Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued perhaps the single most appalling statement of official multiculturalism I have read with regard to the United States in many years. It called for de-criminalizing what might be called a softer, gentler form of clitoral mutilation – allowing for a “ritual nick” of a girl’s clitoris instead. The fundamental argument was that if the US did not relax its criminal laws against “any non-medical procedure performed on the genitals” of a girl, families committed to the practice would take them elsewhere for a much more thorough mutilation.
This ritual drawing of a drop of blood from a girl’s clitoris – and that is on the generous assumption that, over a decade or so, that’s all it turns out to be, rather than the stalking horse of the very thing that led to the change in policy – performed in a doctor’s office by, presumably, a pediatrician or nurse following the American Academy of Pediatrics’ advice, would therefore save American girls from a worse mutilation elsewhere. So. The laws of the United States and the norms of American society in a deeply fundamental matter are to be held hostage against the possibility of what might happen to an American girl taken to Somalia or elsewhere. Nowhere in the Academy’s logic did anyone discuss the possibility that relaxing a norm under the threat of its worse violation might count as, well, reward behavior and you’ll get more it. If you give a mouse a cookie, if you give a moose a muffin, and if you give the American Academy of Pediatrics a girl’s clitoris to nick …
The Academy, under intense pressure from advocates against female genital mutilation, has withdrawn its statement. The advice, of course, is important, because among other things it offers a “best practices” defense against claims of malpractice or abuse or what have you. One of the striking things about the Academy is that it has offered controversial counsel to pediatricians before – such as its advice several years ago about pediatricians interviewing their young female patients alone to solicit the possibility of sexual abuse. Generally its views have trended toward “helping profession” interventions into the family. What therefore makes the Academy’s now-withdrawn view particularly striking is how it essentially opts for “multiculturalism” over conventional feminism. Nor would I assume that this proposal is gone for good. It would be better understood as the Academy and its ideological supporters floating a trial balloon, with an long term advocacy goal of accustoming the public to the idea. Rust never sleeps.
After all, the debate has long played out in Europe, with its larger immigrant population from places where the practice is accepted. The Academy’s original advice merely sought to bring the US debate in line with progressive thought in progressive places. It will be back. It was therefore welcome to read a forthright editorial in the New York Times today calling not just for enforcement of the law as it pertains to the United States, but to extend it to make it a felony to take a girl abroad for purposes of genital mutilation. Indeed – and it is dismaying to have to say so – it was good to be able to read in the Times that it was willing to call it “mutilation” and not the increasingly preferred term among multiculturalist progressives, “cutting” or “modification.” Said the Times today, under the title “Not Anyone’s Daughter”:
Female genital mutilation has been banned in the United States since 1996. Representatives Joseph Crowley of New York and Mary Bono Mack of California are now sponsoring legislation that would make it a felony to take a girl out of the country to have the procedure, punishing violators with fines and a five-year prison term. Supporters hope the law will be a deterrent and embolden more young women or their mothers to resist family or community pressure and defend themselves.
The need for strong resistance was underscored after the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement that a milder version of mutilation — a nick of a girl’s genitals done in a doctor’s office — should be made legal in the United States as a way to prevent families from taking children abroad for the full brutal procedure. Advocates rightly argued that medicalizing this violence against women would only legitimize it and undermine the force of the ban. The academy has since withdrawn the statement.
Congress should move quickly to pass the Girls Protection Act. More needs to be done. State health authorities should step up education campaigns in immigrant communities. Pediatricians could make it their business to recognize and report the signs of abuse.
Federal officials could ensure that ports of entry like Kennedy International Airport in New York City have informational signs, hot lines and a shelter. An international departure terminal may provide the last chance to save a girl from a lifetime of suffering and early death.
Framing ideology matters. The use of words matter. Which is a reason why the Times’s endorsement, as a progressive icon, matters considerably. The distressing part was that I, at least, was quite unsure that the New York Times would have come down firmly for genuine legal measures that draw a clear line against genital mutilation. After all, would it have surprised you, or anyone really, if it had agonized a while and finally come down where the Academy did? The reason I say this is that within my academic world, the reaction to something like this is two-fold. One is affirmatively to embrace the multicultural as against the bourgeois feminist; presumed racism against Muslim immigrant trumps Western white liberal feminist, in much of my academic world.
The second is more widespread, and if anything more troubling. It is to simply never take up such issues. You don’t embrace the new orthodoxy but you don’t raise your voice against it, either. If you’re a liberal, progressive feminist, you concentrate your energies, on the one hand, on going after the wicked Catholic Church and trying to find ways to sue it while, on the other, never quite managing to say anything about the importation of these practices into the United States that might have implications for the Muslim community. When pressed, hint that it is simply a somewhat paranoid, if not perverse, anti-immigrant, racist, anti-Muslim obsession of right nativists with the spread of FGM, honor killing, and other practices in the US. Best not to talk about them at all.
The few times that I’ve raised these issues with my colleagues in the progressive academy, there has been a distinct undertone that even to raise the issue is to mark oneself out as a pervert for thinking about such things and a wicked conservative-nativist-racist. They prefer not to talk about it, and to the extent they do, it is not to set out markers of prohibited behavior at all, but instead to find “common ground” and build “communal bridges” and all that. Everyone wants to be the “friend” across cultures – no one wants to have to play the mean, nasty enforcer, even when it comes to honor killings. This won’t work – it hasn’t worked in Europe and it won’t work here. Everyone wants to play the person of tolerant liberality; no one wants to play the enforcer of the basic rules that, yes, do impinge on certain things in family life.
Our political elites have failed us badly in this, as in so many things. How? Because they too want to be perceived not as the ones who both set and enforce the “deep” norms of behavior, but instead as tolerant emissaries of liberality. So they haven’t set the markers, haven’t demanded their enforcement – so that they can be the good guys, the tolerant ones, the accommodating ones – and then it falls to individuals to have to try and enforce what are, at the end of the day, social norms, and that means they turn into the bad guys. The way it should actually work is that the political elites play the heavy – so that ordinary individuals, in their daily interactions, can be the tolerant and liberal ones, the ones who make accommodations on a retail basis, so to speak, because they operate within a frame in which the fundamental, wholesale norms are set and enforced by society as a whole, and mean something. The liberality of daily life is made possible by the rigorous enforcement of the “iron cage” of fundamental norms at the social, political, and legal level; if the elites who are supposed to be in charge of setting those norms decide that, instead, they want to be the accommodating, liberal, relaxed, tolerant ones, they make it difficult-to-impossible for ordinary individuals to play that role at in daily life where it most matters.
My own positive view, set out in the last half of this article on Mormons, Multiculturalism, and Muslims in the Weekly Standard (this is a long article, and this argument is in the last third), is that religious commuities thrive within an “iron cage” of sturdy public standards on what is okay and not. It was, in my view, the enforcement of the ban on Mormon polygamy that both forced, but also allowed, Mormonism to find its place and a thriving place within broader American culture. That would not have happened, I believe, had the US instead adopted a “communalist” approach to the public political culture that said, well, Mormons do their thing in their community. It would have allowed Mormonism a much more radical practice – and it would have ghettoized it as well. Islam in America will thrive most, in my view, if it does not go down the special privileges of religious accommodation route, but instead locks itself and is locked by law and practice, into the iron cage of public life. Otherwise it will be ghettoized as in Europe – with an increasingly radical fringe and less and less integration. Not good for the broader culture and not good for American Muslims – the Mormon experience, and what made it possible – including a great deal of coercion – deserves much closer study.
However, the several times that I’ve raised these issues of FGM, honor killings, etc., among social and religious conservatives, their reaction has also been dismaying. On the one hand, unsurprisingly they have the same genuine recoil both from the practice of FGM that the general population does, and recoil from the idea that the United States should be making any “diversity” concession to it. They don’t think, any more than the general population in the US does, that this makes them “racist” or “anti-Muslim,” and that it is only the manipulation of the public culture by such “helping profession” elites in such places as the Academy that the charge even comes up. (And perhaps a provision added into the currently proposed legislation permitting a tort action against the Academy, and its executive leadership, board, and bioethics committee members individually, by any girl or her court appointed guardian in case of clit-nicking casually related to the Academy’s advice? Pour encourager les autres?)
But – a big but – on the other hand, these religious conservatives with whom I’ve raised this also exhibit a certain dismaying, underlying concern that nothing done to outlaw these kinds of practices should get in the way of anything that they might want in the way of religious accommodations under existing law. Some of those conversations have increasingly come to disturb me, frankly – a general sense that the door to religious accommodation has to be thrown open as widely as possible and anything that might put limits on that is a bad idea from a religious Christian conservative point of view.
My own view, which I will set out separately at some point, is that religious accommodation in the United States has actually gone too far. Something that could work as a fine, abstract, robust statement of liberal principle actually only worked insofar as it only really turned out to be invoked in relatively restrained circumstances. If no one was trying to invoke it as a basis for never having to show your face on an ID, for example, but instead it was limited to a historically limited and self-limiting practice of some Indian tribes and the religious use of peyote, then it is easy to frame it as a matter of grand principle, all high minded liberalism about religious accommodation. When things get serious, and the issues involve things like cutting girls’ clitorises, then suddenly one needs to be able to draw much tougher lines. Those tougher lines would be less accommodating to Christian grounds, but I think it is a consequence of boundary-stretching claims that push things where a liberal society should not go, or allow its religious communities to go.
Finally, then, there is the worst possible argument – and the scariest. This is the argument that if the US does not relax its bright line rules, then the girls will just be taken someplace else where it will be worse. Even someone ordinarily as sensible as Jay Nordlinger at NRO took this seriously in a post when the Academy advice was first released. Should we really think that the right way to address this is to allow the US to be taken hostage by clitoral mutilators and their Academy enablers? The idea that the United States has somehow reached the point at which it is no longer able to make its own laws against something as basic as FGM and that, therefore, it needs to give into the demand to relax them in order to prevent something worse is breathtaking.
The underlying assumption is that the US is no longer capable of policing this kind of behavior and therefore should make accommodations to it. It is a form of concession to the logic of hostage-taking: Your society must change its ways, its fundamental assumptions about the treatment of girls and women, because if you don’t, we’ll do something worse. Listen to Dena Davis, the law professor who advised the Academy’s bioethics committee, offering an oh-so reasonable view on NPR. And it is always a form of logic that says, you can’t draw the line at x, because people will then do x+1; but you can’t draw the line at x+1, because then people will do x+2; but you can’t draw the line at x+2 … One of the insufficiently recognized problems with consequentialist logic of this kind is its susceptibility to this kind of gaming.
Then ask yourself if, under that logic, any lines can be drawn anymore – since one can always threaten to do something worse. And note, too, that in the Economist’s account of Professor Davis’s position, the society to which the United States should look for its inspiration is Indonesia – with an underlying assumption that it is not okay, or no longer possible, for the United States to look to, well, the United States for the basic assumptions about what it owes in the way of protections from abuse for its girls.
Quick addition. I see from the early comments that they are headed in a direction in which VC comments often go … analogies that wind up making the skeptical case by showing that this isn’t really different from that, so what’s your problem? Well, I’m glad that VC commenters are a skeptical bunch, but I’m not always impressed with the way in which the analogies tend to suppress the social realities surrounding any particular practice. It’s peculiar, but the skepticism often put out in the comment threads here looks to be so tough-minded – but then is almost touchingly child-like in its willful naivete.
Well, it’s a larger topic than I propose to take up here, but I don’t think that you can take up this argument without committing yourself to a view on the social function of this kind of cutting – the question of about circumcision makes sense, but frankly trying to assimilate this to, say, an ear piercing is simply inapt. At that point, if one returns to the circumcision issue as a more meaningful analogy, then one does have to adopt – if only by implication – a view on such things as the social practice surrounding it. You might dispute the framing of the social context in which the practice takes place – deny, for example, that it is part of a larger structure of the (in)equality of women and their sexuality – but you do need to be clear that you are taking a position on that in the selection of your analogy.
The reasoning from analogy that often takes place here at VC conceals a great many hidden assumptions about the social practice embodied in the analogies. I don’t find much of it particularly persuasive or useful; analogical argument requires in the first place an account of why the “similar” features are indeed similar. In that sense it is a more demanding form of argument, containing an extra step so to speak, than a linear syllogism would be. But that’s a big topic, obviously, and I’ll take it up another day. Meanwhile, I think the circumcision discussion is relevant – while ultimately unconvincing on many grounds – while many of the other offered analogies, well, a lot less so. It is not really helpful to say, if I can imagine a possible world in which x would be okay, then here in our world, our life, our social circumstances, the social function that x plays in our world, it must also be okay.
Also, please note, the fundamental argument offered by the Academy was to say that it opposed the practice, but that out of a concern for worse consequences of girls being taken elsewhere, it supported this relaxation.