Some Cultures Are Better than Others

Here Goes — I Mean Amen

This column is about female genital mutilation. But first, I want to talk about magnets, my daughter, and ants. Stay with me.

In 2015, my wife and I had an emergency hospital visit with our daughter, who was three years old at the time. She had swallowed three small magnets, which posed a significant danger of becoming separated in her digestive system, then “finding each other” again on opposite sides of her intestinal walls. This is a potentially fatal situation that has actually killed children. Thank God, she was able to pass the magnets without complication, but I learned something while we were there at the hospital.

On the day of our daughter’s release, I caught a PBS documentary about extreme and bizarre practices among tribal people around the world. One of them I’d heard of before was the bullet ant ritual of Brazil’s Satere-Mawe people. The bullet ant packs the most painful sting known to man. On the Schmidt Insect Pain Scale created by entomologist (and apparently closet masochist) Justin O. Schmidt, bullet ants register beyond the maximum of 4. For some perspective, yellow jackets and hornets only score a 2. The scale is exponential, which means that 4 is not twice as bad as 2, but around 25 times as bad.

Schmidt described his encounter with a bullet ant as “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail in your heel.” The insect takes its name, of course, from the rumor that its sting feels like being shot. (Here’s one insane pain connoisseur who made a hit TV show out of sampling the most wicked stings in the insect world, taking his final challenge—courtesy of a bullet ant.)

Among the Satere-Mawe, tolerating pain on this level is a rite of passage that young boys undergo to be considered men. Only instead of one sting, they endure hundreds at a time when they shove both hands into wicker mitts filled with furious bullet ants.

The crew filming the documentary described how difficult it was for them to watch boys as young as 10 writhing in agony, sometimes for up to a day after the bullet ant ritual. Some do not survive the ordeal. The Western cameramen wanted to administer medicine, or explain to the tribe’s elders why this practice is cruel and senseless—little better than flogging your children to toughen them up. Instead, they lapsed into vague soliloquies about respecting the values of different cultures, and how they shouldn’t judge those cultures by Western standards, because their morality is different. The conclusion of the program was a virtual ode to cultural relativism, justifying essentially anything a people considers traditional, no matter how despicable.

The contrast was remarkable to me, with my daughter in her hospital gown nearby, rifling through toys, celebrating her freedom from the IV drip.

I thought of this scene once more this week as I read a piece at Fox News by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, founder of an advocacy group for women and girls suffering injustice. She was prompted by news that a Michigan grand jury has indicted three people, two of them physicians, for participating in and conspiring to hide female genital mutilations right here in the United States. It’s the first ever such indictment in this country, inspiring hope for Ali (who was herself a victim) and fellow advocates who’ve long warned that this barbaric practice is shockingly common in America.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been practiced for generations in some African and Middle Eastern cultures. Sometimes misleadingly called “female circumcision,” it involves cutting or scraping off all or part of the clitoris and labia, rendering women less capable of sexual pleasure and therefore (as the rationale goes) less likely to engage in premarital sex. (I say “misleading” because if you read about the tissues involved, male circumcision is a comparatively minor operation. Doctors say the female version is—if you’ll pardon my frankness—the equivalent of lopping off the male member.)

Altering female genitals, though, is deeply embedded in certain cultures. “Getting cut” is a community ritual, a rite of passage much like the Satere-Mawes’ bullet ant ceremony. It’s also most often performed by older women rather than doctors, often using household instruments in unsanitary conditions. As a result, quite a few of the young girls who endure it contract serious infections. Some die.

As Westerners, it’s difficult for us to read about practices like this. The fact that some parents treat their daughters this way enrages us—and rightly so. But Ali finds herself having to drag enlightened Western liberals by the scruff to get them to do anything about FGM, even when it shows up on their own front door. She complains about The New York Times’ timid reporting of the Michigan story, and science and health editor Celia Dugger’s suggestion that we use the tamer, less “culturally loaded” term “genital cutting” to avoid offending immigrants. Dugger explains that she made the switch from “mutilation” after a visit to Africa in the nineties during which she presumably gained a greater appreciation for the okay-ness of hacking off clitorises. As Leonardo DiCaprio’s character quips in “Blood Diamond,” “T.I.A.” (“this is Africa”—a shorthand for “I can do whatever I want”).

So I could just hear the PBS crew trekking out of the jungle with the creed of cultural relativism on their lips. We can’t, after all, judge other cultures by our Western standards.

Can there be any better proof that the view of morality as a kind of social contract or construct is bankrupt? Divorced from objective moral norms, the adherents of this brand of tolerance-on-steroids are cut adrift in a sea where no culture and no practice can truly be called “good” or “evil.” The only value that remains is the value of not imposing “Western values” on anyone else.

Our consciences cry out against this Star Trek morality, recognizing the real cruelty and objective evil of some cultural practices. But adherents to the gospel of relativism must hold their tongues, not because they humbly respect other cultures, but because they’ve subjectified their own. They must, if they hope to protect our own barbarities. We, too, have been taking sharp instruments to children since 1973.

Thank God for that Michigan grand jury, and thank God we don’t have to impassively watch those little boys writhe in agony or those little girls quietly bleed away their childhood. Some cultures really are much better than others. We shouldn’t be shy to say it, because failing to do so is the quickest way to lose that much-needed superiority.

Image courtesy of Atelopus at iStock by Getty Images.

G. Shane Morris is assistant editor of BreakPoint Radio.

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  • jason taylor

    That habit is reinforced by two partial truths. One is that people simply have extenuating circumstance for the context they dwell in. The other is that some aspects of culture are necessarily affected by environment. For instance, “Thou shalt not steal” may be universal, but judgement of claims of possession is not.

    • gladys1071

      actually as a Christian i am a Star Trek Fan, I love the idea of no money in the future and their technology especially their replicators. Star trek appeals because it is a utopia, how we would like things to be, how we would like the world to be. I am aware that it will probably never happen, but nothing wrong with escaping into their world sometimes. I agree you DS9 was darker and more realistic to our world as it is, i enjoyed that series too.

      • Ann Morgan

        “no money” is not going to happen. Communism has never worked in the past, does not work now, and won’t work in the future. Why? Because it’s contrary to our biology. Most people are not going to work, if they know they will get paid regardless.

        • gladys1071

          I know I still like the Star Trek universe anyway I think the premise is cool

  • Mr_Bob_Colorado

    To believe that all cultures are equal, just at a different level of “evolution” is the religion of Gene Roddenberry and his Prime Directive. It ruined Star Trek, because it is wrong, ridiculous and stupid.

  • jason taylor

    The Prime Directive makes sense because some culures are to weak to handle contact with stronger ones, there are to many unintended consequences and bad interference is more common then good and so forth. It was saying that it therefore follows that there should be no interference whatsoever was wrong and so in practice was violated more often then not. Just like the absurdities like the Federation having no money(despite the fact that they obviously don’t stand behind people with whips to get them to work), and the Federation not being a military force(despite the fact that they obviously fight wars).
    Some of the Trek Franchise’s enthusiasms are so embarrassingly utopian that the show was at it’s best when they were forgotten. That is just one reason why DS9 was the best of them.

  • jason taylor

    In point of fact the statement,”all cultures are equal” assumes that cultures that assume the converse are in error and proceed on that basis are in error. And therefore to that degree there has been an improvement as in the past it was fairly routine to assume one’s culture was the best. If one can improve by saying “all cultures arle equal” one has said cultures are unequal as the ability to improve assumes inequality between the improved product and the proceding.

    • scanham2


      • jason taylor

        Each generation is a subculture of it’s own. If all cultures are equal all generations must also be equal. If it is said the generation that claims all cultures to be equal has a superior claim to righteousness over the previous ones that said the opposite that is a contradiction. Because it has claimed all cultures are equal but some are more equal then others.

  • Carla C.

    This reminds me of the same arguments that got Sergeant First Class Charles Martland who got in trouble for standing up against the bacha bazi practice in Afghanistan. Wrong is wrong, especially against children.
    See for more about Sgt. Martland

  • Phoenix1977

    Do you seriously want to discuss cruelty against people? Ok, you asked for it.

    Although I am appalled by female genital mutilation it’s no different from what Christian “therapists” have done to gay men in the 1950s. Countless men have been castrated to “cure” them of being gay, just like countless lesbian women have been subjected to corrective rape in order to turn them straight. And yet, I never heard any Christian openly condemn those practices.
    But we don’t have to go back to the 1950s to see cruelty by conservatives towards LGBTs. I present to you: reparative therapy. A practice to “cure” people from the same-sex attraction. A “therapy” labelled cruel and dangerous by the APA and the AMA. A “therapy” luckily being outlawed in more and more states and countries.

    So perhaps you should focus inward before you start accusing others of being cruel. Clean out your own house before focusing on others. Christianity is just as cruel as Brazil’s Satere-Mawe people or female genital mutilation. But of course you don’t see it that way. After all, Christianity is the “better” culture. Well, not for LGBTs!

    • ElrondPA

      What is it that makes you enjoy hanging around here repeating the same complaints about Christianity on every page you find? “Countless” is, of course, an easy accusation to make, since it is undoubtedly true that no one counted, but in point of fact it’s extremely rare that castration or rape were used as attempted correctives of gays. (Just like the Inquisition gets trotted out as an example of the heinousness of Catholicism or Christianity in general, when its total head count over centuries couldn’t match Stalin on a lazy day.) For the record, I do condemn any attempt to physically force someone to change their sexual orientation, but I also condemn any attempt to silence the voices of those who would call on those with same-sex attraction to not act genitally on that attraction, for their own good and that of society. I don’t expect you to agree with me, but a little bit of decency in toleration would make a better culture for all of us. And I promise not to spend my time on gay-rights blogs condemning those who are there.

      The APA has been thoroughly corrupted and politicized by the sexual liberation agenda, so its claims regarding reparative therapy are at best suspect. The fact is that some people report being helped by it, though it rarely works without a willing patient, it doesn’t work for everyone, and not all methods that have been labeled “reparative therapy” are useful or appropriate. But most psychological, or for that matter physiological, interventions don’t work for everyone; that’s not a justification to outlaw them. If we’d done that for transplant surgery when it was largely unsuccessful, we’d never have reached today’s state where people can live for decades with a new heart or kidney. The fact is that sexual orientation is for some people not fixed, immutable, or “born that way,” and it is hypocritical to treat same-sex attraction as a roach motel–those who come out as gay, even after being married and having children, are lauded as courageous even when it means abandoning people dependent on them, while anyone who wants to go the other way is derided and ridiculed.

      • Phoenix1977

        “What is it that makes you enjoy hanging around here repeating the same complaints about Christianity on every page you find?”
        Because someone needs to make sure those of you on their moral high horses need to be reminded of the cruelty and monstrous things being done to others in the name of religion. Because someone needs to remind you time and again Christians are no better than muslims or any other group of people throughout the history of mankind. Because someone needs to remind you of all the bloodshed in name of your religion.

        “I also condemn any attempt to silence the voices of those who would call on those with same-sex attraction to not act genitally on that attraction, for their own good and that of society.”
        Not acting on a biological impulse is not good for a person or for society. At best people tend to get moody, at worst they turn violent. Sex is such a strong biological impulse in cannot, and therefor should not, be ignored, both for the individual as for society.

        “I don’t expect you to agree with me, but a little bit of decency in toleration would make a better culture for all of us.”
        Why would I be tolerant towards the intolerant? Obviously you don’t get the message. Where was your call for tolerance when others needed society to be tolerant? Christians have never cared about tolerance until now, because all of a sudden they find themselves on the receiving end of the stick.

        “The APA has been thoroughly corrupted and politicized by the sexual liberation agenda, so its claims regarding reparative therapy are at best suspect.”
        Actually, it’s the other way around. in 1991 the then parting President of the APA in his speech set the record straight, claiming it was the Christian right-winged faction that threatened to boycot the DSM classification system if homosexuality was not admitted as a psychiatric diagnosis. The decision to remove homosexuality 20 years later in the DSM-III was simply a correction of that, corrupt and political, error.

        “The fact is that some people report being helped by it, though it rarely works without a willing patient, it doesn’t work for everyone, ”
        That alone should be reason to outlaw it. Modern medicine works based on 1 simple core element: evidence. That is why medicine is nowadays called evidence-based medicine. Any and all treatment that does not meet that standard is eliminated from todays treatment plan. Reparative therapy does not only fail to meet the standard of evidence based medicine but is proven to be dangerous and cruel at the same time. Unfortunately, some “professionals” cling anecdotal evidence or claims from religious factions to justify the continuation of the “treatments”. If professionals cannot regulate themselves legislation is required to do it for them.
        And reparative therapy doesn’t help. There is an almost 100% relapse and the few who say to be “cured” of their same-sex attraction were never actually gay but bisexual, leaning towards straight. So they never needed “help” or “therapy”; they were mostly straight anyway. Among those who relapsed and now strongly opposing reparative therapy are the once strongest supporters of the practice. That should tell you something.

        “those who come out as gay, even after being married and having children, are lauded as courageous even when it means abandoning people dependent on them”
        So, something we can agree on, although from quite the different perspective. It’s not courageous of them to come out after getting married and having children indeed. It was a cowardly thing not to come out before that because they knew. They should never have married but simply embraced who and what they were in the first place.