THE CONFORMITY QUESTION

Suppose (either because you agree or for the sake of argument) that you wouldn’t circumcise for purely health-related reasons. If that’s your verdict about health matters, should you let conformity considerations move you? (We will turn shortly to religion.) To think about conformity considerations, we need to move back from Mixed World to the real world, and we need to choose some place to land. Let’s land in the United States, where most people do circumcise. Could it make sense to go along with majority practice, so that your son will feel comfortable around his peers, or so that he will feel the same as his father, or so that his father will feel the same as him?

Certainly parents will do all sorts of things over time to help a child fit in, even making choices that they consider second best. You may not want your child watching stupid TV shows, but may let her do so anyway so she fits in with her peers. You may find girls’ fashions too sexualized, but may bend so your child can blend in. You may have a vegetarian household but send a child to school with ham sandwiches, for the same sorts of reasons. In fact, it would be downright rigid and insensitive to make every single decision about a child’s life with studied obliviousness to the world the child has to fit into. There are decisions we have to make about our children in light of what everyone else is doing, but we’re talking about surgery here. When it comes to surgery, even minor surgery, there is a lot to be said for being conservative. Cutting for conformity is a lot different from getting cable TV for conformity—isn’t it?

It can’t be said that we should never cut for the sake of conformity. A friend of mine in graduate school had a sixth finger that dangled nonfunctionally on the side of his hand. It doesn’t seem as if it would have been wrong for his parents to decide to have it excised when he was an infant. He grew up in another country and I’m not sure what he went through—it would have been awkward to ask— but in an American school you would probably have a rough time as a kid with an extra finger. If the dangers of surgery were small, I can see sheer social conformity as a reason to operate. On the other hand, even clear-cut abnormalities are not always grounds for intervention. I know of another child who was born with conjoined toes. Though this might result in teasing, the parents didn’t intervene; a surgeon advised them that the procedure would be too complicated to be worth doing, if the child wasn’t concerned about her toes. We can justify low-risk interventions to prevent a child being different from the biological norm in ways the child (not just the parent) cares about.

But there’s something distinctive about removing foreskins for purposes of conformity, as opposed to removing a sixth finger or separating toes: the pressures to do it have everything to do with history and culture, not with a simple biological norm. Biologically speaking, a foreskin is more like a fifth finger than a sixth finger. It’s owing to the practices of human societies, past and present, that a foreskin is seen in some places as something outside the norm. The parents who remove a foreskin so the boy conforms are acquiescing to very arbitrary cultural forces. In principle such forces could push us in any direction.

I do know some wonderful parents who did cut for conformity. One set of parents had no personal problem with the uncut penis— they came from a country without the practice of circumcision. They also weren’t worried about father-son matching. (And health issues weren’t a factor.) However, they made the decision at a time when most boys were being circumcised in the United States, and even more in the region and social class where the boy would grow up. It seems right to say that as a group, parents bending to that pressure are going along with an unfortunate and unwarranted custom. The more people rebel, the less likely that the custom will continue, putting future parents in the same bind and future babies under the scalpel. It’s harder to say, of any particular individual parents, that they specifically should rebel and that their son should have to deal with the resulting non-conformity. Like in chapter 3 when the topic was population, there is a discrepancy between two levels—the collective and the individual, what we should do and what I should do. It’s fair to ask: how much should one child have to sacrifice, to be part of a large-scale effort that’s good and just?

I’m inclined to celebrate changes on the larger scale—the news, for example, that circumcision levels are decreasing in the United States. But because, as parents, we want to protect our own individual children, the clarity on the large scale does not make our personal decisions obvious. Hurray for mass rebellion, but I do understand parents worrying about their own individual child’s experience of not fitting in.

 
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