I finally broke down about a month ago and watched my very first video of an infant circumcision. It was an instructional video, the picture grainy and the color off, so I couldn’t quite see in sparkling clarity what exactly was being done (for which I’m grateful). I watched it on mute at first, too. When I finally had the guts to turn the sound back on, the only thing more appalling to me than the screams of the baby was the cold, detached, clinical description of the procedure recited by the doctor performing it.
I’m not a squeamish person. Back in the day, when I was a professional cook at a high end hotel, I was the go-to girl whenever someone accidentally stuck his hand in the deep fryer or cut the tip of her finger off, to assess the injury, determine if it required serious attention and, if necessary, locate the missing part, at the very least to make sure it never found its way into anyone’s dinner. I’ve held my three year-old’s head still while a doctor stitched it up, and have been through the pain of natural childbirth three times. I was even seriously considering a career as a medical examiner at one time.
But watching that video left me shaking, my throat clogged with tears, and my chest tight and hot with this kind of simmering anger that such things are still done to other human beings–and such helpless ones–in this so-called progressive age.
And no, this is not an article about infant circumcision, per se. It’s an article about what the cultural and legal acceptance of infant circumcision, even in cultures where it’s not the norm, tells us about society, and about men’s place in it.
I also remember the media shit-storm that occurred a decade or so ago in Vancouver’s Chinatown when vendors were reported to the SPCA (by horrified schoolchildren on a field trip, no less) for chopping up and selling meat off live turtles, stripping off the shell and carving up the turtle piece by piece while it still lived. The vendors themselves didn’t see what the problem was. Keeping it alive as long as possible kept each slice of meat fresh. What could be simpler or easier? Besides, it was just a turtle. Why should anyone care?
Animal rights advocates were outraged by the practice (as were the majority of Average Joes I spoke to about it), but the SPCA considered it a “cultural norm”, and since there was no specific law against it, there was “not a whole lot we can do”.
Which seems bizarre, when a person running a puppy mill, or beating their cat with a hose, or allowing a dog to starve in their care, can earn themselves a fine and even jail time, or be banned from owning animals.
Denis Leary did a “funny because it’s true” bit in his Special “No Cure for Cancer”, where he aptly observed, “We only wanna save the cute animals, don’t we?” But I think it’s more complicated than that. It’s not just an animal’s (or human’s) cuteness factor that impacts how much we empathize or don’t with them. It’s a whole host of perceptions we have regarding their functions, roles, inner workings (if any), contributions, harmfulness, strengths and weaknesses, that combine to formulate our ability to value them as beings in their own right, rather than translating their existence solely into a function of their usefulness or harm to us.
The turtle may be cute, but it’s also food. Its role and function in relation to us is to be used and consumed by us. It’s cold-blooded, with the soulless personality of any reptile, and not even smart enough to be litter trained. It is perceived to be emotionally dead, therefore its pain is presumed to be non-existent, and its entire being alien to our own experience. And while us westerners have long had the luxury of caring about the survival and wellbeing of species other than our own, I’m not sure there’s even an agency equivalent to the SPCA in China. Their culture is still largely one of seeing animals primarily for their utility, as we used to. There’s probably not a lot of lambs or calves with names there, because when you name your food, it’s a lot harder to butcher it. You’ve turned it into a “who” rather than a “what”.
When it comes to cruelty to pets, well, things look very different to us. Our pets’ roles and functions feed our humanity–love, affection, companionship. We don’t keep them around for their utility, but for the joy they give us. We admire their attributes, and relate to their rich, emotional lives. And oddly, because we don’t “need” them, because they serve no practical purpose, perform no necessary labor, and are even burdens on us…we seem to value them all the more. We often respect their feelings and desires too much, and allow them to get fat, or become the “boss of the house”.
I used to be confused by the tendency of society–both the male and female halves of it–to over-empathize with women and not empathize at all with men, but the more I think about the turtles in the Chinese market, and the baby boy strapped screaming to a board, the more clear my thoughts become, and at the same time, the more complex.
What is “male”? What attributes do our biology and our culture assign to maleness, and why?
Strength. Independence. Self-determination. Toughness. Courage. Threat. Ruthlessness. Danger. Competence. Ambition. Predation. Reticence. Stoicism. Anger. Aggression. Violence. Perseverance. Invulnerability. Utility. Protection. Self-sacrifice. All of this is “male”.
Can such a being even feel pain? And if he does, why should we care? More importantly, can we, and have we ever been able to, afford to care?
A huge part of the role men played for ages of our evolution involved them not just being agents acting upon the outside world, but also absorbing violence, risk, pain and damage, from nature, other humans, or their own labors, so that women wouldn’t have to.
How could society’s expectation of a man to willingly, bravely, uncomplainingly stand in front of a woman and act as her shield, face the elements and possible death on a game trail to act as her spear, work his hands bloody to act as her scythe, bend his back to act as her ox, sit hungry and cold and scared in a trench to act as her curtain wall…how could this expectation exist and be enforced, if we felt real empathy for that man, if we saw him as a being in his own right, worthy of humanity just because he was human, if we valued him as much as we did the uses he could be put to, or if his suffering truly mattered to us?
How can we expect him–command him–to suffer for the benefit of women and society if we care about sparing him pain? If we could climb into his skin and imagine ourselves there, experience the full spectrum of the fear he hides, the pain he conquers, the anguish he suppresses, the loneliness he buries, the helplessness he denies?
In Africa, there is a growing movement on the part of aid agencies and federal bodies to put an end to the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation. At the exact same time, there is a program supported by the World Health Organization to implement widespread infant circumcision (the mutilation that isn’t), for the benefit of African society.
I think of that male baby, strapped to a board while his male part is cut from him, his screams as ineffectual as the squirming of a turtle with its shell stripped off, the voice of the doctor, no different in cadence or tone from the voice of the market vendor saying, “but it’s only a turtle.”
And the only way it makes any sense at all to me is to conclude that the maleness of that cut somehow transforms his suffering from that of a baby, which we might care about, into that of a male. It’s beneficial, not just to him, but to society. Even if it isn’t. Because a little male suffering never hurt anyone, right?
And I imagine the mother of that baby holding him afterward, consoling him even as she praises, “that’s my good, brave boy, my tough little guy…” and admonishing him not to cry.
I’ve been called a lot of things since I started writing about men’s issues: sexist, misogynist, hateful, unfeeling, sociopathic, insensitive, uncaring, even inhuman. And the most telling thing is that these accusations are most commonly made when I empathize with men or boys, without empathizing with women and girls more.
I don’t know how to teach society to feel any empathy for men. I don’t know that it’s a thing that can be taught. I only know that this lack of empathy for men, and society’s pathological outpouring of empathy for women, lies at the very heart of every major men’s rights issue, the wellspring of each injustice I see, and is the foundation of the wall that stands between men and real equality.