Walking That Fine Line: Racism and Relativism
Warning: Some images and links might be considered NSFW. In addition, I use the term “Western” for a lack of a more convenient one to refer to European, Canadian, and American people and audiences.
EDIT: A commenter rightly pointed out that the title, which originally contained “Razor-Thin” instead of “Fine,” could be taken for a very insensitive pun. I was thinking along the lines of alliteration, not a pun, and sincerely apologize for my lack of insight on the matter.
There is something of an innate conflict that exists in the minds of those who are more liberal or progressive-minded, a tension between anti-racism and the desire to see human rights applied in a truly universal fashion for everyone. In other words, the unwillingness to engage in what might be construed as cultural imperialism can clash with the very notion of universal human rights.
This can lead right back to racism, however, when extreme relativism takes over. Excusing the violation of human rights with “that’s their culture and we must respect it” essentially says “you over there don’t deserve the same rights as I do over here.” At the same time, the way in which outsiders tackle harmful cultural practices can serve to accomplish absolutely nothing beneficial.
FGM is one of the best-known arenas where this tension is palpable.
Earlier this week, Lisa Wade of Sociological Images posted what she called A Balanced Look at Female Genital “Mutilation” (quotes are hers, not mine), in which she adds her own points to a report released by the Hastings Center. The crux of her argument is, in her own words:
While FGCs [female genital cuttings] are passionately opposed by essentially all Americans who learn about them, our understanding of the practices is, in fact, skewed by misinformation, ethnocentrism, and a history of portraying Africa as naively “backwards” or cruelly “barbaric.”
I saw what she had to say as a valid point about critically examining the Western perspective on FGM. To many, that, as well as what she goes on to say, comes off quite like advocating for FGM on some culturally relativistic level, especially since any real criticism of FGM is absent in the post, aside from an acknowledgment that “none of these [genital mutilation] procedures likely sound appealing.”
The link has been making the rounds among people whose reactions have mostly been of understandable and justifiable disgust and anger, notably Zinnia Jones and Ophelia Benson. Both take Wade to task for what they saw as her trivialization of the non-consensual mutilation of children’s genitalia.
Neither, however, address what I find significant in Wade’s piece. In response to Wade’s claim that “people don’t appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children,” the latter said:
The obvious is obvious. It also turns out that girls of 5 don’t like being held down while someone slices off bits of their genitals with a razor. Next platitude?
While it is true that Wade’s piece does not discuss many of the harms of FGM, that particular point made in the Sociological Images post is not as much of a platitude as one might think. 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.
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.
It’s also interesting to note that many of Wade’s more fact-based points are valid, especially in light of what most Westerners mistakenly think about FGM: that all or most versions of it involve infibulation; that FGM kills sexual pleasure and drive; that men do it to women; that it is an African practice; and that, most notably, Western-led efforts against it would help. 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. Presenting actual information about it and covering new ground instead of reasserting that it’s wrong — which, again, most of the audience at home already knows — is a needful thing.
Even if we wholly disregard concerns of cultural imperialism and anti-racism, the fact remains that telling people that their cultural practices are wrong doesn’t exactly help to prevent said practices from occurring. It’s practically and realistically useless. The most effective way to enact change, by far, is to support local, grassroots efforts focused on reducing and eventually eliminating harmful customs like FGM. In addition, attempting to understand the cultures and contexts in which FGM arises can actually help efforts to combat it. Doing so is not supportive towards the practice in nature.
Grassroots, local efforts that not only include the voices of the very women whom we hope to help, but are actually led by them, generally accomplish the most. See: The Sudan National Committee; Campaign Against Female Genital Mutilation (CAGeM); a panel assembled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the International Organization for Migration, the Geneva Department of Institutions, and the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children; the way in which Equality NOW supports grassroots orgs instead of itself intruding; and efforts in Egyptian villages.
There is something to be said for expanding the Western discourse about FGM beyond the obvious, i.e. “it’s wrong.” Tackling mistaken notions about FGM among communities where it is not practiced, as well as within communities where it is practiced, is also a worthy goal. By not merely rehashing what is obviously appalling about FGM, Wade rubbed her audience the wrong way, but also covered new ground where few others do.
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.
Furthermore, let us not forget that Western culture did not stop the non-consensual mutilation of normative women’s genitals overnight, nor did the practices end, because someone from an outside group came in and declared it wrong. It took time for the legal and cultural consequences of Western FGM to end it, but the change occurred slowly and thoroughly enough to where the mutilation of normative women’s genitals has become quite taboo — to the point where largely people have forgotten about it. How can we expect others to simply and suddenly end their harmful practices because we call them wrong, especially when we face a backlash?
Do not mistake me: FGM is wrong. It is a tragedy every time it occurs. It is harmful. It should end by whatever means necessary. If I could completely end it, I would. If declaring it wrong accomplished anything, I would do it ceaselessly. Unfortunately, simply reminding ourselves that it’s wrong accomplishes little. In the interests of actually ending FGM, knowing more about it and discussing it in a way that isn’t alienating might accomplish more than just reminding ourselves that we disagree with it.
At the very least, let’s not mistake information about it that isn’t 100% criticism of it for apologetics.
* To clarify, the clitoris is more than just the external nub. The fact that women who have undergone FGM can experience pleasure and desire is actually a fantastic argument for opposing it, as many cultures that practice FGM do it with the intention of eradicating female sexual desire.