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