The baby screamed and screamed and wouldn’t stop. He’d been fed, burped, and swaddled, but the wailing went on. What could it be?
He’d been circumcised that morning, the second morning of his life—but without incident, and hours had passed. What was bothering him now?
Sometimes the simplest solution is the right one: It turned out he’d merely peed in his diaper, and the urine was irritating the site of the circumcision. A quick diaper change, and lo and behold: peaceful, contented infant.
He wasn’t my baby; the decision to have him circumcised had had nothing to do with me. But what if he had been mine? I would feel a strong pull to have my hypothetical son mutilated in this (physically) relatively minor—but culturally and emotionally fraught—way. Why?
The answer: It’s cultural. While I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in supernatural beings, I am Jewish. Unlike other religious groups, we Jews are a tribe—an ethnic group, more or less—independently of our individual religious practices, beliefs, or lack thereof. And the call of the tribe is a loud one.
Cultural practices run deep, and they can influence one’s ethics. Tradition-minded members of tribes that practice female genital mutilation consider it normal, because it’s part of their culture, while in the West we see it as a barbaric form of abuse, an outrage.
Among Jews, Muslims, and many Americans, male circumcision is standard practice. But there is a strong movement opposed to it. The ancient procedure’s health benefits have been shown to be minor at best. Anti-circumcision activists also play up concerns like reduced sensitivity, and make the hard-to-fight comparison with female genital mutilation, which, while certainly more dangerous and harmful, is in one important sense no different: Both are forms of unnecessary mutilation. What justification could there be for imposing any such mutilation on an infant who has no choice?
The answer is culture. It may not be logical, but it’s the fact.
Why are alcoholic beverages legal and marijuana not, even though alcohol damages and destroys many more lives than marijuana does? Culture. Why do most Americans shudder at the idea of eating insects, even though there’s no harm in it and in some parts of the world it seems perfectly natural? Culture.
The circumcision is over; another day has passed; the new baby is already on to his next thing. Before his parents know it, he’ll be a teenager, listening to music they’re almost guaranteed to consider merely noise. Why? Culture.
Medical knowledge advances. Public opinion mutates with every election cycle. But culture is much slower to change. It’s something we feel deep in our souls, because they are linked with the souls of our ancestors, who followed their traditions for generations before us.
So when you witness (or join) the emotionally charged debates about circumcision, remember there’s a force operating that’s more powerful than the emotions of the moment and can even hold its own against the march of science, and that’s the force of tradition and culture. More often than we might like, we’re slaves to it.