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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