I’ll Take ‘Things to Get Worked Up Over’ For 500.

Every once and a while I’ll read something in the newspaper that makes me want to spit like a pack mule. It happens, I can’t deny. And then I have arguments with myself about what I just read. Does this have anything to do with me? Not really. Is it easy to pass judgment? Totally and completely. Am I right in doing so? Not really.

When I was in college, I took a few anthropology courses. Some of them were what one might expect; which is to say they were boring classes where hundreds of kids were made to sit in a the dark and look at hairy slides all the while taking notes. However, there was one course, taught by one man, which really stuck with me.

One day, we were learning about an African tribe. The topic of female circumcision came up.




What would a college career be without those stereo typical, staple discussions? But this time it was different. When one of the girls became worked up about this particular culture and its practices, the professor calmly tried to enlighten us all. He brought up an idea that still sits with me today. And every time I feel myself falling into that same judgmental trap, the one where I become a self-declared knower of all, I think about the point he graciously made.

How can we judge any culture we aren’t a part of? How can we understand or pose this concept of right and wrong on a group of people who know of a life entirely different from our own? Who gave us this right? Us?

And this concept sees itself into other parts of an every day life as well. It doesn’t just rear its head when another foreign culture is brought to light. Living in New York City, I see it all the time, on Subways, in cars, on busy streets, people who believe that for whatever reason they have the right to get to work faster, turn right sooner, take the already over-stuffed train first, be the first one on and the first one out. It’s a goofy display at best. It’s a hateful display at worst.

Truthfully, I get worked up a lot. We all do. I guess the only way I don’t totally piss myself off is to realize when I’m doing it and try and breath a little bit. We’re all in this together, right? We’re all supposed to be biding by some unwritten yet given social contract, right?

I realize that fighting with fellow commuters on the subway and female circumcision in Africa are two entirely different things. I also realize that the article I read today about a widows’ cleansing in Africa pales in comparison to any one New Yorker’s shitty commute on the express 4 or 5 train or how rude the woman on the stairs was at Grand Central Station. But after I read the article about how a widow is forced to have sex with a husband


  1. While I’ll politely disagree with (which is to say, not get worked up over) your professor’s moral relativism-aren’t some things like the right to not have harm inflicted upon your own body without your permission absolutely wrong? how about rape? slavery?-one thing I notice about New York commuters over DC commuters is that they are calmer, believe it or not. Maybe it’s because I don’t pass through, say, Grand Central like I did Union Station in DC on a daily basis. My 2/3 commute to & fro is pretty quiet and unhurried, I have to say. That said, there are other peculiarities I’ve noticed as well, one being the proliferation of Post (that’s NY, not Washington) readers and nary a single Economist reader to date. What can I deduce? That DC is a more intellectual but yet pissier groups of folks? I dunno.


  2. At no point did I say I agree with him entirely. But I do think he made a most excellent point at the time especially for those college age individuals who are complacent yet wordy. If it took making a point with something as extreme as female circumcision, then so be it. I guess because of the extremity of the topic kids paid attention. I was one of those girls thinking we should kill those men, fyi.
    As far as city commuters are concerned? I think it’s the same everywhere. Unless you’re in a car, then all hell breaks lose in DC. yikes.


  3. A respect and acknowledgment of other cultures and value systems is important, but I agree: some things should be considered universally wrong. Forcing another human being to do something against their will is wrong no matter which way you slice it, no matter how many years a group of people have been doing it.

    Commuting? Don’t get me started on what is wrong there. ;-)


  4. Just to add to your professors moral relativism, people in Africa probably never thought of the ‘cleansing’ practice as wrong until sexual ideologies from western civilization told them to. While in post-colonial times people are ‘forced’, in pre-colonial times they were probably willing and proud. Is it wrong to force someone—yes. Is it wrong to impose your belief system on a society to change their ideologies to mimic yours? I’d say yes in most cases.

    In terms of female circumcision—I find it ludicrous that western society speaks so poorly of it, while they continue to perform male circumcisions themselves. The ONLY difference between the two is that one happens to infants and the other to adolescents. Both involve the mangling and permanent destuction of sensitive genetalia.

    In terms of Missy’s comments re: “aren’t some things like the right to not have harm inflicted upon your own body without your permission absolutely wrong? how about rape? slavery?” thats only true using your own belief system. You implicity assume that your culture is right about all things when you say that. Our culture thinks rape is always wrong, and slavery and bodily harm are sometimes wrong (we do make excuses for prisoners and enemies). Other cultures may elevate a community above individuals more, and not necessarily believe that those things are wrong—they might, in fact, cherish them.


  5. When faced with discussions over relativism, I go pragmatic: Why do we need the idea of a universal or an absolute? Is some ruleset bigger than our own feelings and instincts and beliefs really necessary? Why not just decide what you personally find objectionable and do something about it?

    Deferring to universality is usually lazy. I don’t require some eye-in-the-sky judge to feel outrage over certain acts and circumstances…


  6. Toby, I resent your use of the word ‘lazy’.


  7. but it is a little lazy, isn’t it?


  8. Isn’t it curious that a post pondering “how to expel judgment and take a breath every once and a while”, and the concept of limiting/allotting judgements, should spark so much invective response?


  9. I suppose it could be called lazy. I suppose my idea of what ‘should’ be universal is purely subjective anyway. I don’t think I am looking to an ‘eye-in-the-sky’ judge, however. Rather, I am looking to find some sense of inherent goodness (again, subjective) in humanity. That we would WANT not to hurt one another.

    But Jon makes very good points, and I do not think it is really possible for me to not impose my belief system on my view of others. The way the article about ‘widow cleansing’ is written, however, indicates that women there have put up with it only out of fear of questioning the elders.
    This is likely the reporter’s own bias entering in.
    I have a headache.
    Maybe lazy is ok.


  10. Sarah, when I read that article, I became enraged. I didn’t want to think too much about it because it just made me feel angrier. hehe. I’m lazy. I know I’m lazy.


  11. anamomda, who had the invective response? who are you referring to?


  12. Calling the subjugation of personal beliefs to an imaginary universal “usually lazy” shouldn’t be offensive, IMO. It’s often a means of making a personal judgement under the protection of an assumed external value system. I would rather folks embrace their personal views of what should and shouldn’t happen in a given situation, fighting against what they dislike and for what they like. More commonly, things stop at an utterance of “That’s just wrong…” which puts responsibility for change external to the person making that judgment. Instead, say, “I can’t stand for that.” and accept that you have as much right as you do might (and might goes way beyond muscle). Nobody needs the universal.


  13. Okay, scratch “invective”, if it seems too… invective…I just find it interesting that strong judgements are being made about whether or not judgements should be made.


  14. haha, i understand now.


  15. For the record, this post wasn’t meant to piss anyone off or offend anyone. Nor am I claiming that what my professor once said was absolute or correct that would contradict his point, really. It did, however, do something for me and that something, at the very least helped me to open a door into a more critical, and therefore, educated way of looking at an issue. I think of what he said often. Prior that time, I was quit to judge based on what I just thought to be absolute and true.


  16. The way the article was written, it makes me see it as this: 300 years ago, ‘widow cleansing’ was most likely unchallenged and probably commonplace, respected, possibly even highly regarded by men and women alike.

    Then, white people come and export their belief systems into different cultures. Over generations, parts of the community are influenced by the western views, and adopt ‘chaste’ elements of the ideologies. Other parts of the community do not, and remain in the traditional mindset. Now we have tradtional cultural practices that at one point defined the community, going against the new belief systems in place—so some women and men interpret a certain practice as rape, while others see it as a rite-of-passage.

    I’m including men, because it is entirely possible, and likely, that some men do approach this with a western viewpoint and do not want to participate in something, but are expected/forced to against their will as well—thats not atypical in East Africa , but Malawi isn’t technically East Africa, and thats the only region I know much about.


  17. quit to judge = QUICK to judge. I write good. :/


  18. Could it not also be that the “cleansing” practice has been forced upon these women for centuries, but that only now do they have an ally in the western media to speak out for change?

    The “blame it on the white man” argument seems to be applied to so many issues. I’m tired of being a scapegoat. (Not to say that there aren’t many injustices caused by western culture/americans/men/myself/people that look like me.)


  19. I could see that happening in a minority of cases, but not in the vast majority. From a young age people are socialized into it being an accepted and cherished practice, without the notion of ‘taboo’ or stigmas that western society puts on it.

    Some african tribes consider eating semen a rite of passage, with children fellating their elders on a regular basis. Most westerners, myself included, think thats incredibly fucked up But we’re not socialized from childhood to see it as an accepted traditional practice. Nor are we able to consider it without the sexual connotations derived from our own ideologies influencing our own interpretations.

    Our minds are trained, from the moment we’re born, into accepting and promoting certain social norms. That’s why slavery was accepted for thousands of years, Hitler had no problem persecuting the Jews, and we castrate men as infants.

    It’s not a ‘blame it on the white man’ argument—its a ‘blame it on a dominant cultural force that finds more ways to exports itself to new groups through political means and media outlets’.


  20. Jon (or anyone) have you seen Keep the River on the Right? You just reminded me of it. (again)


  21. Uh-oh, some of the replies here are enough to get the blood pressure up.

    To wit: “The ONLY difference between the two is that one happens to infants and the other to adolescents.” Yeah, if you discount that female genital mutilation is often done without any professional medical supervision (i.e. girls can bleed to death) or anesthesia (i.e. it’s torture, no more, no less).

    And: “Our culture thinks rape is always wrong, and slavery and bodily harm are sometimes wrong (we do make excuses for prisoners and enemies). Other cultures may elevate a community above individuals more, and not necessarily believe that those things are wrong—they might, in fact, cherish them.” Yeah, rape and slavery are community values, right. Look, there are some things worth being abosolute and fundamentalist about; otherwise we have anarchy. Rape and slavery are two of those things. They’re wrong. They’re as wrong if they’re done in Ghana as if they’re done in Alabama. And it doesn’t matter whether the wider culture they occur in approves or not. They’re still wrong. And I would submit to you that practitioners of rape and slavery know they’re wrong.

    OK, end of rant.


  22. Rape and slavery are wrong to you and your belief system. But thats not applicable to my statements.

    As late as the 1800’s slavery was pretty damn acceptable in, gasp, America. In fact, the country was founded itself on that labor source, and many of its presidents and high ranking representatives owned slaves. Indentured servitude was commonplace for years as well. Raping slaves or servants wasn’t a crime, and doing so to ‘the poor’ was rarely prosecuted. Did all these ‘transgressors’ think that it was wrong? I seriously doubt that—they were taking part in cultural norms.

    Lets not even go into the concepts of slavery stemming from biblical times as a ‘god given right’ to exploit lesser peoples.

    The notion of it being ‘wrong’ to force people to harm their bodies in the current western culture belief system is pretty half assed too. Americans don’t seem to have a problem with conscription, nor do they have issues with forcing armed service members to take questionable drugs. And why must we outlaw euthenasia, or socially unacceptable drug treatments like doctor prescribed medical marijuana,, forcing terminally ill people to endure unnecessary hardships?

    In response to my comparisons of male and female circumcision – baby boys are rarely given anesthesia for circumcision , studies suggest the percentage getting anesthesia in the single digits. Male circumcision isn’t also necessarily done under medical supervision – the practice started as a religous rite of passage, and many groups still have their religious leaders perform the operation.

    Personally, I believe that male and female circumcision is wrong. I think its torture, i think its dangerous, and i think it does irreperable harm – ie both are awful and should be criminalized. But I’m not arguing about my beliefs – i’m arguing about western secular beliefs vs. minority sectarian ones.

    People in the west think mutilating boy genitals is great, acceptable and recommended—while mutilating girl genitals is an outrage that must be stopped. People in ‘traditional’ cultures believe that mutilating girl genitals is a rite of passage, and mutilating boy genitals is unnecessary, cruel, and odd.

    If adherents to western culture want to take the moral highground against circumcision they should stop being fucking hippocrits and come out against all forms of non-medically necessary and surgically performed circumcision.


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