Friday, June 4, 2010

The Ivory Tower might do you some good.

To her credit, Lori Ziganto has come out against female genital mutilation or FGM. (That's like coming out against human slavery or premeditated murder, but still, good for her.) It is a barbaric practice and it is morally wrong. Why?

In her post, Ziganto cited this very informative Salon article by Lynn Harris. According to Harris,
FGM refers to a variety of traditional rite-of-passage practices, widespread in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, that involve the nicking, cutting or removal of parts of female genitals for reasons both non-medical and mythical (e.g., to make a woman "clean" and "reduce" her libido). Health consequences include severe pain and bleeding, hemorrhaging, chronic infection, infertility, painful intercourse, post-traumatic stress, pregnancy complications possibly fatal to the baby, and death of the victim herself.
Obviously, FGM harms its victims and is on those grounds obviously morally wrong. And one obviously cannot morally justify the practice by claiming that it is an essential part of one's culture. One could just as easily argue that slavery in the American South was justified as an essential part of Southern culture.

And so that there is no confusion about this, let me make it absolutely clear that
  1. I am a liberal, 
  2. I am a feminist, 
  3. I am morally opposed to FGM, and 
  4. I reject metaethical moral relativism. Therefore, according to me, if a moral judgment (e.g., "FGM is morally wrong") is true, then it is absolutely and universally true.  
Ziganto is correct in saying that metaethical moral relativism might provide a philosophical justification of FGM. The idea is this. In some cultures, it is thought that FGM is morally justified. If metaethical moral relativism is true, then moral judgments are relative in the sense that they can be actually true (and not just believed to be true) in one society and actually false (and not just believed to be false) in another. Therefore, in some societies, FGM really is morally justified, in spite of the fact that we don't believe it to be morally justified around here. But the careful reader will note that the moral justification given for the nicking procedure in Harris's article isn't based on metaethical moral relativism at all, but rather on some form of consequentialism:
Female genital mutilation . . . has been a federal crime since 1996, but we know it happens here, with an estimated 228,000 American girls having undergone or being at risk of the procedure. If the doctor doesn't do it -- or do something -- someone else probably will, either here or in Somalia, as untold numbers of girls are also sent to their home countries for the procedure. (This, too, may soon become a federal crime).

So what if a U.S. doctor -- while refusing to perform any other or more invasive sort of genital cutting -- were authorized to offer one option: a tiny, symbolic, non-disfiguring pinprick or "nick" on a girl's clitoral hood, under sanitary conditions and local anesthesia? What if her parents, resolved to do some form of ritual cutting, accepted this offer as an alternative? What if the doctor -- though arguably perpetuating, in principle, a cruel and misogynist tradition -- would therefore save this girl from an almost incomparably worse fate, whether on U.S. soil or abroad: perhaps a brutally invasive excision with rough tools and nothing to numb the pain, plus the possibility of serious lifelong health complications -- or death?

Would that, then, be the right thing for this doctor to do?
As Ziganto reports, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised an earlier policy that unequivocally condemned FGM to permit nicking. (And, as Zigano reports, the AAP reversed itself in the ensuing uproar.)  Unfortunately, Ziganto misleadingly suggested that a relativist multiculturalism was responsible for the AAP's more permissive attitude toward FGM:
Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics jumped right in as a contestant in the race to see who can be the most revolting, all in the name of multiculturalism and their misguided idea of tolerance. They released a policy update on Female Genital Mutilation, in which they first changed the term to Female Genital Cutting and, further, gave credence to the idea of allowing doctors to provide a “clitoral nick” instead.
Of course, liberals are ultimately to blame, for in Ziganto's mind, to be liberal is to be tolerant, and to be tolerant is to embrace multiculturalism, and to embrace multiculturalism is to embrace metaethical moral relativism. (I have a mental image of these words on Glenn Beck's blackboard connected to each other with arrows.) While this is likely true of some persons, I am confident that a vast majority of liberals are not metaethical moral relativists. And it is quite obvious that the reasoning (if you can call it that) that Ziganto attributes to supporters of the relaxed policy doesn't look anything like the reasoning Harris mentions. Consequentialists are not necessarily metaethical moral relativists. And that consequentialist reasoning is a hell of a lot more plausible than the straw man Ziganto rants about in her post. While I am staunchly against FGM, I also believe that our moral reasoning must be sensitive to empirical reality. Ziganto is quite vocal about her pro-life views; if nicking could actually save a person's life, wouldn't we have some reason to do it? Or do we care only about the lives the unborn, Ziganto? Arriving at the correct answer in this moral dilemma isn't quite as straightforward as Ziganto would lead us to believe. Ziganto insists that the issues are quite simple: "There is no tricky territory to negotiate. Some things are black and white. Some things are right or wrong. Some things are good or evil." While this is undoubtedly true, Ziganto's insistence that we dumb this dilemma down and tell the academics in the Ivory Tower to go fuck themselves is just the opposite of what's needed here.

What I find most disturbing is that, in citing Harris' article, Ziganto was probably aware of the consequentialist argument for clitoral nicking. But she failed to mention that argument in her post and mentioned only her multicultural straw man argument. This indicates either an irresponsible laziness or deceptiveness on her part. It's too bad that Ziganto, in her signature sloppy way, rails against the Ivory Tower when some time there would have done her writing and thinking some good. I suppose she'd rather write yet another hysterical screed about the "elitist left, enshrined in their ivory towers," who "choose to be apologists for evil behavior so that they can tout themselves as culturally enlightened and Better Than You." Responsibility-free blogger boilerplate pays the bills.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog


What I'm Following

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson