Vices Here and Abroad

Boston Review, October/November 1996.

Yael Tamir states that her purpose in “Hands Off Clitoridectomy” is “to reveal the smug, unjustified self-satisfaction lurking behind the current condemnation of clitoridectomy.” Although she makes plain her own strong opposition to female genital mutilation, and, indeed, urges her readers to “support those who struggle to end it,” she is highly critical of familiar objections to the practice advanced by Western intellectuals. “Despite their liberal appearance,” Tamir charges, “references to clitoridectomy commonly reveal a patronizing attitude toward women, suggesting that they are primarily sexual beings.”

In my experience, the clitoridectomy example makes its appearance whenever someone elects to defend multiculturalism by appeal to some form of moral relativism. The (entirely justified) point of the example is to embarrass the relativist by citing a practice that everyone in the discussion can be counted upon to agree is vile. It is not surprising that anti-relativists should deploy such a strategy. It is interesting, however, that clitoridectomy has become the preferred example among liberal intellectuals. Why not put the spotlight on vices that flourish in our own culture-including that segment of the culture inhabited by academics, journalists, and other elites? Why not confront the relativist with, say, lying, promiscuity, recreational drug use, abortion?

Ironically, these are among the vices pointed to by the decidedly non-relativist Africans and others who practice and defend clitoridectomy. Recently, the New York Times quoted Mohammed Ali, a young Egyptian who cites Western permissiveness as a trump card of his own against arguments for prohibiting clitoridectomy: “Banning it would make women wild like those in America.”

Boston Review