I am universally opposed to genital mutilation. It does not matter to me if your religion considers the alteration of the human sexual organs divinely ordained or your culture finds it morally defensible. I think it should be against the law and physicians and parents who mutilate the sexual organs of their children should be punished. I applaud the nearly universal condemnation of Jumana Nagarwala, the Muslim emergency room physician, arrested for committing female genital mutilation on several young girls. I also think much of this public outcry is racist. It is more about the hatred of Muslims than concern for these children.
Why would I make such an outrageous statement?
As a victim and perpetrator of religiously ordained and culturally approved genital mutilation, I find it suspect when Christian and Jewish Americans who circumcise their sons suddenly become ardent opponents of genital mutilation. If altering the sexual organs of Muslim children is so appalling, how do we justify what we do? How are our justifications for circumcision any nobler than Muslim justifications for a clitoridectomy? Both procedures are based on religious and cultural opinion rather than good science. And why do we use a medical term like circumcision for what we do and a pejorative term like mutilation for what some Muslims do? Circumcision is clearly the mutilation of the male genitalia.
Let me make this clear. I am not defending the actions of Jumana Nagarwala or the parents of the children she mutilated. I universally oppose genital mutilation. Therefore, I cannot ignore the hypocrisy of Christian and Jewish Americans using this incident as one more opportunity to demonize Muslim people, many of whom also oppose genital mutilation. This is racist. I will also oppose attempts by some Muslim people to defend genital mutilation as culturally relative and worthy of tolerance. My opposition to their argument is not racist, if it is based on a universally applied principle.
I understand this is a subtle distinction, but it is an important one as we sort through issues of culture, privilege and racism. As a white, male American, I must be very careful of what and whom I critique. My privileged position makes is easy to identify and condemn the flaws in others. I must be constantly aware of how my prejudice impacts my opinions. As I make judgments of other people, I must carefully sort out those judgments that are racist from those that are moral.
For example, when I began attending public school graduations at my children’s urban schools, I was forced to examine my judgments of the black families sitting around me. They were loud and boisterous, interrupting the proceedings with cheers and shouts. Initially, based on my cultural preferences, I judged them rude and obnoxious. Only later did it occur to me that high school graduation, which I had grown up seeing as normative and expected, is a cause of great celebration for a marginalized group. My judgment of them was racist.
On the other hand, raising children in a diverse setting, I also became aware of the higher levels of the use of corporal punishment by black parents. In black culture, the physical punishment of children is often tolerated, defended and even celebrated. Though there are some good explanations for why many black parents utilize corporal punishment, I oppose corporal punishment for children. I oppose this behavior in parents of all races and ethnicities.
This moral position does not give me the right to target black parents for my condemnation. That would be racist. There are plenty of white parents who still whip their children. It does, however, allow me to oppose any argument that defends corporal punishment as either a black cultural distinctive or a conservative Christian hallmark. I don’t care what your parents, religion, or culture taught you. Beating your child is wrong.
The problem, whether we’re dealing with genital mutilation, corporal punishment, or a variety of other human behaviors, is when we condemn another group or race for a behavior we tolerate. When we do so, we are speaking out of racial prejudice rather than moral outrage. Our responsibility, first and foremost, is to address the acceptance and prevalence of that behavior in our own group or culture. Looking through the windows of someone else’s house only distracts us from our own housecleaning.
This is why I find the Facebook posts calling for Jumana Nagarwala’s punishment in the ugliest terms so disturbing. It smacks of hatred and racism. Racism is most dangerous when it wraps itself in moral indignation, focusing on another group’s imperfections rather than on our own complicity. When Christian and Jewish American’s finally abandon our fixation on altering male genitalia, I will be less suspicious of our condemnations of Jumana Nagarwala.