I noticed I’m getting very worked up about a political debate that is going on in German media and among my friends. I don’t usually get that emotional about such debates, and instead of trying to persuade people of my views, I usually prefer to just turn away in disgust if I feel people are not recognizing my infinite wisdom. I’m still wondering why I reacted so strongly to the topic (it has virtually nothing to do with my personal life), but when I copied a comment on a blog post into a text editor for further improvement and started researching articles, I realized that I should let off steam in my own space and come to rest.
The debate goes about male circumcision as practiced in Islam and Judaism. In a recent court ruling (a German newspaper article about the case here), while the defendant (a doctor) was found not guilty, the practice itself was assessed as assault. This caused some outrage among Muslims and Jews and sparked a public debate which prompted the German parliament to motion for a bill that legalises circumcision of underage boys without medical indication, if it is an important part of your cultural heritage. The motion was passed against strong opposition from individuals all over the political spectrum and has caused a heated public debate.
I was following the news and commentary on this as I do on any subject. I started getting emotional when a friend of mine commented on this blog post in which the author supports the view that circumcision of underage boys indeed does amount to assault, but that it’s an unbearable insult to Judaism to have a court call it that, and a German one at that:
The ruling is correct in stating that ritual circumcision is unnecessary bodily harm. But a German court should never have said such a thing – the fact of the statement, in its context, means very simply that Jews and Muslims are no longer welcome in Germany
I’ll try to not talk about circumcision, because I am completely unqualified to do that. I think it’s awful to hurt little children like that, that’s about as much as I can say on the specific topic. There’s a great article here (in German) by a Jewish doctor who brings a lot more insight to the table than I’ll ever be able to provide.
Instead, I want to talk about the fact that I’m sick of hearing something is hurting someones religious feelings, and that therefore we should bend over and accept things we don’t like. I’m especially sick of hearing it from spineless intellectuals who aren’t even talking about their own religious feelings, but have a very vague, hippiesque idea of how tolerating just about everything will lead to a pluralistic and enlightened society, like some of the commenters do. It won’t.
Yes, I’m quite a godless person, so I won’t know what it’s like when your religious feelings are hurt. And just to be clear, I’m not saying it’s OK to be mean to people because of their religion.
But let’s be clear: this debate is not about whether a Jew or Muslim is allowed to cut off his foreskin. (Interestingly, it’s also not about whether the practice hurts the boy. Everybody seems to agree on that.) It’s your body, go ahead, you’re free to mod the shit out of it. This is about whether it’s OK to cut off the foreskin of your little boy. There’s very similar debates about whether it’s OK that you decide where your wife goes and what she’s wearing. Whether it’s OK that you decide who your children marry.
This is about doing stuff to other people. It’s about consent, and by that I mean qualified, authentic consent from an independent person. It’s about protecting the individual. Of course, you can wear a Burqa. But if you don’t want to, nobody has the right to force it on you, or bully you into wearing it, or call shame on you if you don’t. That person has to swallow his religious feelings and let you have your way. At least in our society. (Note that on the same grounds, I oppose the view that “women should not wear a Burqa, even if they want to, because that may put pressure on other women who don’t want to wear one”. It’s the same argument in reverse.)
As a society, we value the individual freedom highly. We try to protect it: from the state, from corporations, from other individuals, from circumstances like disability, poverty, fear. It is in constant danger by all of those. Corporations want to make you buy their stuff. Other people want to make you sleep with them. Poverty or fear make you give up your freedom. The state is notorious for trying to make you do stuff. And religious groups are no exception from that list.
We value individual freedom highly because we believe in inviolable human dignity and in the preciousness of human life and human potential more than we do in the systems that we create. We have come to that conclusion by countless atrocities that have been committed in the name of our faiths, and ideologies, and organizations, and by the countless times some rebel, some genius, some brave minority has given a damn about gods, about law, about politeness, about convention and has saved the day for all of us.
We rightfully distrust the Grand Idea and prefer the multitude of sacred individuals. It is a hard-earned and valuable lesson and it requires our constant effort to protect it, against our governments, against our corporations, against other individuals, and yes, against religions, too, because God or not, their rules are written down, interpreted and enforced by humans as well, and boy, did they make people suffer already.
So why do people think it’s more important to be polite and considerate than to ban assault? Beats me, but I see it often, from the nicest and smartest people, and that’s why it makes me angry. Martin Luther King once wrote (emphasis mine):
I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods […]” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
That’s probably as angry as a non-violent preacher with perfect manners and education gets at people who have no balls (as in cojones, not testicles – women have balls, too). Who will let their values rot and erode out of laziness and cowardry. Who get the theory right, but refuse to change their behaviour, and, what’s worse, who try to talk themselves out of it.
A pluralistic and tolerant society does not emerge out of tolerance for every idea in the world. It is not created by doing one-eighties on your values just because some wighead goes all touchy-feely about his precious tradition. And it doesn’t matter if that tradition is thousands of years old and has millions of followers, because this behaviour simply puts the less scrupulous, the less liberal, the less tolerant at an advantage, and when that happens too much, they will be going after you before you can say “constitutional rights”.
When you think circumcising babies (who are unable to give consent) is assault, you should welcome the court that says so, because assault is not something that we should shut up about. If you think that it’s indisputable to put the physical integrity of children first, like commenter Natascha does [German], please observe that the people circumcising their boys do, in fact, dispute that idea. And they don’t do it in the intellectual way you might like to see that question discussed: they do it in a very uncompromising and physical way, a way that would land a parent or doctor in Germany in court, and rightfully so. Unless they convert to Islam before they do it, that is.
Even in a tolerant, pluralistic society it is OK to be against something. If that something is an issue of personal liberty and integrity, it’s not just OK, it is mandatory. It’s your friggin’ civic duty. In a pluralistic society, you have to, you absolutely have to, call bullshit on people who act against the very foundations of that pluralism by not accepting its most important rules. “First they came …” is a meme for a reason.
Politeness is a nice-to-have, the icing on the cake, it looks well on you, it makes you a better person. But it’s hard to say in a polite way, “I don’t want your sacred and ancient tradition in my home because it goes against the most important set of values that I have and I don’t care if it makes up your cultural identity”. And sometimes, you have to say things like that.
The world is full of ancient and sacred traditions. I don’t care. I think we have, in the democratic constitutions of our mostly secular states, our own sacred rules, and we should keep them. Unfortunately, they are not ancient. Unfortunately, there’s by far not enough people following them. Unfortunately, they aren’t god-given. Unfortunately, they appear to not be eternal, either. We had to make them up ourselves, we have to keep them alive, they require constant grooming and they have to be re-evaluated and re-interpreted with each new situation, such as now. Unfortunately, this is hard work. But let’s be happy that we get a chance to do it.
Did you ever hear of those people who listen to the man next door beating and raping his wife and not call the police because they don’t want to invade people’s privacy and it would be so god damn embarassing if it turns out to be a weird fetish?
Don’t be those people.
Fun fact: until 1997 (!), in Germany, if you raped a woman, and that woman was married to you, it wasn’t really rape. You know, just like, when you’re Muslim, cutting off a baby’s foreskin is not really assault, because, hey, we all do it, right?