Monday, January 23, 2017

The Women's March on Washington, January 21, 2017.

by David Balashinsky

As a feminist man I am proud to have marched in Washington, D.C. on January 21st, 2017. It's a good feeling to know that one has been not only a witness to but a participant in history. And how could I do otherwise? The sexual predator and liar-in-chief who has just been sworn in as the nation's 45th president has not only boasted about sexually assaulting numerous women and not only makes a habit of denigrating women and grading them on their looks but, against this background of casual and aggressive sexism and misogyny, has stated his intent to nominate for the SCOTUS only candidates committed to overturning Roe v. Wade, returning women to the days of wire-hanger abortions in seedy motels. I believe that abortion rights are central to human rights because nothing is more important to one's ability to determine her or his own destiny than control and ownership of one's own body. That's why I protested last Saturday.

But I would also like to argue another closely related point here and, in so doing, issue a public challenge to my fellow feminists. While I remain committed to the idea that bodily autonomy is the quintessentially feminist position, I remain equally committed to the idea that bodily autonomy does not belong to women alone. It's time for feminists to stand up on behalf of boys, men, and intersex children for the same right of genital autonomy and bodily self ownership that they rightfully claim for girls and women. It is time for feminists to embrace the cause of ending non-consensual and non-therapeutic genital surgery of infant boys and intersex infants. Why? Because, as Jeannine Parvati Baker has noted, circumcision is where sex and violence meet for the first time. Because routine infant circumcision is medically unnecessary, harmful, painful, and poses numerous risks of complications including death. Because non-therapeutic circumcision is performed overwhelmingly for reasons of custom, cosmesis, or religion and none of these reasons is of sufficient merit to warrant depriving the individual himself of the right to bodily self-ownership. Because for all intents and purposes and in principle non-therapeutic circumcision is no different from female genital mutilation. (Infant circumcision was popularized in the United States and Great Britain during the Victorian era as a way to discourage boys from masturbating. It is every bit as anti-sex and as contrary to contemporary notions of personal self-determination as FGM.) Because routine infant circumcision has been condemned as unethical and as a human rights violation by numerous professional medical organizations around the world. Because every child, regardless of sex, including intersex, has an innate right to grow up with all of her or his body parts intact and to decide for herself or himself, when mature enough to do so, which parts s/he gets to keep and which parts get amputated. Because female genital mutilation - including those forms (even a ceremonial "nick") that are far less destructive than the radical prepucectomy to which over one million infant boys are subjected annually in the United States - has been illegal in the United States since 1996 and boys and intersex infants have every bit as much right to be protected against invasive, harmful, non-consensual and medically unnecessary genital alteration as girls. Because feminism is not only about bodily rights, bodily autonomy and self-determination but about equality, too. Genital-alteration surgery when not medically necessary (and it virtually never is) is absolutely inconsistent with everything that feminism stands for.

One of the themes that emerged both during the planning stages of the Women's March on Washington and during the demonstration itself was the principle of "intersectionality," the idea that a person may face discrimination in more than one way on account of different aspects of what she or he is.  For example, though both an African-American woman and a woman of Celtic ancestry both may have to contend with sexism, the African-American woman  also has to contend with racism.  An intersectionality-oriented approach to feminism is based on the recognition of these multiple ways in which a person can face discrimination.  This approach is often contrasted with (and represented as a critique of) a monolithic if perhaps a pragmatic and compromising approach to feminism in which the claims of racial or other minorities, so it is argued,  have been given short shrift or expected to be subsumed within the larger claims of  feminists on behalf of women broadly. It is no secret that these sometimes contentious and differing approaches have led to some tension within the feminist movement and, as has been widely reported, even threatened to undermine the unity and turnout of the Women's March on Washington last weekend.   I am not arguing here for any additional fracturing of feminism nor for any dilution of the feminist message.  Even less do I have any wish to be accused of doing so.  And I am particularly sensitive to the legitimate claim of feminists that it is men's wont to hijack women's issues and make everything always about men.  Arguing for an end to male genital cutting on the basis of the feminist principle of respect for the bodily rights of the individual brings me perilously close, I acknowledge, to subjecting myself to one or more of those charges - particularly now, when feminists the world over are in the full flush of ebullition and potency on account of the huge turnouts last weekend.  

And yet I remain more convinced than ever, after marching last Saturday, that the issue of bodily integrity not only has a rightful place under the rubric of feminism but that to abstract it therefrom makes no sense philosophically or strategically.  Every feminist should have an interest in creating a society that respects the borders of every human body, no matter what that body looks like or how it is configured.  These thoughts crystallized for me last Saturday in Washington, D.C. as I stood taking in the many protest signs that were on display.  Three in particular forcefully drove home to me the way in which bodily integrity for all is a feminist issue.  One sign, held by a 30ish man read, "I want my daughters and sons to be treated equally."  This quote offers as compelling an argument against denying boys the same right of genital autonomy and integrity as has been legally guaranteed  to girls since 1996 as it offers against discriminating against girls with respect to education, sports  and every other opportunity that boys enjoy.   Another sign contained a quote by  Audre Lorde: "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives."   This, to me, epitomizes the importance of the intersectionality-oriented approach to feminism but I would argue that it epitomizes equally why bodily integrity for all - female, intersex, and male - is indispensable to feminism.   Feminism, after all, is not just about equal pay for women, freedom from sexual violence and harassment, and all the rest.  It is about many things but, on the most fundamental level, it is about autonomy: the autonomy of the body and the autonomy of the self.  That includes the unrestricted potentiality of the body and the unrestricted potentiality of the self.  Non-therapeutic infant circumcision violates these fundamental principles and that, too, is why this issue belongs foursquare under the rubric of feminism.   At the same time, because of the principle of intersectionality, there is room for it there.  Sexism, after all, does not only harm women; it harms men, too, but differently.  Male genital cutting is a case in point.   Still another sign that I saw contained the great line (attributed to various authors, including Sartre, King Jr., and Maya Angleou), "No one is free unless everyone is free."    Here again is an articulation of the universality of the feminist principles of justice and equal opportunity irrespective of sex or gender.  And, just as feminism has never been about benefiting women at the expense of men's rights to anything to which they would have any claim in a sexually egalitarian society, so feminism cannot arbitrarily deny boys, men, and intersex children the conceptual sanctuary from genital cutting that it offers to girls and women.

I am proud to have taken to the streets to defend women's rights to own and control their own bodies. I've done so before this past Saturday and I will do so again. But I now call upon all feminists, including women feminists, to stand up in the same way on behalf of the right of boys, men, and intersex infants to own and control their own bodies. It's time for all feminists and all progressives and anyone who cares about human rights to resolutely condemn the unnecessary alteration of any child's genitals.

Growing up whole is a basic human right. Recognizing and acknowledging that that right is intrinsic to all of us by virtue of our common humanity is demanded by the principles of justice and equality. What could be more feminist than that?

Monday, January 2, 2017

Video Review: "The Most Common Abuse in the American Church," posted by Little Images

by David Balashinsky

Little Images is a website and Facebook page that states that its missions is "Equipping the Church to treat children with dignity as bearers of God's image."  It further explains on its homepage that Little Images is about "Protecting babies from cutting by producing media, messaging Christians, writing letters, publishing articles, and providing research support."  Its cover photo (on its Facebook page) includes a picture of a smiling infant boy accompanied by this rhetorical question in a bold yet appealingly understated font:  "Why not keep God's design for your son intact?"

Little Images produced a video in which it sets forth numerous reasons why male genital mutilation goes against Christian theology and Christian ethics.  And it cites, in support of its thesis, a number of Christian philosophers and church leaders from Augustine of Hippo to Pope Pius the XIIth.

The video is well produced, polished, and powerful in its simplicity.   And yet I have several basic objections to it.

First, I believe that it seeks to obtain the right result but for the wrong reason. The right not to have one's body mutilated precedes religion. That right is more basic and more fundamental than any particular religious creed. If you ground the right not to be mutilated on a particular religious doctrine, then that right is not absolute and applies only to the followers of that particular religion. But religious beliefs and doctrines differ. That holds even in the case of exegesis when different denominations within a given religion differ over the interpretation of shared religious texts. And these interpretations also change over time. If, in one century, genital mutilation is considered unorthodox, what is to prevent its becoming orthodox in the next? Basic human rights should not be based upon so ephemeral and shaky a foundation as religious scripture or else they will have no permanence. 

Moreover, if the right not to be subjected to genital mutilation is based only on a particular religious doctrine, then any opposing religious doctrine that supports genital mutilation necessarily has just as much validity.  Thus, although the laudable objective of this video is to discourage genital mutilation, because its argument rests ultimately on "the word of God," its underlying thesis can be used for precisely the opposite purpose.  In other words, the premise of this video - that MGM is wrong not in and of itself but only because it is displeasing to God - can be turned to the advantage of any other religious group that seeks to defend and justify MGM on the grounds that it "is pleasing to God." I am unwilling that defenders of genital mutilation (of any religion) should have handed to them on a silver platter such a justification as that and that, I am afraid, is precisely what this video - as an unintended consequence, to be sure - may do.

My second objection is precisely the same objection that I have to the argument that a religious exemption should be added to laws banning MGM. As a Jewish male, that makes me feel like my rights don't matter as much as the rights of Christians. If I were an infant again, why should I not be protected against genital mutilation just as much as any other infant? What this video implies to me is that protecting non-Christian infants from genital mutilation is not quite as important - at least not as important to the creator of the Little Images video - and not as central to this cause as protecting Christian infants from genital mutilation. That makes me extremely uncomfortable. To understand this, look at pictures of the Bay Area Intactivists protests in front of the Northern California chapter of the ACLU. No one can look at a picture of Brian Levitt demonstrating against the NCACLU's support for MGM on the grounds of "religious freedom" and not be moved. Mr. Levitt is pictured holding up a sign that reads, "ACLU - Why won't you protect my Jewish body?" That is exactly how I feel personally and that is precisely my objection to the position of the ACLU. Although well–intentioned, the Little Images video, at least to some extent, makes me feel the same way. I object to the implicit exclusion of my right and the right of all non-Christian children to be free from genital mutilation. Moreover, I, as a Jewish man, am working to protect all children from genital mutilation: children of all sexes (including intersex), all nationalities, and all religions. I am not focusing my efforts on protecting only "my" people and I see no reason why Christians should focus their efforts on protecting only "theirs."

When Congress banned FGM in 1996, it specifically stated in text accompanying the statute that the finding of Congress was that the law did not infringe on the legitimate practice of religion. Congress recognized that the right not to be subjected to genital mutilation is absolute, hence more basic and of greater weight than the right of one's parents to exercise their religious beliefs when doing so entails the ritual genital mutilation of their children. What was so perverse and, I believe, unconstitutional about the language of this law is that it exempted 50% of the population - males - from this protection. The creator of this video, in contrast, has taken precisely the opposite tack, namely, that genital mutilation is wrong not in spite of religion but because of it. But, like the 1996 FGM law, this approach limits the protection of infants to only a certain segment of the population; it aims to protect some infants but not others. Here the distinction is based not upon sex but upon religion. It is almost as though the creator of this video is making a strategic calculation that not all children can be saved from genital mutilation and so she or he is concentrating her or his efforts on creating a figurative Christian sanctuary in which only Christian children may be protected from genital mutilation. Meanwhile, the doors of this sanctuary are effectively being slammed shut in the faces of non-Christian children. Although surely not its intent (at least, I hope not), that, at any rate, is how many non-Christians (and, perhaps, Christians, too) are likely to interpret this video.

I understand the urge to appeal to a particular audience - to tailor the message, so to speak - in order to increase the likelihood that one's target audience will be more receptive to one's message, but doing so comes, I believe, at the risk of what may ultimately prove to be a great cost to this movement. And this ties in with my first objection. Namely, that by appealing narrowly and specifically to Christians on the basis of Christian doctrine, the maker of this video is in effect conceding that genital autonomy is not a basic human right. But until the right not to be subjected to genital mutilation is recognized universally and absolutely as a basic human right without any exception whatsoever, the world will be condemned to live with it.