Harshly Criticizing Religious and Cultural Figures and Practices

A bunch of people have e-mailed me about Foreskin Man, a comic book series written by Matthew Hess, a leading figure in the anti-circumcision movement who apparently drafted the prototype for the San Francisco anti-circumcision ordinance. (Contrary to some initial reports, he is not the official “proponent” of the initiative listed with the San Francisco election people; I don’t know how muh of a role Hess is playing in that particular initiative, or how significant — if at all — the comic book is in the publicity for the initiative.)

The superhero plot line strikes me as pretty poor advocacy for the movement, since it makes it seem juvenile. But the hot controversy has been about Issue 2‘s depiction of the villainous circumcising rabbi and mohel, dressed in Hasidic garb and looking sinister. (Issue 1 depicts a villainous doctor; my recollection is that the planned issue 3 is going to focus on Muslim circumcision, but I mislaid the URL of the page that asserted that, so I might be mistaken.) Not just the comic book but the initiative itself have been condemned by many, on the strength of these depictions, as anti-Semitic.

This, it seems to me, raises a considerably broader question: How should we evaluate harsh criticisms of religious and cultural figures and practices, whether the criticisms are expressed in words or pictures? (I speak here of moral evaluation; I’ll take for granted that all such criticisms can’t be legally punished.)

I think this is important because it’s not an issue at all limited to Jews and circumcision. Say that someone harshly criticizes Wahhabi imams — or imams of even more extreme Islamic movements — for their support of what the critic sees as repression of women, or for their support of jihad. And say that the criticism comes either in text or in a cartoon in which the imam is shown as a sinister figure wearing a long beard and a turban. What would we say about that? When people condemn this criticism as supposedly bigoted, should we feel bound to agree, or would we think that the criticism is legitimate expression of disapproval of a religion’s harmful practices (or at least practices that reasonable people can see as harmful)?

Or say that someone harshly criticizes Catholic clergy for what the critic sees as their anti-women, anti-reproductive-choice, anti-sexual-freedom stands on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, or divorce. Or say that someone harshly criticizes Christian Science leaders for their support of the use of prayer instead of traditional medicine, and in particular for their support of this when it comes to Christian Scientists’ young children. Or say that someone harshly criticizes leaders of certain cultural groups who promote — and perform — female genital mutilation, whether the mutilation is done for religious reasons, cultural reasons, or a mix of both.

Now all of these may in fact show the critic’s hostility to certain religious or cultural practices, and to the group leaders who perpetuate such practices. The critic may cheerfully admit such hostility. The question is what should we think about such hostility, when there is reason to think that the hostility might stem not just from the leaders’ ethnic identity, or even their purely thelogical beliefs, but from the leaders support of conduct that the critic thinks inflicts real secular harms (and violates people’s rights).

The matter is easy if the criticism is (1) based on spreading falsehoods (blood libels, mythical conspiracy, and the like), (2) selectively targeted at the practices of a religious group but ignores nearly identical practices engaged in for nonreligious reasons by others, or (3) calls for government action based on group leaders’ purely religious beliefs (e.g., what do they think about the Trinity?) or the leaders’ support of religious conduct that has no material secular effect (e.g., wearing of yarmulkes or turbans, in contexts where there is no safety problem with such behavior). Likewise, if one is pretty confident that a critic’s hostility to a religious or cultural group came first, and motivates the hostility to the practice, one can fault the critic for that motivation.

But what if there’s reason to think that a critic indeed thinks that some behavior with secular effects is wrong, and violative of human rights; the critic indeed criticizes the behavior generally, whether or not it’s engaged in for religious reasons; and the critic’s hostility to the religious and cultural leaders who promote that behavior stems from the critic’s condemnation of the behavior in general?

To go through our examples, discrimination against women or gays, insistence on prayer instead of medical care when a child is sick, cutting off part of a girl’s body, and cutting off part of a boy’s body all do have secular effects. One can debate the magnitude of the effect, or whether the effect is something that the law should try to prevent; but there is at least a plausible case to be made for harshly criticizing behavior that has such secular effects.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I think the analogy between male circumcision and female genital mutilation is quite limited, because the likely costs to sexual sensation and the likely potential medical benefits are quite different. But the two are similar in that they indeed likely have some secular effects. And people can certainly have good faith beliefs that parents shouldn’t have a right to cut off healthy and functional parts of a boy’s or girl’s anatomy. Again, one can debate whether constitutional parental rights or Free Exercise Clause rights, which do not extend even to religiously motivated female genital mutilation, should nonetheless extend to religiously motivated circumcision. But the answer to the question turns on moral and practical judgment calls about the likely harms and benefits of the procedure, as well as about what weight one should presumptively give parental choice and the requirement of individual informed consent. Reasonable and unbigoted people can differ, I think, on these issues.

So when one thinks that religious or cultural leaders are advocating harmful conduct — especially conduct that’s harmful not just to adults who can decide for themselves, but to children who are not being given an opportunity to decide for themselves — what is then an acceptable reaction to those leaders’ advocacy?

Should people refrain from harshly criticizing radical Muslim imams, Catholic clergy, Christian Science leaders, cultural leaders who advocate female genital mutilation, or Jewish or Muslim religious figures who advocate male circumcision? Should they refrain from depicting them as sinister in political cartoons? Or is it permissible — and not a likely sign of religious bigotry — to express harsh hostility to religious or cultural leaders who advocate behavior that the critic thinks is a violation of human rights?

Now I anticipate that some people would argue that criticisms of rabbis and mohels — alongside other circumcisers, such as secular doctors — is proper, but use of visual imagery that had traditionally been used by anti-Semites is not. (Check out the imagery in Issue 2 for yourself; as best I can tell, the claims that the rabbis and mohels are depicted as unusually “hook-nosed” isn’t sound, but they certainly are depicted the way comic book villains tend to be depicted.) Is that so, and, if so, where does that leave the political cartoonist who wants to depict a sinister rabbi, mohel, imam, priest, nun, etc. based on a plausible argument that the religious figure is indeed engaged in secularly harmful behavior?

Say that someone thinks that Jewish attitudes towards circumcision, Wahabbist Muslim attitudes towards women, and various Christian groups’ attitudes towards homosexuality stem from attitudes passed along from a benighted past by people who refuse to shed their obsolete traditions. And say that he depicts a religious leader in the traditionalist garb of the most extreme members of the religion to symbolize such (supposed) backwardness. And say that he shows the figure with an evil appearance, to represent what he sees as the evil of his actions. Are these legitimate ways for the cartoonist to express himself?

For all I know, Hess may indeed be an anti-Semite, who hates Jews as Jews rather than just condemning rabbis and mohels as (in his eyes) mutilators of innocent children. Likewise, doubtless some harsh critics of certain denominations of Islam, of the Catholic clergy, of Christian Scientists, of Scientologists, and the like are indeed hostile to the religions first and derive their opposition to the practices and the clergy from underlying bigotry. There are some bad people on any side of a movement. I’m actually not terribly interested in people’s motivations; to me the question is what is the right moral and policy position, whether or not there are some bigots who back it for the wrong reasons. (Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.)

But as you might gather from the examples I give, to the extent we delve into people’s motivations, it’s important to think through how we frame our criticisms. Tomorrow the controversy might be about articles or cartoons portraying sinister Wahhabi imams who teach things that oppress women, or sinister cultural leaders who promote female genital mutilation, or sinister Christian Scientist leaders whose teachings lead children to die, or sinister Catholic clergy whose teachings supposedly ruin the lives of gays or women who want abortions or women who have too many children because they’ve been taught to reject contraception. And I want to make sure that in all these cases we can distinguish bigotry — hostility to religious or cultural leaders based solely on their theology or ethnicity — from legitimate hostility to teachings and actions that are plausibly seen as causing secular harm.

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