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What’s commonplace is unthinkingly right

Some parts of daily life seem so natural, benign, and commonplace that we don’t consider them to be as awful as they really are. Perhaps we so easily believe something is right, just because it has always been so. Take for example, circumcision.

Male circumcision

To be clear, I’m referring to male circumcision here, and circumcision performed outside of a medical necessity.

For many years, I considered being circumcised, and the act of circumcision, to be relatively benign. It’s ubiquitous, it’s commonplace. I’ve not heard a man complain, nor sue his parents, because of it.

Really though, circumcision is a form of genital mutilation forced upon children.

I read words to that effect a few years ago, and it made me stop in my tracks. Oh. I’d never thought of it like that.

It’s generally children that are circumcised, babies even. It’s forced — probably by a parent or church, carried out by the scalpel of a surgeon if you’re lucky. It’s forced in the sense that the child doesn’t have a say, is not informed or asked for consent. It’s a genital mutilation — an act that removes flesh from the body — yet one that doesn’t appear to be a mutilation because it’s so commonplace.

Years ago one of my friends expressed revulsion at an interesting fellow with a nose ring. I clearly remember thinking that my friend was a little confused — could he not see all the women around him that had earrings? Somehow the one piercing of flesh had become some commonplace that he no longer saw it for what it was.


Why are parents so happy to have their children circumcised? There’s no malice. Rather, it’s probably because of what everyone else was doing, it’s what because of what their culture has led them to believe was the appropriate thing; recently perhaps because they thought there was a health benefit — though even that is in serious doubt.

Primarily though, it’s probably because of what a religion has ordained, for example the Jewish brit milah or the Muslim Khitan — or the cultural momentum of those religions.

The Germans

A German court has recently ruled that circumcision is grievous bodily harm. According to the ruling:

the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of the parents

It’s unfortunately not yet law, but it makes a lot of sense. It feels very much like the correct and moral stance to take. And it’s progressive — few countries, if any, ban circumcision because of the power of religious bodies.

Unsurprisingly, there are many religious parties that object, calling it an intrusion on religious freedom, believing that their culture, their beliefs, trump the bodily integrity of children.


I wonder whether the average man on the street being exposed to thinking about circumcision as bodily harm would agree, would continue to condone it, or would simply move on? Or would they be swayed by their culture — unthinkingly — because it’s commonplace. Would they consider the truth, or would they simply take it as an affront on their identity, their tribe, their religion?

Or perhaps it’s just actually about thinking. We can’t consider everything, and we blindingly just take some things as accepted, as truths, based on cues, on actions of those around us. What’s commonplace is unthinkingly right.

Originally published on July 2, 2012.