Feminists are militant Protestant missionaries

I trust you read that piece by John Tierney on the need to be more respectful of female genital mutilation – or rather, of what he carefully decides to call ‘female circumcision’ because it’s critics who call it female genital mutilation. Well we call it that because chopping off the clitoris and most of the labia and sewing up the whole hatchet-job does seem like mutilation – we critics are funny that way.

Tierney’s piece on Leon Kass’s speech last week was terrific, but this one is…not so good. I do not like it. It makes me cross.

But the one by Richard Shweder puts Tierney’s in the shade. It’s jaw-dropping.

He’s very angry with feminists who don’t like FGM.

The article is one of a series of sensational, lurid and horrifying pieces that the Times has printed over the past decade or so covering the topic, all giving one-sided and uncritical expression to a representation of the practice that has been constructed and widely circulated by feminist and First World human rights activist groups.

Horrors. Feminists and human rights activist groups have ‘constructed’ a representation of FGM that portrays it as a drastic mutilation imposed on female children as a way to control women by chopping off most of their genitalia. How imperialist, how colonialist, how elitist, how cosmopolitan, how wicked. Of course mutilation of girl children is a fine thing as long as it’s done six thousand miles away.

If you read and believe those statements or most of the other things you find written about “FGM” in the popular press (which, for the most part, are recapitulations of the advocacy literature) then you must conclude that Africa is indeed a “Dark Continent”, where for hundreds, if not thousands of years, African parents have been murdering and maiming their daughters and depriving them of the capacity for a sexual response. You must believe that African parents (mothers and fathers) are either (a) monsters (“mutilators” of their children) or (b) fools (who are incredibly ignorant of the health consequences of their own child rearing practices and the best interests of their children); or (c) prisoners of a insufferably dangerous tradition that they themselves would like to escape, if only they could find a way out, or else (d) that African women are weak and passive and live under the patriarchal thumb of cruel, loathsome or barbaric African men.

In short, you must be a racist. Is that clear? Do you understand? Is the implied threat unmistakable enough? If you think FGM is mutilation then you think Africans are monsters, stupid, trapped, and passive. In order not to think that you have to understand and accept and believe that FGM is PERFECTLY ALL RIGHT for the people who already think it is perfectly all right, just as footbinding was perfectly all right for the people who thought that was perfectly all right.

[A]t least two things have changed since the 1920s and 1930s in Africa: anesthesia is more available, and the “civilizing” missionary efforts of militant Protestants have been supplemented and even supported by the evangelical interventions of global feminists and human rights activists…[I]t is time for a new more tolerant neo-liberal global discourse to be developed concerning unfamiliar or “alien’” body modification practices around the world. One of the central human rights claims of this new “tolerance promoting” (or at least “sufferance promoting”) neo-liberal discourse might be the following: that an offense to the culturally shaped tastes and sensibilities of cosmopolitan elites or the citizens of rich and powerful societies (whether they are Christian missionaries or secular humanist human rights activists) is not sufficient reason to eradicate someone else’s valued way of life.

‘Cosmopolitan elites’ is interesting – I wonder if Shweder is aware of how Nazi that particular formula is. If he is aware, it seems incredibly bizarre that he uses it as a weapon. But more to the point: it’s interesting that he thinks having or not having sheared off external genitalia is a mere matter of culturally shaped tastes and sensibilities – rather as if non-fans of FGM were campaigning for the people of Somalia and Egypt to eat more sushi.

I am going to argue that the emerging rules of the cultural correctness game have been fixed by the “First World” and deserve to be critiqued…I am going to suggest that these “First World” governments and activist organizations (who, ironically, often frame their campaigns in a discourse of human rights) have actually acted in violation of several human rights, including rights to self-determination and rights to family privacy…

Family privacy – yes – that is indeed where things get tricky. Let’s look at ‘rights to family privacy’ for a second. Do they include rights for male members to beat or whip or lash female members? Do they include rights of sexual access for all males to all females? Do they include rights to deny medical treatment? Rights to force children to marry people of the parents’ choosing no matter how repugnant? Rights to give young daughters to much older men to pay a gambling debt? Rights to give daughters to other tribes to settle disputes or compensate for a crime? Rights to kill daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, aunts who disobey male relatives?

He goes on to say more reasonable things about rights and the difficulty of grounding them, but the first half of the piece is riddled with unpleasant innuendo.

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