The War of the Words

When is a terrorist not a terrorist? When is a "reform" a reform? New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent mulls some of the ways that language is used to spin perceptions in modern politics. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, he says, "may yield the most linguistically volatile issues confronting Times editors, but I've encountered a ferocious tug-of-war between advocates of each of the following as well: Genital mutilation vs. genital cutting ('would you call ritual male circumcision "genital mutilation"?'). Liberal vs. moderate ('you're simply trying to make liberalism look reasonable and inoffensive' as in calling Michael Bloomberg a 'moderate Republican'). Abuse vs. torture ('if the Abu Ghraib victims had been American soldiers,' The Times 'would have described it as torture'). Partial birth vs. intact dilation and extraction (the use of the former demonstrates that The Times 'has embraced the terminology of anti-abortion forces'). 'Iraqi forces' vs. 'American-backed forces' ('aren't the Sunni insurgents Iraqis?'). Don't get me started on 'insurgents,' much less homeless vs. vagrant, affirmative action vs. racial preferences, or loophole vs. tax incentive." And, he adds, "Hijacking the language proves especially pernicious when government officials deodorize their programs with near-Orwellian euphemism. (If Orwell were writing 'Politics and the English Language' today, he'd need a telephone book to contain his 'catalog of swindles and perversions.') The Bush administration has been especially good at this; just count the number of times self-anointing phrases like 'Patriot Act,' 'Clear Skies Act' or 'No Child Left Behind Act' appear in The Times, at each appearance sounding as wholesome as a hymn."


Those who use the term "genital cutting" rather than "mutilation" clearly have no idea what they're talking about. Male circumcision (the removal of the foreskin) and female circumcision, which involves the removal of the entire clitoris and often all of the labia as well, are in no way equivalent. Females so mutilated are initiated into a lifetime of excruciating pain in urination, menstruation, intercourse, and childbirth. The procedure is carried out without anesthetic or sterilizing of instruments, so infection is a huge and sometimes fatal consequence. The procedure leaves its victim with no future possibility of sexual pleasure whatsoever, as the entire sexual organ is removed. If male circumcision involved removing the entire penis, then perhaps there might be an equivalence, but clearly it does not. Genital mutilation is the correct term.

"Male circumcision (the removal of the foreskin) and female circumcision, which involves the removal of the entire clitoris and often all of the labia as well, are in no way equivalent."

This obviously isn't the forum for a knock-down drag-out fight over this issue, but of course they're equivalent. The difference is one of degree, not of kind. Granted that male circumcision is usually -- that's usually! -- not as functionally damaging as the female mutilation you describe, it still constitutes mutilation by any reasonable definintion of that word.

Routine infant circumcision (RIC) as it's done in America --

* Is medically unnecessary and violates the first principle of humane medicine: First, do no harm.

* Is not recommended by any major medical society in the world. The closest thing it gets to a recommendation is the American Academy of Pediatrics' waffling statement that it offers "potential benefits," which translates as no benefit for the great majority of human males and only marginal benefit for most of the remainder. Some medical societies, e.g. the Royal Australian College of Physicians, expressly disparage it.

* Results in loss of the multitude of erogenous nerve endings in the inner foreskin and loss of sensitivity in the glans. Granted, that's not nearly as severe as the worst-case female mutilation you described, but it still constitutes damaged sexual function.

* Can cause complications ranging from mild to severe, even resulting in loss of the entire penis or, yes, death in rare cases. Can you tell me what "benefit" a dead child received that justified killing him?

* Violates the basic right of every human being to the integrity of the body s/he is born with.

* Is done mainly for cultural reasons (so he'll match his daddy; so he won't get teased in the locker room; because the in-laws expect it) with the dubious "medical benefit" as an excuse. The AAP sees no ethical problem in signing off on that, but what other body part are they willing to cut off a child for "religious, ethnic and cultural" reasons? None? Why not?

* Points up the double standard for women's versus men's rights in the U.S. FGM is rightly illegal, but MGM is not only legal but culturally favored. So why are a baby girl's genitals inviolable while a baby boy's are on the chopping block? What about the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws for everyone?

The word "circumcision" is a comforting euphemism. It means "cutting around" but says nothing about what's getting cut or the consequences of the cutting. If you use the more verbose but descriptively accurate phase "cutting the foreskin off the penis," people get nervous -- "Why can't you just use the word that's given?"

You said, "Those who use the term 'genital cutting' rather than 'mutilation' clearly have no idea what they're talking about." With due respect, I think you'd do well to learn more about what you're talking about, too -- re-examine your understanding of "equivalence" at the very least.

Call it what you like, but the fact remains that the two are not, by any sane measure, equivalent. Girls are savagely mutilated for the sole purpose of crippling their bodies' natural sexual function. Boys are trimmed for a variety of reasons, but none of them are intended to destroy sexual faculty. This is a profound distinction, which no list of statistics can hope to reconcile.

In various places, the practice of FGM can range from complete mutilation all the way down to the mere removal of the clitoral hood. So if you think it's okay to "trim" little boys by removing their foreskins, you should have no objection to "trimming" little girls for religious or cultural reasons by removing their clitoral hoods, right? That's the female equivalent of male circumcision, isn't it? Yet even that minimal operation is forbidden by law in the U.S. -- rightly, IMO, and so it should be for male circumcision as well.

In both cases, a superstitious culture is asserting its power over the individual by carving its signature on the genitals of a child who is powerless to resist. How can you say there's no equivalence?

I don't question that the burden of mutilation has fallen far more heavily on women. But --

"...[T]he fact remains that the two are not, by any sane measure, equivalent."

-- that oft-parroted statement is worthier of a Rush Limbaugh-stereotype feminazi than of someone truly concerned for the human rights of all. I'm tired of hearing it, and I don't let it pass unchallenged. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

At last someone tackles the issue. The American people should wake up from these mantras. If you read any speech or interview of a member of the Bush administration since 2002, you can spot at least three or four keywords or key expressions meant to hammer the "truth" inside the audience's brain. Sometimes it gets to the point the sentence doesn't have any sense. Anytime they are under attack, they reflexively dash to one of these safe spots. The audience may be brainwashed but at the top of the Administration everybody has been very well trained by their spin doctors. The expression "hijacking the language" mirrors the 9/11 attacks. The destruction cannot be compared and the ones who did it were the very pilots the people elected, but there is much violence out there too. Stephane MOT PS : I also fully agree with the previous comment on "genital mutilation".

Stephanie Mot makes an excellent comment on a most important issue, and one that does not just apply to Americans. As an Australian I despair at the way 'USA speak' has begun to permeate my own language. From an Aussie's perspective I add two further comments which may, or may not ring true to US readers: 1. When I was in high school my English teachers taught us that economy of language was usually best in the majority of cases. Thus if one could use two, or even one word to say what was being said in 3 or more this normally resulted in a greater level of comprehension by most readers. In the US, and increasingly in Australia this maxim seems to have died. Take for example the term 'the American people' used by your President endlessly. In Australia, we would normally use the term 'Americans' but now even our Prime Minister seems to have been vaccinated by whoever got to the President. 2. This leads to a further point: why is it that President Bush, most of his team and many other politicians and leaders seem to have to speak in 3 word phrases these days? Are they seeking to fill in space/time? Do they presume Americans as so silly that they can't understand an idea or concept using concise speech or is there some other hidden answer that a dumb Aussie like me can't fathom? Let's all work to get rid of this superfluous style of speech and focus on the issues before both our nations using 'simple' English.

"Take for example the term 'the American people' used by your President endlessly."

Guess what, it's not only the president -- it's every politician in our country.

"Do they presume Americans as so silly that they can't understand an idea or concept using concise speech or is there some other hidden answer that a dumb Aussie like me can't fathom?"

I think you've fathomed it better than most Americans. And sadly, most Americans seem to fall for it -- at least enough to be sold on the terrible policies wrapped in the verbiage.

Also, notice I said "most Americans," not "the American people." You only say the latter when you want to flatter them, like the politicians.