Learning about a subject is often trivially easy, but changing one’s mind is sometimes more complex, and can make an interesting story. This is the story of how I came to consider the subject of male circumcision.
Back in the stone age of the late 80’s, before the World Wide Web, getting information on unusual topics was often difficult. Shortly after I moved to Seattle in 1987 I met Tim Cridland, who published a fanzine called Off the Deep End. It was a compilation of really far out subjects, including coverage of esoterica such as the musings of Richard Shaver. Tim did the hard work of writing letters to people who had real familiarity with these subjects, and maintained a large archive of exotic literature. It was Tim who introduced me to a wonderful book entitled High Weirdness by Mail. It was a catalog of unusual individuals and organizations, with the underlying premise being that one could send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to them with the payoff being the receipt of “weird” literature. It seemed such an easy and inexpensive action, though with today’s internet one which is grievously quaint.
I recall sending out a number of letters, simply asking for information. One topic that caught my eye was an anti-circumcision crusader, a preacher located somewhere in the Midwest. Of the numerous inquires I sent out, this individual was unique. I began to receive overstuffed #10 envelopes every few weeks or so. He would photocopy any article in a newspaper or magazine about the subject of circumcision, and pass it along. I suspected this is why Ivan Stang, the author of High Weirdness by Mail, chose to include him, namely his fanatical interest in the subject.
Despite his fanaticism, I took at least a cursory interest in his message. Before he sent me his material, I hardly gave the subject of male circumcision a second thought. I knew in a round about way that Jews were traditionally circumcised, but really didn’t wonder why most American men, including myself, were circumcised. Frankly I dismissed the issue as one too trivial to be worth of debate.
The epiphany in my thinking on the subject was simply learning about the history of American circumcision, namely the insanity of John Harvey Kellogg. Unbelievably, he promoted circumcision as a way to prevent or inhibit masturbation. Realizing this was not only to realize how wrong in practice this was, as virtually all circumcised men masturbate anyway, but how pathologically anti-sex his mindset was. This fact alone was enough to instantly persuade me that male circumcision was complete and total bullshit. Most people’s minds change slowly, especially on deeply held subjects. Perhaps because I had an open mind on this issue, namely that I was genuinely ignorant of its history, that I had no preconceived ideas to overcome. The more I learned about the dangers of circumcision, and the utility of the foreskin in human sexuality, the more galling the practice seemed to me. I found it shocking that such a barbaric practice could persist in a supposedly medically enlightened society like 20th century America. Like religion itself, a great deal of intellectual and behavioral inertia kept it rolling forth, despite its harms and irrationality.
The Midwest preacher must have sent me material for several years, until he eventually stopped. At one point in his mailings he included a bumper sticker, which was a line drawing of an infant held down during a circumcision. The baby’s genitals were covered with the surgeon’s hand so there was no nudity. The caption read “Circumcision: The unkindest cut of all.” I decided to put it on my 1987 Dodge Daytona. The results were mixed. In hindsight, I really didn’t understand what an emotionally charged, polarized, hot-button topic this was. On more than one occasion I had people pull beside me and gesture to me approval, and in one case a man ran up to the driver’s side window to applaud me. Because I didn’t expect these reactions, I found them startling and unwanted, even though they were positive. With hindsight, I would only ever put bumper stickers on my car of the most benign nature.
One day I took my Dodge Daytona into a shop to have a tune-up. I told the employees that I would wait next door in a sandwich shop. While sitting inside the sandwich shop waiting, one of the automotive technicians came inside. He needed to tell me that since my car was fuel injected, their shop could not do the job, and that I would need to take my car somewhere else. But of note was how he addressed me, as he needed to determine I was the owner of the Daytona. As he entered the sandwich shop he said “Are you the owner of the car with the gross bumper sticker” in an aggressive manner. Much taken aback, I responded in the affirmative. As a parting comment he added, “I had my son circumcised.”
To this day, I remain somewhat dumbfounded as to how any individual with any sort of reason and moral sense wouldn’t agree that circumcision is a bad idea after learning the simple facts about it, including its pathological history. I suspect it’s a often a testament to the behavioral inertia of tradition, in which certain human behaviors are continued, again and again, regardless of whether or not they are intrinsically rational or good. I wear dry socks not because of tradition, but because it’s intrinsically valuable to do so. Contrast this with wedding traditions, which memetically propagate themselves, year after year, simply because people are unwilling to buck tradition.
Because routine circumcision is still practiced in the 21st century, advocates for reason must continue to oppose it. I was gratified to learn that my friend Spoony Quine’s extensive essay on the topic had gone viral. It represents a detailed and minute analysis of the many problems with male circumcision. Part of the recalcitrance of people to stop advocating circumcision, in my opinion, is simply that they may have already had their boys circumcised, and to denounce circumcision afterwards is to admit that they made a significant mistake. Perhaps the most fertile minds to convince are those that have NOT had children, who can avoid making an irrevocable decision that affects the entire life of their boy.
I suspect, but do not know, that the internet itself is a force for reason in this matter. No longer do the facts about circumcision have to stay buried in history and medical texts. I believe that others like me are out there, ready to be convinced simply by moral revulsion to the beliefs and actions of John Harvey Kellogg.