An article in the New York Times today caught my attention -- and made me really, really sad.
It's about a recent decision by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals to deport a young woman, Ms. Alima Traore, back to her home country of Mali. Ms. Traore is currently living in Maryland, where she works as a cashier.
Ms. Traore's concerns about returning to Mali, which the three-member panel rejected, are:
1) upon her return, her father has arranged for her to marry her first cousin ("My decision is irrevocable," her father insists, "...the animal sacrifice has been made for the village"); and
2) having had her own genitals cut as a young girl (her clitoris and vulva were removed as part of the standard practice for young girls there), she fears that any daughters she may have will face this same procedure.
"While we do not discount the respondent's concerns," the decision reads, "We do not see how the reluctant acceptance of family tradition over personal preference can form the basis" for allowing Ms. Traore to stay in the United States.
I think you will agree that this three-member panel of the Board of Immigration Appeals is -- how to put it?
Confused? Idiotic? $%@!&*?!? (Excuse my language.)
We are not facing here a question of Ms. Traore's "reluctant acceptance of family tradition." We are facing a question of her reluctant acceptance of something that is wrong, regardless of the cultural and family traditions of Mali.
But how can I flat-out say it is wrong? Can something that is imposed on 95% of the girls in Mali be wrong? Aren't values merely social and contingent for "secular progressives" like me? (I can practically hear my religiously-inclined readers "amen"-ing this point and sighing in disapproval.)
As an atheist, or a secular humanist (or your fellow-citizen in a Republic, if you like), how can I condemn the cultural practices of another people, living as they do, far across the ocean, by their own codes of right and wrong?
Well, here goes...
The fact that my moral reference-points are Shakespeare, Hume, Woolf, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Dylan and Rorty, does NOT mean that I have to abdicate my moral judgment.
When I say something is "wrong" I mean it is wrong. We atheists, humanists and fellow-citizens are allowed to take that word out of quotes too.
I mean, let's speak plainly. You and I know ( if nothing else then as parents) that genital cutting -- cutting off the clitoris and vulva of a healthy girl with a saw-toothed blade without anesthesia -- is wrong.
The people of Mali, emeshed in cultural traditions of their own -- can say it is right all they want. They are free to say that, if that's the kind of world they wish to inhabit and defend.
But we can respond, with equal passion: No, it is wrong. We will fight it.
And we can then look at our various means of persuasion, from firsthand accounts of suffering, meant to evoke sympathy (as in Uncle Tom's Cabin or Boys Don't Cry, to take two examples), to full-out invasion (as in the NATO-led war on Serbia over Kosovo). Here I encourage readers to read Rorty's article, "Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality if you haven't already.
It is tremendously important, I believe, for people who believe that values and moral judgments are not received but are instead built up -- from a mix of our basic instincts, our use of language, and our social relations -- to make our beliefs of right and wrong known, loud and clear. For the responsibility is ours to change other people's judgments.
One sensitive area when it comes to making moral judgments is of course, parenting. We are all rightly careful not to critize our friends or siblings for their parenting practices. At least not too hastily.
Most of us notice small variations in others' approach when contrasted to ours. But these are minimal, and we recognize that every parent-child relationship has complicated dynamics and challenges and aspirations which we cannot hope to understand. So it's generally best to reserve judgment and enjoy learning from examples that we like.
But when it comes to outright shocking practices like genital cutting, I believe that we can and should speak out, even as parents. So let me be blunt:
To mutilate your daughter's genitals for any nonmedical reason -- causing your daughter a lifetime of pain and agonizing complications -- means that you do not love her as much as I love my daughter.
That will anger some people, to hear it put that way. But I ask you: is your experience of love at all reflected in the willing infliction of suffering on one of your loved ones? Is the infliction of such suffering on a loved one ever justified by some other countervailing concern?
I would ask the people of Mali to apply the same standard when they criticize our family traditions. I would love to listen and learn from any insights they have into how in my role as a father I inflict suffering on my girl. I mean this seriously! I would expect them to listen to me with the same openness, considering that we both recognize how important the concerns are.
I would like to believe that even if I had lived my whole life in the cultural tradition of Mali I would refuse to have my girl undergo this procedure.
And if this is just my own cultural bias talking -- and if I had been raised in Mali I would feel differently -- then I stand by my cultural bias with everything in me.
Either way, I'm sorry, I will say it: It is less loving to cut a girl's genitals than not to do so.
Sam Harris makes a similar point, with characteristic force, in his book, The End of Faith:
"Consider the practice of "honor killing" that persists throughout much of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. We live in a world in which women and girls are regularly murdered by their male relatives for perceived sexual indiscretions-ranging from merely speaking to a man without permission to falling victim of rape. Coverage of these atrocities in the Western media generally refers to them as a "tribal" practice, although they almost invariably occur in a Muslim context. Whether we call the beliefs that inspire this behavior "tribal" or "religious" is immaterial; the problem is clearly a product of what men in these societies believe about shame and honor, about the role of women, and about female sexuality...
Given the requisite beliefs about "honor," a man will be desperate to kill his daughter upon learning that she was raped. The same angel of compassion can be expected to visit her brothers as well. Such killings are not at all uncommon in places like Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. In these parts of the world, a girl of any age who gets raped has brought shame upon her family. Luckily, this shame is not indelible and can be readily expunged with her blood. The subsequent ritual is inevitably a low-tech affair, as none of these societies have devised a system for administering lethal injections for the crime of bringing shame upon one's family. The girl either has her throat cut, or she is dowsed with gasoline and set on fire, or she is shot. The jail sentences for these men, if they are prosecuted at all, are invariably short. Many are considered heroes in their communities.
What can we say about this behavior? Can we say that Middle Eastern men who are murderously obsessed with female sexual purity actually love their wives, daughters, and sisters less than American or European men do? Of course, we can. And what is truly incredible about the state of our discourse is that such a claim is not only controversial but actually unutterable in most contexts."
An important corrective that I would add to Harris' point is that I do not think he should generalize about all "Middle Eastern men murderously obsessed with female sexual purity" in contrast to all "American or European men." It sets up a false opposition between a particular group of Middle Eastern men and the whole population of American or European men. Certainly there are American and European men who -- in view of the callous or selfish nature of their actions, and the brutal consequences of them -- love their wives, daughters and sisters even less than the aforementioned Middle Eastern men who are "murderously obsessed wth female sexual purity." Unhappily, we may find that it is a toss-up in many cases.
But his larger point is well taken. Some of the things parents do (even if they are merely following the cultural practices of their community) mean that they love their children less, in any meaningful sense of the word love. Love without quotes.
This sad conclusion gives me serious motivation to examine my own cultural traditions -- to see where I might be less loving to my children than I believe I am.
Any thoughts from readers about the ways in which we are blind to the suffering we cause due to our own cultural traditions? Bulimia comes to mind. Or pole dancing classes for 8-year-olds. Any others?
For some interesting further reading on the neurological underpinnings of "goodness" and altruism (and some of the anxiety these latest findings provoke in people), I refer you to a review by Oren Harman of a book on the topic in this week's New Republic.