American Circumspect

I wrote a review that was published on April 20th about the documentary American CircumcisionI didn’t think it was particularly controversial. I essentially said the following five things:

  1. I didn’t care for the emotional appeal / call to action of the film. That style of persuasion annoys me as a matter of personal preference. I don’t make intellectual decisions based on my emotions. I don’t like to be sold.
  2. I didn’t find any objective medical evidence of deep harm done by circumcision. Of course there are isolated cases of botched operations, deaths from anesthesia, and so on, but big picture, there have been men circumcised for over two millennia with almost no issues arising from it.
  3. I’m circumcised and it’s never meant anything to me.
  4. I didn’t care for the connotation of using the word “intact” for uncircumcised men as that implies circumcised men are something other than intact. In a culture where most men are circumcised the word “uncircumcised” is a concise and accurate description that isn’t politically loaded. 
  5. I concluded by saying I don’t have a strong opinion about circumcision. I wasn’t persuaded by the doc. I said parents should be able to decide. I basically shrugged and said I didn’t see what the fuss was about.

“Somehow my lack of strong views resulted in name calling like ‘creep,’ ‘uninformed,’ and worse…”

Again, nothing about that seemed remotely controversial to me when I hit the save button. However, In the three days that followed, we received 70 comments or so. A few comments supported the review, but for the most part they were, to say the least unkind, and at most came across as direct attacks, not on the review, but on me for more or less a low intensity response to the film and its message. 

Somehow my lack of strong views resulted in name calling like “creep,” “uninformed,” and much worse. I was accused of prosecuting my own campaign for circumcision and not writing a review. I was accused of ad hominem attack, but if you read closely, what I said was that I didn’t care for the method of delivery of the message. I had nothing to say about the people sending the message. I, in fact, do not know the people in the film and therefore am not qualified to have an opinion about anything other than what they said in the documentary.

I’m not here to rebut the comments. They stand. We published most of them. (The only comments that weren’t approved included outside links.) All of the rest were approved regardless of content.

I’m here to talk about how we talk to each other. There were some calls for my reviews to have less opinion in them. I found that striking… a review is an opinion. Film Threat doesn’t publish articles simply to summarize or advertise films, though often both of those effects are achieved. Without opinion, what you’ve got is a film catalog. And that, we are not.

“There is another point of order to make here too, and that is the arrogance of such an intractable moral stance. Each generation seems to decide that they, finally, ultimately, after all of human history, have arrived at the pinnacle of moral purity and accuracy…”

Movie reviewers are like doctors or mechanics, you have to find one you trust. I myself find there are reviewers I usually agree with and some whose reviews annoy the hell out of me. I value most the recommendations of the reviewers I’ve tended to agree with when deciding which movies to spend my time on. I read the other reviewers also to get a different point of view. I see some of the movies they recommend in order to get a more well-rounded view of Cinema.

Being a reviewer for an outlet that covers a diverse array of films from around the world has been an amazing education in stories and experiences of people I would never have even known about. They span disparate topics that would never have crossed my mind and that I would not have sought out on my own. It’s been a gift to see through the eyes of these filmmakers and their subjects.  

The comments go too far. There is something biased in the tone that is culturally and politically insidious at work here too, in my opinion, that goes to the question of privilege. The Jewish faith (I am not Jewish, before anyone accuses me of preaching Jewish agenda) has had a deeply embedded tradition for thousands of years of circumcision, so if you mean to ban the practice, you’d better have a damn good rationale for doing so. 

There is another point of order to make here too, and that is the arrogance of such an intractable moral stance. Each generation seems to decide that they, finally, ultimately, after all of human history, have arrived at the pinnacle of moral purity and accuracy. That this time and this place, then, represents the conclusive moral framework of all cultures for all time. Never mind that people across the street or around the world don’t agree. This is it now, and you Philistines past and present will be judged by the laws of here/now. From Hammurabi to Clarence Thomas, the lawgivers have spoken and so it is written for all time. I’m sure Ozymandias thought so too. Yet morality still continues to change and evolve regardless. After some time we will be judged the Philistines. If you wait long enough, we’re all proven wrong.

So, maybe, show some flexibility and respect for other opinions, given your tiny little position in space and time?

Martin Luther King said “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I don’t know if that’s correct, but I’d like to think it is. If it is, then time will out the right answer, and you don’t have to declare war on everyone who disagrees. The Spanish once undertook to bring Christianity to the world if they had to kill every non-believer to do it. It just seems to me that there has got to be another way to address the fellow travelers we are sharing this time and place with in our brief lives.

“The real problem is the bubble…”

The real problem is the bubble. We saw this in the 2016 US Presidential elections and we continue to see it in the political and cultural polarization of our country, and around the world.

The bubble is an artifact of being online. The internet was supposed to give the power of the press to everyone, but it also cursed us with the power of the filter. The latter turned out to be far more effective. You can ensconce yourself now in an echo chamber that reinforces your biases. A philosophy now is something we reverse engineer: codify your existing habits/flaws/beliefs into a set of rules, find people of similar ilk, and decide we must purge the world of the misled infidel non-believer.

Comments sections become a sewer of vitriol mob rule populated by villagers with torches and pitchforks. In this model of the world where our Venn diagrams never overlap Other = Enemy. And any opportunity for real discussion and intellectual growth is lost.

It may be too late to point this out, but we have a journalistic obligation to at least leave a note here for anyone down the line doing forensics about what on earth happened to the early 21st century. The bubble is what happened.

One response to “American Circumspect

  1. I’m not sure why you have included multiple images of the “sand worm” monster from ‘Dune’ (1984). Perhaps it is an immature way of depicting an intact (‘uncircumcised’) penis? Nor do I see the relevance of the image of sliced cucumber; are you trying to compare the slicing of human body parts with the cutting of vegetables?

    Granted, I didn’t read all 70+ comments on your original ‘review’. Nevertheless, of the comments I did read, one person calling you a “fucking idiot” seems to be as bad as it gets. Aside from that (which should probably be water off a duck’s back for any professional internet writer), there were a lot of good criticisms made of your ‘review’ and I didn’t see you respond to a single one of them.

    In addition to the dozens of critical comments, I will add my own here as one further example of someone who is willing to engage with your content. I invite you to respond to my comment and engage with my questions and refutations (in the name of “real discussion and intellectual growth”). I’ll start with your summary of the review, provided above.

    “I didn’t care for the emotional appeal / call to action of the film. That style of persuasion annoys me as a matter of personal preference. I don’t make intellectual decisions based on my emotions. I don’t like to be sold.”

    This is valid. I just don’t know what “emotional appeal” you’re talking about…

    “I didn’t find any objective medical evidence of deep harm done by circumcision.”

    I don’t know how you define “deep harm”, but it’s strange that you don’t consider photos of boys who lost their penis to be “objective medical evidence”.

    “Of course there are isolated cases of botched operations, deaths from anesthesia, and so on..”

    I don’t know your definition of “isolated”, but the true extent of circumcision complications remains unknown. As was mentioned in the film, there is no inter/national database to record such things, and there isn’t even a universal consensus on what constitutes a “complication”. Recent scholarship suggests that over 100 baby boys die from circumcision-related complications in the USA every year. As for the rates of deformities and other major complications, who knows? All we know is that they do occur and based on testimonials of doctors and nurses working in the field (including one doctor featured in this film) they probably occur a lot more frequently than people like to admit.

    “..there have been men circumcised for over two millennia with almost no issues arising from it.”

    What?! Where is your evidence for such a ridiculous assertion?

    “I’m circumcised and it’s never meant anything to me.”

    Obviously a lot of other circumcised males feel differently.

    “I didn’t care for the connotation of using the word “intact” for uncircumcised men as that implies circumcised men are something other than intact.”

    A circumcised penis has had a part removed and cannot therefore be considered ‘intact’. An “uncircumcised” penis is actually just a natural (and in most contexts, normal) human penis, just as an uncircumcised vulva is a natural (and in most contexts, normal) vulva. Calling a penis “uncircumcised” suggests that it is yet to be circumcised and makes about as much sense as calling a man “uncastrated” or a woman “unmastectomised”.

    Indeed, ‘circumcision’ is a euphemism; it is Latin for ‘cut around’. ‘Circumcision’ involves the tearing, crushing and ablating of up to half the skin of the penis.

    “In a culture where most men are circumcised the word “uncircumcised” is a concise and accurate description that isn’t politically loaded.”

    Politically loaded? What are you talking about? What about the majority of other cultures where circumcision isn’t practiced? How do you think they should describe a penis?

    “I concluded by saying I don’t have a strong opinion about circumcision. I wasn’t persuaded by the doc. I said parents should be able to decide. I basically shrugged and said I didn’t see what the fuss was about.”

    It’s similar to the “fuss” made about female circumcision, or the “fuss” that might be made about cutting off any other healthy natural part of a baby (often without anaesthetic).

    Now, as for your ‘review’ itself…

    “American Circumcision is a documentary presenting the articles of faith of a group calling themselves “intactivists” who believe males should be given a choice whether to have the procedure done.”

    Articles of faith? Ethical and medical arguments against circumcision have been made for decades and are available online. Personally, I don’t see anything strange or extreme about the idea that body parts shouldn’t be cut off people without their consent. Can you name another healthy natural body part that you believe parents have the right to cut off their kids? (Spare me the ‘hair and nails’ retort.)

    “The medical argument against waiting is that the benefits of circumcision are realized for infant boys through adulthood: if left until men can decide for themselves the risk of infections and disease is (slightly) higher.”

    Sounds like a pretty weak argument to me. (Possibly why most medical organisations don’t adhere to such an argument.)

    “The documentary features two evidence based medical scientists talking about the health benefits of circumcision painted as evil and out of touch.”

    The documentary also features some medical scientists criticising circumcision…

    “They are contrasted with a parade of very passionate people making emotional arguments against the scientific evidence.”

    What emotional arguments would those be? And what about the “scientific evidence” of the harms of circumcision?

    “Their motivation seems to be a deep body horror that infant boys are being mutilated..”

    Again, I ask you, what other healthy natural body parts do you think people have a right to cut off children? Can you name one?

    “..that they can feel the pain of the operation, that it is somehow traumatic despite the fact that infant brains cannot remember pain.”

    Trauma has nothing to do with memory. (They say you may not remember it but you’ll never forget it.) It is well documented that early childhood trauma can have profound and long-term effects on behaviour and psychological development. Indeed, this was admitted to in some respect by one of the “two evidence-based medical scientists” you mentioned above (remember Professor Morris referring to Taddio et al?).

    “There is much discussion of the damage to sexual sensitivity done to boys and of the trauma of the operation.”

    Two important subjects (even if you yourself are ‘totally fine’).

    “Fascinatingly, there is a real body mod practice most people would find horrifying for the truly dedicated “intactivist” who wishes to reinstate his foreskin.”

    Circumcision is “a real body mod practice” (usually done to people who can’t consent). Foreskin restoration is a body mod practice done by consenting adults who are trying to reverse (to some extent) the unwanted body modification (penile reduction) surgery performed on them as infants/children.

    “The foreskin restoration enthusiast uses a combination of pinching devices, weights, and elastin cream to stretch the foreskin. Enough of this self-torture (a great deal is required to be effective) and the penis will appear as though it was never circumcised.”

    As per one of the comments on your article (by a man undergoing foreskin restoration), the process is not tortuous. Circumcision without adequate anaesthesia is indeed torture; stretching foreskin is not painful at all (it is simply tedious in terms of the time and effort required).

    “The descriptions of the intensity, time, and determination necessary to achieve this seem to put it almost into the realm of fetish practice.”

    I don’t know what this means.

    “Some of those interviewed conflate female genital mutilation with circumcision.”

    Two circumcised women were interviewed. One (a PhD in Anthropology) says she is happily circumcised and her sexual pleasure is just as good after circumcision, if not better. The other is the woman who campaigned to make “FGM” illegal in the USA (a law which has recently been deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge), and who says that circumcision of boys is not very different from what was done to her as a girl.

    “Circumcision is a loss of a small amount of extra tissue of an infant boy”

    How many times can a person be wrong in a single sentence? Circumcision can be performed on anyone (male or female) at any age. The foreskin is not “extra” – it’s standard anatomy (humans aren’t born with “extra tissue”). It comprises roughly half the penile skin system, which in infants is a relatively small amount (because infants have relatively small bodies) but in adults constitutes approximately 10-15 square inches of functional erogenous tissue. And it’s not so much a “loss” (as in ‘I misplaced my keys’) as the tearing, crushing and ablation of functional erogenous tissue.

    “the heinous practice of female genital mutilation, done up to her mid teens”

    Circumcision can (and often is) done up to mid teens. Indeed, outside of Judaism, neonatal circumcision is the exception rather than the rule.

    “which renders the female incapable of enjoying sex.”

    Except for the circumcised woman in the documentary who says she enjoys sex more after being circumcised. And except for most circumcised women, who enjoy sex.

    “It is ridiculous to compare the two.”

    It’s ridiculous that you watched a movie on this subject and still don’t know what you’re talking about. There are many different kinds of genital cutting of both sexes. Some forms of female genital cutting are more severe than conventional male circumcision and some are less severe. I suggest you educate yourself on the topic (you wouldn’t want to be a moral or cultural imperialist now, would you?).

    “As a circumcised male, I find the phrase “intact” as a reference to uncircumcised men to be pejorative and offensive.”

    And many intact men find the term “uncircumcised” to be pejorative and offensive…

    “I have no memories of the procedure.”

    So what? (Some circumcised men are reminded of the procedure every time they use the bathroom.)

    “I grew up thinking this is how we look out of the box.”

    It’s not. It’s how a male looks after having a significant amount of his penis cut off.

    “An early sex partner mentioned she thought I had a very lovely scar.”

    It’s always charming when a lover appreciates the scar on your genitals.

    “I was not aware I had a scar, was ignorant of the whole situation.”

    So to speak, right?

    “Being circumcised has had no impact on my life at all, as far I can tell.”

    As far as you can tell. Even if this is true, you can’t speak for others.

    “There are some young (and older) men in the documentary who, upon reflection, have found cause for rage and recrimination toward their parents for having it done.”

    Actually, in many cases the rage and recrimination is against doctors and nurses, or against a society that supports this practice. (The majority of circumcisions performed on American boys in the 20th century were done without parental consent.)

    “Each to his own, I suppose.”

    That’s sort of the intactivist message, yes.

    “Using the term “intact” is certainly meant to persuade in this film..”

    The term ‘intact’ has been used to describe a natural, whole penis for years, both informally and in scholarly articles.

    “..which is a propaganda piece against circumcision presenting anecdotal evidence and logical fallacies.”

    Anecdotal evidence is evidence nonetheless. If you want scientific evidence then there are many resources. Pray tell, what are these logical fallacies?

    “Life comes with many occasions for pain and discomfort.”

    Having half your dick skin cut off doesn’t need to be one of them.

    “When the long term benefits clearly outweigh the short term pain we don’t think twice about submitting children to it and explaining it later.”

    If you believe there are long-term benefits that clearly outweigh short-term pain then you are free to get circumcised. I suggest we allow each person to make his/her own assessment of which body parts they wish to keep.

    “We also live in a culture where body modifications many would consider horrific are just fashion, though clearly appropriate only when self-selected by adults of age.”

    Exactly.

    “The body horror argument is specious and unsophisticated.”

    What is “the body horror argument” and why is it specious and unsophisticated?

    “The film gratuitously shows an infant being circumcised.”

    Not gratuitous at all. The subject of the documentary is circumcision! Showing a circumcision surgery is entirely germane to the topic and it would be remiss to omit it.

    “I daresay most of us do not have the medical training context or experience to watch any surgery, so this will naturally be disturbing and uncomfortable. It is not horror.”

    Well, it’s not a horror film…

    “The tone and approach of the film seeks to cast doubt on scientific evidence the same way religious extremists, UFO believers, or conspiracy theorists would.”

    The scientific evidence around circumcision has been debated back and forth in the literature for decades. There is not a single health claim for circumcision that has not been disputed or criticised by one scholar or another.

    “If you’re a person who cleaves to evidence based science, it’s a hard film to watch because the scientific method takes a beating in all the emotional histrionics.”

    How so?

    “If you’re a person more interested in a classical romantic approach to the world, proceeding more by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience than by boring old facts, then it’s a hard film to watch because it will seem to expose yet another awful thing humans have conceived to make this brief existence more terrible than it has to be.”

    There are many facts in the film (and a few incorrect ones). There are also many facts in the literature. How many books and scholarly papers have you read on this subject?

    “In the final analysis, both the potential benefits and potential harms resulting from circumcision are minimal for boys in the developed world.”

    So you say. Interesting that you seem to be such an expert on this subject…

    “Parents can make the decision based on religious tradition, medical evidence, or just because that’s how it’s always been done in their family, either to circumcise or not and feel fine about the choice.”

    Well, sure, people can feel how they choose to feel about anything. But as you’ve stressed in this article, how people feel isn’t necessarily an indicator of veracity or sagacity. Are you a parent? Have you spoken with any parents who regret circumcising their son/s? (A few were featured in the documentary.)

    I’m happy to provide you with references for any of the points I made, and I look forward to hearing back from you at some point.

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