very short survey.  Ten questions.  Please take the time to fill it out.  I've made my position on this issue very clear.  Now I really do want to know what you think.

Several women have commented to me that male circumcision is trivial compared to FGM (female genital mutilation) as if this is an argument for ignoring the issue.  I do not agree. It's essentially the same thing, especially in cases where the female circumcision involves only removal of the labia.  Of course, clitorectomies are equivalent to amputating the male glans, and are much more serious.  But any alteration of a child's genitals should be governed by the same principles.  For this reason I have not separated this issue by gender for this survey.

If you don't know what circumcision is,  or don't feel you have enough information to give an informed opinion,  click here to go to the previous posting on this subject,  where you will find links to all the information.  Or just click here for the Wikipedia entry on the subject.

There are international efforts to educate and end female genital mutilation (FGM),  but the circumcision of infant boys remains THE MOST COMMON surgery in North America.  I've had many people tell me that male circumcision isn't even in the same ball park as FGM,  but the people telling me this are just plain wrong.  At most it's a matter of degree.  But I think amputation of a foreskin of a boy is absolutely equivalent to amputation of the labia of a girl.  No different.  More extreme FGM,  such as clitorectomy,  is of course much worse, and would be the equivalent of amputation of the glans for a boy.  But still, the situation with girls is no argument for perpetuating the situation with boys.

Most people think of the foreskin as just that - useless skin.  Most people, including most doctors, are ignorant of intact male penis anatomy and don't realize that the foreskin actually includes a band of muscle around the tip, mucous membrane, and a whole bunch of nerve endings that are important sources of sexual pleasure.  It is a protective covering,  and amputating it from an infant amounts to genital mutilation.

Circumcision began in ancient religious rituals, but became a medical fad about a hundred years ago when the doctors all got hysterical about masturbation,  which as assumed to cause problems ranging from heart trouble to blindness.  Circumcision was supposed to "cure" this terrible practice.  Needless to say it did not work.  But now it is still justified by many,  and still treated by many as an automatic procedure,  like clipping a hangnail.  It should be illegal.

Here are my posts on this issue:

The Weirdness of this World (Originally posted April 3, 2009)

It's was very easy to look at other cultures and see them as strange and barbaric from the comfort and safety of my own country, but there's nothing like a little distance to give a person perspective.  Since coming to China, I have been looking at the Western world with more detachment,  and questioning many of my cultural assumptions.  I was reminded,  by reading Christopher Hitchens' book, "God is Not Great", that circumcision of male infants is a very weird practice.  Incredible,  actually.  Horrible. Unthinkable, if it wasn't so entrenched in our culture.
     This gets personal.  I'll never forget the shock and anger I felt when, at the age of about seven, my great-uncle informed me that I had been circumcised at birth.  I was incensed.  Quietly furious.  How dare they do that to me
     This feeling has never gone away.  But for years I have put this whole subject aside.  After all,  isn't it trivial?  Isn't it just one more of my "issues" that might make me seem an angry neurotic in the eyes of the world?

Today I sent an email to Doctor Carolyn Bennett - MP representing the riding of St. Paul's, Toronto

Subject:  male circumcision from Zale Dalen


You may remember me from the old days in Toronto.  It's Zale Dalen here,  former film maker now teaching at a university in China.

I'm writing to you because you are one of the most influential people I know and also a doctor.  For years I have been resentful about my own circumcision,  but I put this out of my mind as trivial, and too entrenched in our culture and religious dogma to question openly.  I no longer feel this way. 

Circumcision is genital mutilation,  and it surprises me that my culture doesn't seem to recognize this yet.  It should be illegal.

I'm asking you, on behalf of myself and all the millions of victims of this barbaric practice, to help put an end to circumcision in Canada.

Thanks a lot for your support.

Zale R. Dalen (AKA David James Scott)


We of the Western mind set might be tempted to feel superior to China because of such things as the practice of foot binding,  which ended so recently relative to the long history of this country, or our much exaggerated freedom of speech.  I don't think my students even know what circumcision is, much less the extent of circumcision in the West.  It's our nasty little cultural secret.  But it puts a whole different light on our "enlightened" society.  It's still legal in Canada,  and still widely practiced,  both by religious leaders and the medical establishment.  Amazing. And embarrassing.

Am I all alone here?  Or do others share my situation and view?  I would really appreciate some reaction to this post.  If you have an opinion, comment or thought on this subject,  please send an email to david@themaninchina.com 

Circumcision Revisited (Originally posted April10, 2009)

After a friend told me about a study that suggested circumcision helps prevent HIV transmission, I was ready to eat my words on the subject.  Certainly wouldn't be the first time I've been totally off base on an issue. Suddenly this isn't a trivial subject any more. It's life and death. I read a very impressive sounding study which claimed that circumcised men were 60% less likely to get HIV. That a significant difference, and if it's true I guess it's worth it.

This study seems very authoritative and scientific. It presents a strong argument. But then I took a look at the criticisms of the study, which was done in Africa, and found some more information. The evidence is far from clear and there are a lot of conflicting results.

"In the United States, on the other hand, data from the 1992 National
Health and Social Life Survey, a nationally representative sample of
1,511 men and 1,921 women between the ages of 18 and 59, showed that
there was no evidence of a prophylactic role for circumcision in
regard to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In fact, circumcised
men were slightly more likely to have had both a bacterial and a viral
STD in their lifetime."
                                     - From Family Health International

It's so hard, if not impossible, to control for bias and unrecognized but influential factors. Groups of intact and circumcised men tend to come from different cultures. They may have widely differing habits
of personal hygiene, sexual preferences, sexual practices (I understand that anal sex is more risky than vaginal sex, and apparently many Africans use anal sex as a form of birth control.), condom use, and education. If circumcised men come from more educated cultures that tend to use condoms, while uncircumcised men don't, this would certainly skew any survey results.
     Then there is the bias of the investigators. It seems to me that medical professionals might, consciously or unconsciously, not want to think that they've been routinely performing genital mutilation.

For me the procedure remains clearly wrong. If an adult wishes to be circumcised, for any reason, more power to him. I wouldn't even mind taxpayer money paying for the operation. But it's not a decision anybody should make for a child, without clear medical reasons. I've been asked: Do we really need a law against it?  I think we do.

All of this has generated some interesting discussion. I had one correspondent,  a Muslim friend, who explained the cultural importance of the circumcision done to him at the age of seven.  He wrote:  " I was not consented for the procedure. It was a ritual and I (un?)willingly obeyed the tradition. I know from that era and after many kids who tried to escape it, but they were forced or convinced to come back. It was a parental as well as community decision. Having said that, I still don't see it as a violence of any sort, though."  He still supports the practice and "Again, as a circumcised adult, I have no problems as well as no regrets for the event. I have two grown up girls. Had one or both were boys, I'd have them circumcised as well; not necessarily for health reasons (I do believe its merits), but simply because of its traditional values. FYI, I'm not a fundamentalist Muslim"
     I want to respect other cultures,  but I don't think it's too much to ask that they wait until a child reaches an age of consent. We do have law about this for sex itself.  One can't legally impose it on a child.  Why should anyone be legally entitled to impose a medically questionable amputation?

I've been surprised in the past by the number of women who have a strong opinion on the subject, and I find this interesting. I suppose women have a stake in the issue, but I don't feel it's my right to advocate amputation of a parts of their genitals. I find the argument's from women based on cosmetic considerations to be the most appalling. I have one relative who had it done to her son because "it just looks neater". And the "I don't want my boy to be laughed at in the locker room" argument is truly misguided, especially if this medical fad dies away and suddenly it's the circumcised boy who has the weird little wee wee.
     There seems to be a lot of complacency around this issue. Or maybe most people just don't want to talk about it.  I'm fighting the impulse to become one of them (Who wants to be seen a guy who is fixated on his dick.  Not me.) Please do write if you have a point to make or a personal history that is relevant. david@themaninchina.com

Circumcision:  Enough already! (Originally posted April 14, 2009)

Obviously this is a subject that most normal people do not want to discuss.  One of my sisters sent me this:

"You asked for a comment and I made one. You will not get agreement on this topic if that is what you are looking for it is a personal decision to be made by a family.
     Quite honestly I just can't get inside your head. I asked my boys and they said "you must be joking."
     You were circumcised and it can't be changed so my feeling would be get over it ---you were not castrated. That does not mean for a minute that I don't feel that you have a personal right to feel anger if you want to. It just seems to me to be a waste of valuable energy, time and brain power that you could put to better use. "

To which I replied:

Dear Sister:

Thanks for this. I do appreciate your comments, and your obvious passion.

Just so you know, I accept what and who I am completely. But I do
have a strong sense of what the world should be like. And in the world
I want, circumcision would be illegal. It isn't about me. It's about
the boys who are being operated on right now.

Any man who is okay with circumcision is fine by me. But there are a lot of men who share my feelings on the subject, but have been told to "get over it" because it's a done deal. Yeah, I know it's a done deal for me. But it isn't for my culture. My boys are not circumcised. It would not surprise me if they decided to have it done. After all, one of them had his tongue pierced. But if they decide to have it done, it will be their decision. Not something imposed on an infant by an adult before he has any say in the matter.

So, come on. Let's get it off the personal level. It's a social injustice and a wrong that should be corrected.

It isn't about me.


I find it very interesting that the ONLY person who has written to agree with me,  with no arguments or qualifications, is a friend who was NOT circumcised at birth. I'm not sure what this tells us though.

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The Blight of Religion

I was always taught to respect religious beliefs,  and to treat all the nonsense as if it really was the word of God.  But no more.  When I realized that atheists have always been fair game,  that we have been vilified with lies and accusations, and that no admitted atheist can get elected to any public office in North America, I decided that it is time to "come out of the closet".  I don't like religion.  I especially don't like fundamentalist religions, which all seem to take words written in some book as if God himself had set the type. And I really don't like the way religions tend to damage people and society.

Deadly Pontification (Originally posted March 24, 2009)

There are a lot of Catholics in this world.  My girlfriend's mother is a Catholic. My former mother in law is a Catholic. I know that the sheep are not in the habit of telling the shepherd what to do,  but I urge all Catholics to send a message up the chain of command all the way to Pope Benedict XVI,  who last week told the Catholics of Africa to stop using condoms.

Click the picture to speak to  Pope Benedict XVI

The Pope is undermining international efforts to combat AIDS,  and his "leadership" will cost many lives.  Please, all you Catholics.  Please,  everybody.  Ask the "voice of God" to listen to reason..

Hate Propaganda Unrecognized (Originally posted March 22, 2009)

I have friends,  and good friends, who are fundamentalist Christians and will tell me that Darwin was wrong, evolution is just a theory, and the earth is really only a few thousand years old.  One close relative asked me,  rather plaintively, "But do you think we came from slime?"  To which I can only say, yes I do.  It's the only explanation that makes sense,  and has predicted all the discoveries of modern biology.  How anybody can look at us and decide that we are not animals,  and not related to apes,  is totally beyond my comprehension.
     Mostly I've stopped arguing with these people.  Why bother.  Their beliefs are based on "faith" and "revealed truth",  not logic,  observation,  the scientific method, or even common sense. They are good people,  leading good lives.  What do I care if they believe a few crazy things.  But last week a friend gave us a video to watch.  I hesitate to tell you about it,  because I have a feeling that the cynical producers included all the lies, distortions, and twisted logic because they know that an extreme position generates controversy,  which generates audience and money.  I don't want to contribute to their publicity.  But this is a hate film,  coming from the mainstream popular culture.  It needs to be attacked as a hate film.

It's not about freedom of speech. It's a hate film.

     Dressed up in sarcasm and rhetoric about freedom of speech and American values,  "Expelled",  the Ben Stein movie, claims that scientists are being black listed,  their careers ruined, if they so much as mention Intelligent Design,  which according to the U.S. courts is Creationism under a new name.  The support for this claim has been effectively refuted here so I won't repeat this effort, but Stein doesn't stop with an attack on science.  He goes on to connect Darwinism to Hitler and the Holocaust,  and to claim that a belief in evolution naturally leads to loss of faith and (gasp!) atheism.
     Atheists are one group that it is totally safe to attack, apparently.  It's okay to paint us as having no basis for morality, beyond salvation,  irredeemably evil, unfit for any public office. It's okay to claim that believing what we believe will lead naturally to the horrors of Hitler's Germany, Eugenics and genocide.
     Leaving aside the facts - there were pogroms for centuries before Darwin came along,  and the authors of most of our historic horrors were NOT atheists but religious believers (The German soldiers' belt buckles read "Gott Mit Uns" - God is with us.) - isn't it time we who believe in a naturalistic world view speak out against this kind of slander.  For a mainstream popular media release to call me a Fascist is simply unacceptable.  Ben Stein is not an amusing little man with a legitimate concern. He's an intentional  liar. He's a hate propagandist. 
     There is deep irony in a Jew making a hate film.  Of course Ben Stein probably doesn't see his work as hate mongering.  But calling me a Fascist, connecting me to Hitler and the Holocaust,  feels like hate to me. No different than calling Jews "Christ killers".  I take it personally.  I protest.

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Taboo English Words

In my Watch, Listen and Speak class yesterday,  a student asked me what the word "asshole" means.  This was a word she had just heard used in the very wholesome,  sentimental, and inspiring movie, "Mr. Holland's Opus".  So I explained the word,  and gave the politically correct synonyms for it - rectum,  anus,  anal orifice.  This is what I'm here for,  to explain English words to my students.

My girlfriend, Ruth, sees expressive value in taboo words.  She sees them as useful,  because they can carry emotion that isn't carried by ordinary,  acceptable in polite society, words.  I love words,  and I've always enjoyed even the taboo words.  In fact,  I don't believe that any words should be taboo,  and certainly not because they might be misunderstood by an uneducated person,  an ignorant person,  or a person with a limited vocabulary.

There is the famous case of David Howard, a Washington D.C. municipal agency director who told his staff that, in light of budget cutbacks, he would have to be "niggardly" with funds.  An uproar followed that resulted in Howard's resignation, which was accepted by the Mayor Anthony Williams on the grounds that Howard had shown poor judgment.  There's a very good discussion of this issue on Anders Jacobsen's blog

As a teenager I had endless arguments with my father.  I would ask him why, if "shit" and "excrement" mean exactly the same thing,  it was okay for me to say "excrement"  but he would get all bent out of shape if I said "shit".  Since coming to China this mystery has been explained,  thanks to my cognitive linguistics friend Jin Bo who introduced me to Stephen Pinker.  It turns out that we store taboo words in a completely different part of our brain from ordinary and acceptable words,  a part of our brain much closer to our emotional centers.  So the taboo words have not just a definition but also a connotation.  We use them to add emotional punch.  This all explains why people with a certain kind of brain damage can only say taboo words,  while people with a different brain damage can's say "shit" if they have a mouthful.

I would like to think that all of my students here are adults.  They are at a university.  We should be able to explain and discuss anything at all,  as long as our aim is to explore ideas and gain understanding. I think it would be a shame if they are denied the meaning of words because they are impolite in Western society.


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