Most conversations about FGM among Westerners not had by sociologists and other such academics indeed center around some version of “Ugh, that’s so horrible and disgusting! Who would do that to children?!” at best, and, at worst, a variant of “Let’s kill the monsters that do this!” This corroborates some of what Wade initially posits: Westerners’ reactions are highly informed by their particular perspectives in ways that they might not fully comprehend. To them, it’s clear and unquestionable that FGM is bad and that its practitioners should feel bad.
Many average people who oppose practices such as FGM probably do hold the very simplistic and ignorant view that those who engage in such acts are innately and completely evil, and doing it purely for the sake of being bad because that’s just how they are. This is obviously a neglect to consider certain universal aspects of the human condition. People who think this way don’t attribute their own ethical failures or wrongdoing to an inherent “evil” nature on their part – but the others, the ones who do things like mutilate the genitals of their children, are different from them. They must be “monsters”, because what person like themselves could do such a thing? The undercurrents of prejudice in this mindset are clear and unavoidable, and this does nothing to help them understand why a disturbing practice like FGM happens.
At the same time, the reaction of “who would do that to children?” may not always be wholly rooted in the assumption that the people who do this to children are incomprehensible, inhuman monsters who are totally unrelatable. Rather than concluding that these people are simply not like us, the discomfort and bafflement may arise from the realization that they are like us, they are people too – that in another life, we could have been them.
While it’s unnerving to think – mistakenly – that the world contains people who are little more than evil automatons that do awful things like FGM, it may be even more unnerving to accept the reality that these are average people who have somehow reached a point where they consider FGM to be morally good and the right thing to do for their children. The horror at the sheer moral difference between us and their beliefs and practices is only amplified when considered in the context of the sameness of our and their human nature. People don’t have to be fundamentally dissimilar, or inhuman, to do this. They just have to believe it’s right, and they just have to want to do the right thing. No different from us.
Acknowledging that we might very well do the same thing, if we believed as they do, means having to accept that anyone is capable of this – that there is not a bright line encircling and protecting and separating us, the chosen ones who would never do such a thing, from a moral void where monsters lurk. It means accepting that the capacity for such acts is always among us, whoever and wherever we are. What’s beyond the naive view that FGM practitioners are purely monstrous is even more outrageous, saddening and tragic: not only does something as brutal as FGM occur, but it occurs because good and honest people who care about their children have come to believe that it is right.
It’s important to keep this in mind so as not to dehumanize people, or hold them any less than fully accountable for their actions. But it’s also crucial that this recognition of the universal human capability for baffling, horrifying choices in the name of “good” is not used as an excuse to treat all beliefs and practices as though they were the same. The understanding of “you might do the same thing if you were in their position, because they believe it’s good” has at times been construed to mean that we have no possible grounds to criticize anyone for what they do, as all behaviors are somehow created equal – and whether a thing is right or wrong hinges on nothing but how its practitioners feel about it. It’s wrong to us, but it’s right to them, so who are we to judge?
This is somewhat like the “view from nowhere” in journalism, where certain issues are misleadingly presented as though every point of view is equal in its validity, even though some of them may not be valid at all. What is right? What is wrong? It’s not our place to say. There are only things that happen, from which we must detach any personal judgment.
The report on FGM by the Hastings Center, issued for the alleged purpose of correcting media coverage of the practice, promoted this perspective. They make clear their intentions to exclude any viewpoint on whether FGM is right or wrong – they just wanted to present some facts. That’s all.
The problem is that their presentation of certain facts served to minimize the impact of FGM in just about every way possible: suggesting that journalists should be less “hyperbolic” about infibulation as it occurs among “only” 10% of girls who undergo FGM, implying that sexual functioning is not affected by means of blatantly equivocating statements about how women who haven’t undergone FGM also sometimes report dysfunction, claiming that complications from the practice are “sensationalized” and “infrequent”, lazily dismissing the possibility that FGM results from patriarchal society or male beauty standards by merely noting that women are involved in the practice and largely approve of it, and offering red herrings about how these societies also circumcise boys.
In their pursuit of neutrality toward viewpoints on FGM, disconnected from any judgment of the practice, they ended up inadvertently promoting the view that FGM isn’t all that bad. It does not matter whether they did this on purpose or not. That was the end result regardless of their intentions: they produced a report that downplays the effects of FGM. That’s the problem with the view from nowhere. The appearance of neutrality can disguise the fact that something is not neutral and not accurate in how it depicts a certain issue.
The hands-off stance toward judging the practices of people who believe differently from us functions similarly. When people assert that it’s not our place to decide whether FGM is right or wrong, this actually means allowing FGM to proceed unhindered. Those who hold this view may deceive themselves into thinking they’re being neutral, but the result is not neutral at all. And just because we might indeed endorse the practices of another group if we believed what they believe, that doesn’t mean they can’t actually be wrong for doing it, and it doesn’t mean we can’t actually be right to disapprove of it.
I’m glad that many people strongly disapprove of FGM and want to see it ended. I’m not so glad when some of these people promote what seems to be an impotent version of this belief that’s stripped of any force to create meaningful change. Heina says:
How they hope to actually enact change with that approach is beyond me. To endlessly remind ourselves that we know that FGM is a terrible thing accomplishes very little more than what has been done before. In terms of a Western audience, or one familiar with Western thought, it is absolutely no surprise that relatively few to none, even of those who are accused of being apologists for it, actually condone or support FGM in any way. “FGM is bad” is the real platitude in this context.
…In reality, infibulation is not very common, women who have undergone FGM can experience sexual pleasure and desire*, women enforce and perform FGM on other women (although it does stem from patriarchal notions about governing femininity and female sexuality, something Wade neglects to mention), some non-Africans do it, and Western-led efforts (which often rely on outlawing) are usually unhelpful at best and backfire at worst.
To point these things out does not necessarily trivialize FGM.
Frankly, how anyone hopes to bring about change with this approach is beyond me. If it’s pointless and unproductive to say that FGM is simply wrong, if infibulation ought not be that much of a concern due to its relative rarity (suggesting that other types of FGM may be even less of a concern), if its effects on women are minimal if not completely absent, then why should we want to end FGM, anyway?
Why even be concerned with how unhelpful certain approaches are, if FGM just isn’t that big of a deal? How should we bring about change when we’re deprived of any compelling reason to oppose FGM? Heina notes:
To this day, in Western society, the mutilation of baby boys’ genitals as well as those of intersex babies’ is considered normal. Outlawing said practices does little to change the cultural zeitgeist regarding them. The lowered rates of male genital mutilation reflect not on the efforts of some outside entity declaring it wrong, but forces and voices from within the group working towards change.
Recognizing that lasting and effective change follows from genuine changes in the beliefs of the group in question, rather than restrictions suddenly imposed from outside, is definitely important. But how are we supposed to convince people to change their belief that FGM is acceptable? What can we tell them to make them realize that FGM is unacceptable? What reason would they have to change their minds, their culture, when we’ve decided that saying it’s wrong is too aggressive and that the harms it causes aren’t all that significant or important?
Again, while it’s wonderful that many people want FGM to be ended, it’s disconcerting that some of them endorse an approach that seemingly amounts to standing back and hoping the cultures which practice it will eventually decide to stop on their own. I don’t doubt that they would like to see FGM abolished. I do question the specifics of how exactly they believe this can happen. What does it mean to believe that we should oppose FGM, while also insisting that this belief should in no way impact its practitioners? The truly razor-thin line here is the one that people must walk in order to believe that FGM should be done away with, while avoiding any use of the words “bad” or “harmful” or “wrong”.