Stop the vaccination false dichotomy

As far as I can tell, discussions about vaccination online are divided firmly into two strictly opposing camps. On the one side, we have the anti-vaxxers, who oppose all vaccination (and often modern medicine all together) on the basis of conspiracy theories, junk “science”, or hysteria about autism. On the other, we have the pro-vaxxers, who extol the unmitigated virtue of vaccines and think we should all automatically follow the recommended vaccination schedules, based on a general respect for science, the positive impact vaccines have had on our culture, and a general sense of interpersonal responsibility. Both sides regularly ridicule, mock, and straw man each other, and any deviation from one side is seen as full-blown commitment to the other.

I have a strong respect for the scientific process and for the huge boons brought by modern medicine. I find the lives saved by, for example, polio eradication nigh miraculous. I have not seen any reason to believe vaccines cause autism, and think the idea of a conscious conspiracy spread across the entire medical community is ridiculous enough to be dismissed out of hand. Yet I also believe that medical decisions are best made with the full context of the patient’s life and values taken into consideration, that the modern medical establishment occasionally falls into one-size-fits-all solutions that are not well-tailored to the individual, and that it’s important to be an informed self-advocate to get the best standard of care. I know that often standard practice reflects only one side of a legitimate scientific debate, and that seeking out second opinions and evaluating the literature first-hand can make all the difference in outcomes. For all medical decisions for myself or my future children, I want to be well-informed and to evaluate the decision based on the full context, including the risks and alternatives, and see no reason why vaccines should be treated any differently.

Where is there room for me in vaccine discussions? Where can I talk about evaluating the side-effects of vaccines without being tarred as an anti-vaxxer who has bought into ableist anti-autism propaganda? Where can I talk about the amazing achievements made possible by vaccinations without being accused of being a brainwashed sheep or a shill? Why must we treat all vaccines as a package deal, to be loved or hated as a whole? Please, make a space for people like me. If you are pro-vaccination, surely you expect a reasonable investigation will find that the benefits vastly outweigh the potential costs and that we will end up vaccinating our children by the normal schedule, right? If you are anti-vaccination, surely you expect we will uncover the enormous risks we are exposing our kids to and avoid vaccines when possible, right?

Coming out, I guess?

Today I tweeted:


This wasn’t meant to be anything significant, but when my dad texted me “Curious to learn more about your latest tweet” I realized some people might not know I’m bisexual1. It’s never been a secret or anything, but it’s only been true2 for a few years and I guess it hasn’t come up with my parents, seeing as I was engaged and am now married3. This isn’t a big deal for me but I realize it might be for some, so I guess this is me letting everyone know.

 

 

 

1: More precisely, pansexual
2: Seriously, there was a specific point two years ago before which I wasn’t attracted to guys and after which I was
3: Happily, I might add. This change had no significant effect on our relationship

Reviewing Hell

Last week, I had an interesting twitter conversation with Sister Y that ended with her saying “I think the suffering of life is much worse than death & impossible to predict enough to bet a child’s life on it.” I’d heard of antinatalism before, but only in an environmentalist context. I found her blog, The View from Hell, and my initial reaction after a casual skim was a visceral kind of disgust/aversion. From what I’ve seen so far, though, she seems very intelligent and like she’s put serious thought into her views, so I thought it would be valuable to try to understand her ideas and see how they can enrich my own, both as someone who wants kids and as someone who wants to get better at facing uncomfortable ideas head on and fairly considering the perspectives of those I disagree with.

I asked her if she could give me some pointers to articles that would help me get started understanding her ideas, and boy did she deliver:

My plan is to go through one by one, reading carefully and then writing a post where I try to lay out what I think she believes and why, what aspects of her reasoning I agree with, what evidence I have from my own life and knowledge that supports her ideas, and only at the end talking about where, if anywhere, I disagree and why. These posts aren’t part of a series or even in chronological order, and some of them (Theory of Nerddom?) seem like they aren’t directly related to the topics that originally drew my interest, but I expect they will form an interesting and valuable whole as I go through.

In this post, though, I want to talk about what I currently think (based on a very preliminary scan through!) are her ideas and how they relate to mine. It seems like she has two core distinct but fundamentally interrelated views: that it should be much more socially acceptable and feasible to commit suicide, and that it’s immoral to have children. Both of these ideas seem to stem from her belief that many (most? all?) people live lives that are net negative experiences, so that it would have been better if they hadn’t been born and now that they’re here they should be able to die easily, reliably, and with social support. I don’t have a clear picture yet of why she thinks that (though I do know it’s more than just that her own life has been that way), but my guess based on what I’ve read so far is that a big piece of her argument is based around the idea that relative position within social structures are a (the most?) important value for people and that inherent in that is that many people will not be able to achieve that value (since relative importance is in most senses a zero-sum game, except for the fact that you can always add unimportant people so it’s even worse than zero-sum).

I think I agree with many aspects of what I think are her views on suicide. Legally speaking, I think suicide (assisted or not) should be as cheap and easy as the market will provide, with exceptions or caveats only for people who are incapable of making rational decisions (young children, severely mentally handicapped). I find the prospect of an obligation to continue living a life of unhappiness morally abhorrent, and if that was the reasonable expectation for someone I cared about I hope I’d be able to be supportive of their decision to die as much as it might hurt me. I think culturally we could simultaneously be doing a hell of a lot more to be respectful of people’s choices to end their lives if they see fit and to make it more likely that people will live happy lives. I think there is cause to treat the decision seriously and to try to make sure people are as educated about it as possible, but people’s lives should be theirs to live or not as they see fit. I really disagree with the antinatalism aspects, though. It is simply not my experience (both in my own life and observation/study of others’) that life is a net negative. I believe most people are happy to be alive, and that there are ways (starting with good parenting!) to make personally valuable lives much more likely (though of course not guaranteed) than the current societal average. I think that parents can gain genuine value out of having kids1. I think that in the society that treats suicide the way Sister Y wants, an antinatalist view is even less justified: If methods of suicide are readily available and reliable and socially acceptable, then the potential negative value of a life will have a definite floor and people who expect their lives to go below that can choose that route.

So, I expect it will be interesting to see how my understanding of Sister Y’s views changes (please remember that I wrote this post before having studied her work in detail!) and how it will shape my perspective. As I add new posts, I’ll link them here, so watch this space if you’re interested.

1. I think this statement hides a kernel of what may prove to be an insurmountable difference between Sister Y and me. I am an Objectivist (with some important caveats!), which in particular means that I think selfishness is virtuous. Contrary to popular caricature of Objectivism, this doesn’t mean I think it’s OK not to care about or to live at the expense of other people, or in particular to have kids and try to live through them, mistreat them, deny their individuality, etc, as it is not in your long-term interest to treat other people as objects and it is in your interests to care about them for their own sakes. It does mean, however, that I think a proper justification for having children ultimately needs to be rooted in the value you expect being a parent will provide you.

Victim Blaming and Risk Mitigation

Trigger warning for discussion of victim blaming

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Javert and the loaf of bread

EDIT 1/24/13: After seeing the movie, I now agree with Rory’s interpretation in the comments (that Javert’s obsession doesn’t start until after the confrontation). This post left up for posterity.

In response to the long twitter thread started by this tweet, I wanted to explain why Javert’s obsession with Valjean (in the musical) strikes me as a bit strange.

From the musical, what Javert knows about Valjean is that he “stole a loaf of bread”, “broke a window pane”, “tried to run”, and then failed to report for his parole (from having read the beginning of the book, I know that “tried to run” means “tried to break out of prison”, but that’s not in the show). The show does an amazingly compelling job of showing why Javert despises Valjean: Those who falter and those who fall must pay the price, men like you can never change. Those central precepts guide Javert’s path through the show, and the contradiction between them and Valjean’s choice to save his life at the barricades ultimately invalidates his entire conception of the world (rooted, ultimately, in his desire to separate himself from the gutter from which he came by crushing it under his feet). This is beautifully and powerfully presented in the show, and easily overcomes the flaw in the story to make Javert and his theme of justice one of my favorite aspects of the show.

But there’s that damn little flaw. Javert’s obsession with justice makes sense. Javert’s hatred of Valjean makes sense. But Javert’s obsession with Valjean doesn’t. Why is Valjean special to Javert? Surely there are worse criminals, others who have broken their parole? Javert hates Valjean, sure, but the Javert presented in the show would hate any criminal, especially any criminal that escapes (nay, mocks) the law. Given all of the criminals he must have come into contact with, why spend so much energy on Valjean? A few people in the original thread compared Valjean to Ahab in Moby Dick, but while Valjean may share Ahab’s obsessiveness he doesn’t have Ahab’s excuse that Valjean was the only whale to take his leg.

Ultimately, I find it easy to look past this and really enjoy the show (and look forward to seeing the movie next week). But I think it would have been fairly easy to fix the problem, so I think it’s a shame that the show is as it is. Off the top of my head, I can think of three reasons why Javert might be obsessed with Valjean, and corresponding ways to show them:

  1. Valjean’s transgression was exceptional relative to Javert’s sense of justice. Perhaps he escaped more times than anyone else, or his crime was a brutal murder of a nobleman (you could still make Valjean sympathetic, say the man raped his sister or some such) or something. All it takes to show that is to replace “stole a loaf of bread” with whatever he did.
  2. Valjean’s transgression was personal in some way to Javert. Perhaps Valjean was his first arrest, or his first escaped parolee. Perhaps Valjean stole the bread from Javert’s brother (though I think this would add an undesirable extra dimension to Javert’s hatred). Maybe Valjean’s strength somehow particularly reminds Javert of the scum he was born with. Showing this would just take some backstory, maybe during a monologue or the Confrontation, and depending on how it’s done wouldn’t even need to play any further role in the story.
  3. In addition to Javert being singularly devoted to his Platonic ideal of justice, he is also concrete-bound and his obsession with Valjean is meant to be irrational. This is the view that most on the other side of the twitter discussion took, but I don’t think the show supports it. If Javert had had other obsessions that were completely senseless, that’d make a strong case that he is arbitrarily obsessive in general, but his obsession with The Law makes sense in his context. If the irrational nature of his particular obsession had had consequences, like his career floundering or him failing to catch an important criminal due to his fixation, then the irrationality would have been an important aspect of Javert’s character. Instead, after the initial exchange between Valjean and Javert at Valjean’s release we see a story that is exactly the same as it would have been if Javert’s obsession had been less arbitrary. We see consequences to Javert’s general view on justice and evil, but none to his supposed concrete-bound obsessiveness. If Javert was meant to be a character who has fundamentally irrational fixations, then why doesn’t that play a role in the show outside of the one moment where that explanation is needed?

A Request of Friends and Family

I would really appreciate it if people stopped making jokes about my or Alyssa’s expected role in our relationship based on our gender. Neither of us is the boss of the other, neither of our feelings matter more than the other’s, neither of us makes decisions for the other, neither of us just gives in to the other in disagreements, and neither of us is more or less competent at doing things adults are generally able to do (remember important items/information, manage finances, plan for events, etc.).  I understand that these jokes are not made in bad faith and are meant to be lighthearted, but nevertheless they upset me and I would appreciate it if people would respect that (much as I try to respect my loved ones’ feelings about things I might say or do).

Edit: I thought I should say, based on some comments I’ve received: This isn’t directed at anyone in particular, and I don’t want people to feel like they have to walk around on eggshells or anything. I know that these jokes come naturally and it might not be exactly clear what kinds of things I’m talking about (I’m refraining from posting specific examples because I don’t want to call anyone out or anything). I just want people to be aware that this is an issue for me so that if I ask them in the future not to make a certain joke again they’ll understand where I’m coming from.

Bleg: Initially Applicationless Knowledge

I’m looking for examples of theoretical knowledge (in any field) that, while true in some context, had no proposed practical applications at the time they were formulated. It’s ok if they’ve since had direct or indirect applications. I want to investigate a hypothesis about why I think the pursuit of knowledge needs no further justification qua productive enterprise once it’s shown that the knowledge is connected to reality, no matter how abstract or esoteric the subject.

Some potential examples of what I’m thinking of (might be wrong here, need to research the history of these): Much of number theory (Euclid didn’t forsee RSA when proving the infinity of the primes), astronomy before Newton (did Copernicus know his work would lead to a unified theory of force and gravity that enabled countless mechanical technologies, among other things?), Mendel’s genetic research (I’m guessing 23&Me was far from his mind), etc. I’m particularly interested in examples from the humanities, as I’m quite lacking in those myself.

Turning Over a New Leaf

I am overly optimistic about my future. When I plan things, I base my expectations on everything coming out as well as possible. I know there are a lot of things I’m good at doing well and quickly, so I just take that into account and ignore all of my personal weaknesses and the little hiccoughs of real life and set my expectations way too high. I set myself up for failure when I could be achieving greatness.

I am a perfectionist. When I inevitably fail at a goal I have set out for myself, I see only the failure and none of the success. I feel like a single mistake, or even a setback outside of my control, completely invalidates my entire effort.

I am a procrastinator. A seriously bad procrastinator. I undertake tons of projects that I hardly even start working on, let alone complete. Of the responsibilities that I do actually fulfill, I’d say it’s 1 in 50 that I don’t put off until the very last minute. I have a whole slew of automatized behaviours and emotional responses that I’ve trained to make productive work as hard as possible, no matter how much I like or dislike the work at hand. I have passion, I have plans, I have ability, I could be great but instead I stretch minor issues into major excuses and make up excuses when there are none. I delude myself with my optimism and so feel OK about putting things off until the very last minute, and I use my perfectionism as an excuse to waste a whole day when I mess up one hour. This is why I left Atlanta: I recognized myself slipping into some of my serial procrastination patterns. I told my employer that, in the past, I had failed to overcome those behaviors and that I couldn’t guarantee that I would succeed this time, so they let me go. Most of the time, I do manage to pull through in the end when someone else is relying on me, but at a cost of high stress, low sleep, and reduced quality. I can’t even try to estimate how many times I’ve failed to pull through when it’s just me relying on me.

I am a liar. I have this image of myself that is based on my principles and how strongly I believe in them, my abilities, and my ambitions. It’s really my image of who I want to be, and I truly believe I can be that person someday, but I’m not yet. And so, when the truth of what I have done or failed to do threatens that image, I lie to myself and others about what happened. Sometimes, the lie is pointless, and no one would think any differently of me had I told the truth, but the habit of lying is so ingrained that I just tell the lie. Sometimes, the lie is to protect my image of myself. Sometimes, the lie is to avoid admitting I need help, because I have this irrational fear that if I need to get help with my problems then I will be a failure.

These are my major character flaws and bad decisions that I have made. Not to say that I don’t have other problems, but these are the significant ones. Yesterday, I reached a breaking point and decided it was time to choose to either live my life right (because I DO know what’s right, one of my positive attributes is a really strong, clear grasp of morality) or not live it at all. I was miserable with halfways, trying to make myself better without fully admitting there was something to fix. I decided that I wanted to live right, and the first step was to admit, to myself and others, exactly where I had been failing. I told Alyssa about the lying and set straight all the lies I could remember, and I plan to do so with all of my friends that I have lied to.

Yesterday was a turning point. I still have all the bad habits automatized, I still have to make up for the damage I’ve caused, but I truly believe I am a different person. Hiding and lying about this stuff to myself and others is so obviously much worse than whatever feared consequences of owning up to it, and in truth most of the feared consequences aren’t even real. I knew all that intellectually before, but having come clean about it I really believe it to my core. It’s weird, I’ve simultaneously given other people every reason not to trust me or think well of me and given myself reason to believe I have changed. I don’t expect to immediately have rational projections about my future, stop being overly critical of myself when I fail, stop putting things off, or stop wanting to lie to cover my mistakes, but I do believe that when those things do happen, I will acknowledge them to myself and relevant others and take the steps necessary to make up for it. I also believe that I will finally take the actions I need to reduce the negative pull my past actions have on my psychology, both in terms of helping myself and accepting help from others. This is going to sound really cheesily Objectivist of me, but it’s a little bit like I’ve finally taken a real hard look at the primary choice, chosen life, and after how hard that was and how much better things are that I’ve chosen it the rest seems easy. Not that there won’t be struggles, not that I won’t make individual bad choices, but that I’ve switched to a firm commitment to the good ones so I won’t be holding those back any more.

So. Those are the words, now here are the actions. By the time this post is published, I’ll have talked to my parents and my employer about this. For the time being, I will be reducing my life to eating, sleeping, getting therapy, my relationship with Alyssa, and my job. I will be changing my passwords on reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and my Google account, and putting them in a place where I have to undertake serious conscious effort to get them (or possibly give them to Alyssa to keep). I will pull back from my relationships with my friends and family for the time being, though I will still be reading my email in case anyone wants to reach out to me or ask about something they think I may have lied to them about. I will shelve my personal long-term projects, except the one I’m working on with my brother that has a few days’ work left in it. I will cut myself off from all entertainment sources except when I’m doing something with Alyssa (watching TV, reading, whatever). I will spend today looking for a therapist, removing all the distractions, and sitting down with Alyssa to plan out what needs to be worked on for the next few days, and will revisit all this then. I will try to keep a log of all of the good and the bad so that I have a more objective measure to look at to evaluate myself. I will slowly add back in other values when I have reason to believe I can handle them again. I will try to explicitly identify as many bad habits and emotional responses that I have and work to counteract them. I will try to explicitly identify as many good habits and responses that I have or want to have and work to ingrain them. If some or all of this fails, I will keep trying different things until my image of who I am matches the image of who I want to be, and I can look back at this time in my life and say “that’s not me anymore”.

This won’t be easy. I know I will struggle and fall and be hurt and feel helpless at times, but I also believe I can succeed and be who I want to be. The middle ground I’ve been walking is not an option any more, so I’m choosing to commit to a good, happy life, and the struggle will all be worth it.

My Divergence from Objectivism and Objectivists

I consider myself an Objectivist*, but there are some places where I disagree or, at least, don’t yet agree with Objectivism or with what many/most Objectivists think. I thought it might be fun to make a list of these issues, and maybe I’ll keep this up to date as my ideas grow and might eventually put links in to posts where I explain my views in more detail. Not all of these ideas are dealt with directly by Rand’s work, but for those that aren’t I believe my view differs from that of a significant portion of Objectivists, and that those Objectivists view the issue as an important philosophical one.

  • I don’t think metaphysics on its own can tell us very much about cosmology or ontology, even to a greater extent than most Objectivists. For example, I don’t think we can say from philosophy alone whether the universe has finite spatial extent, whether the universe contains empty space or is completely filled with matter, whether instantaneous action at a distance is possible, or whether conscious awareness can play a special role in a fundamental physical theory. I do think all of these questions can be answered, and that many of them have been partially or totally answered by scientific study, but the answers cannot come from philosophy.
  • I do not think all generalizations are fundamentally statements of causality. An important class of generalizations are, perhaps the most important class, but statements like “tables are furniture” and, even, “lightning is electrical discharge” are not statements of cause and effect (though they may have to be proven by identification of certain cause-effect relationships).
  • I do not see that definitions are as important in the concept formation process as Rand did. I’m not convinced that they’re not as important as she thought, I just don’t see it (yet).
  • I think Objectivists are libertarians.
  • I disagree with the vast majority of the Objectivist sexual ethic. I think things like pornography (consumption and creation), casual sex, prostitution (selling and buying), non-monogamy both in terms of sexual partners and probably even in terms of life partners, and all sorts of kinks, fetishes, and orientations, even those that I might find extremely painful or disgusting, can all be moral in a wide variety of non-exceptional circumstances. This topic deserves its own blog post, and I just may write it some day.
  • I think the gender roles that Rand’s theories of masculinity and femininity try to put people into (both in and out of bed) are rubbish. I think a women can rationally want to be president, that a man can be a primary caregiver, that transvestitism, transsexualism, and all sorts of gender-bending can be completely moral. In fact, I think most of the assumptions in our society about how a person’s genitals relate to their behaviour and preferences are largely fucked up and the fact that we need a concept for, for example, men who wear dresses is largely an indictment of our culture, not an indication about the nature of the behaviour itself. Also, while I do think that in cases of undetermined gender the singular masculine pronouns (e.g. “he”) are more grammatically appropriate than the third-person plural (e.g “they”), I think the word for person is “person” and not “man” and the word for people is “people” and not “men”.
  • I think that the government must be the ultimate arbiter of retaliatory force, but not necessarily the only wielder of said force. For example, I think that a private individual who follows the proper procedures (e.g. obtaining warrants from a judge, following the proper limits on search and seizure, using only due force, announcing his presence, etc.) could be able to investigate crimes and even perform arrests. How such a system might work or whether the system would be preferable to the current one is not my point, my point is just that as long as there is a single entity ultimately responsible for determining the justice of the use of physical force the actual force-wielders need not be government agents. In particular this applies to military action: if there is a country where rights violations are occurring on a massive scale but there is no threat to your country or its citizens, I think there should be a path you can take to get together private volunteer forces, get your goals approved, and use force to stop the rights violations in the foreign country.
  • I think that the “total war” view on warfare is completely mistaken. While I do think there are limits to the steps the military should take in preventing civilian casualties when attacking military targets, the idea that it’s moral to purposely target civilian centers is abhorrent. I think military actions like Sherman’s march to the sea are viciously unjust, and ideas like “the citizens are responsible for the actions of the government” and “the government couldn’t do what it’s doing without the support of its people” are extremely collectivist and completely ignorant of just how hard it is to change a government, especially a totalitarian one. I definitely don’t think things like building a mosque near ground zero or cheering in the streets after a terrorist attack are as such deserving of a forceful response.
  • I don’t think an aesthetic view is fundamental in philosophy, and I don’t agree with Rand’s aesthetics. I don’t disagree with it either, I just don’t really have any views on the issue either way. I don’t get much out of painting, sculpture, architecture, or any other visual arts, and I’ve never understood how a philosophical understanding could deepen my appreciation of the arts I do care about (literature, television, film, theatre, and music).
  • I do not think patents and copyrights, when awarded in a proper intellectual property framework (which I think we don’t have today), should have any limits on their duration.
  • I think any clear term in a properly signed contract should be enforceable. This includes contracts in which one person makes himself a slave, a person promises to allow another to punch him, etc. How these terms should be enforced is a difficult matter: in the absence of an enforcement clause, I can see a fine or jail until the uncooperative participant allows the contract to be followed. I don’t think it’s reasonable for the courts to have to bear the burden of actually enforcing each term (e.g. holding a person still so the other can punch him), but I don’t in principle have an objection to a court issuing permission to the winner of a breach-of-contract case to use appropriate force himself to satisfy the terms of the contract. I think that if such a system were to be put in place, most contracts would (properly, IMO) include a clause specifying monetary damages in case of breach.

*: With some worries about the term, see this post.

An Open Letter to Mohel Michael Henesch

This is an email I just sent to the mohel who performed my circumcision 21 years ago today. My goal in sending this was to show him the perspective of someone who wished he hadn’t been circumcised, so that he would understand what his profession could do and maybe so he would question his continued participation in the field. I’ve chosen to publish this openly for two reasons: So that my friends and family can understand how I feel personally about my circumcision (rather than just my intellectual position on circumcision in the abstract), and so that anyone out there who is considering performing a circumcision or having one performed might change their minds.

Before I get to the email, a few notes:

  • The account includes personal descriptions involving my genitalia. While there is nothing graphically sexual and no pictures or anything, this may make some uncomfortable.
  • I’m well aware that my parents had a significant role to play in my circumcision as well. I do not mean this letter to be construed as faulting only Rabbi Henesch. I am still not sure how to discuss this topic with my parents, or even if I should considering that they will not be in the position to circumcise another boy in the future.
  • In the email, I used some transliterated Hebrew phrases that I can be sure Rabbi Henesch knows and that some of my readership doesn’t. Such phrases will be explained in square brackets; these brackets were not included in the original email.

Dear Rabbi Henesch,

You wouldn’t remember me, but 21 years ago you changed my life. Like most of your clients, I was eight days old at the time, so I doubt I was able to articulate my thoughts on the procedure. But now I’ve had a fair amount of time living with the effects of your work, and I’d like to share with you my perspective on what you did to me.

If you haven’t guessed by my tone, I wish I hadn’t been circumcised. I could show you studies that I believe demonstrate the deleterious effects of the procedure on infants, the costs to the adults that had the procedure done earlier in life, and the falsity of the supposed health benefits of circumcision, but I won’t. There are dedicated organizations that can convey that information far better than I could. What I have to offer you is my personal experience, the costs I believe your action has lead me to bear, in the hope that you might understand on a personal level the potential for harm that comes with your profession, and perhaps even consider leaving it. This account will be both physically and spiritually personal, but as someone who has had a permanent impact on my genitals I think we’re past those types of boundaries.

Almost every single day, for as long as I can remember, I have at one point or another felt discomfort in the tip of my penis. It doesn’t matter what type of undergarments I wear, if I wear pants or shorts, or whether I’m sedentary at a desk all day or out playing a sport: eventually, my penis will brush against something in an unpleasant way. It’s not a major discomfort or pain, but it’s there and it’s noticeable, and it doesn’t feel natural. It makes me feel like something is wrong, like something is somewhere it doesn’t belong, and there’s nothing at all like it for any other parts of my body that are covered in clothing all day. I can’t verify this personally, but apparently this is a problem that only happens to some circumcised men, and not to any intact ones. In fact, it is my understanding that intact men experience significantly less genital chafing in any circumstances. Regardless of the cause, the fact remains that most days I get a physical reminder of a fact of my biology that I strongly wish wasn’t so.

The permanently uncovered portions of my glans are calloused. They aren’t big callouses like might form on your hands, but the skin is thicker, tougher, and less sensitive than the skin of the glans still partially covered.

I have a scar around my penis, a visual reminder of what used to be there that I never knew. It’s not nearly as bad as some of the extreme examples of circumcisions gone wrong that I’ve seen, but it’s there and noticeable. It certainly doesn’t make me look more attractive than I otherwise would.

The area underneath the folded shaft skin that remains regularly collects dust, lint, and other foreign particles. Though I wash daily, it is fairly sticky and catches occasionally on my pubic hair or the cloth of my underwear, resulting in an unpleasant sensation when it becomes uncaught.

Sex and masturbation are less enjoyable than they could have been. I have good reason to believe, given the callouses I can feel and the physical sensitivity studies that I’ve read, that I am not capable of the same level and variety of physical pleasure that would have been available to me had I been left intact. I lose out on the sensation of loose skin sliding up and down my penis during intercourse or masturbation. My penis has less natural lubrication than it should. Sexual activity causes more friction than it should. Sexual activity is more likely to leave my penis feeling raw and sensitive for some time after the fact than it should. I am more likely to require supplemental lubrication for intercourse than I should. In particular, masturbation is more abrasive, less pleasurable, and overall more difficult than it should be (which, not incidentally, was one of the leading arguments that led to the rise in circumcision rates among non-Jewish Americans).

These physical problems are not insignificant, and I think they alone would be enough for me to regret what happened to me, but they pale in comparison to the spiritual problems. You see, Rabbi Henesch, I do not consider myself a religious Jew. Culturally, I still maintain some of the familial values and some practices, especially those that bring me closer to my family, but I do not believe in God and do not find spiritual or moral guidance from the Tanach [The Old Testament, including the Torah] or the Rabbis. I grew up going to shul [synagogue], celebrating the holidays, going to Sunday School, having a Bar Mitzvah [the Jewish coming-of-age, at 13 for boys], and even going to a Jewish Day School, yet today I am in almost complete control over the extent to which Jewish culture and Jewish religion play a role in my daily life. The exception is circumcision: For the rest of my life, I will have to live with a penis that was cut in the name of a covenant I did not agree to with a being I do not believe exists. I expect you are a civilized man and that you would balk at the idea of adults being forced to express belief in a system they have not personally chosen, whether that expression comes in the form of a requirement to wear a cross around your neck or even a requirement that all who were born Jewish wear the tallit katan [a four-cornered garment with long fringes that is worn under everyday clothing]. Yet that is what the circumcision ritual does: it forces one participant, someone who has just barely opened his eyes to see the world, to bear a permanent, irreversible mark of the religion of the other participant. The Jewish cultural practices I’ve chosen to keep remind me of the goodness and greatness that comes from some aspects of Judaism. The physical modification I cannot change reminds me of all of the bad that helped lead me to reject it as a whole.

At one point, not too long ago, I hated you. I wanted to rage at you, to extract justice from you, to make you explain yourself. But I understand now. I understand how you could have chosen your profession, how you could have chosen to do this to me. Circumcision is viewed as a badge of honor in Judaism, is seen as fundamental to many aspects of the religion, and has a history of being a symbol for the autonomy that the Jews have held on to in the face of tyrannical governments and cultures that have conquered them in the past. I do not condone it, but I can understand why someone raised in that culture might view your job as holy and celebrated, and never even question the possible downsides. But now, you don’t have that luxury. You’ve seen the other side of the issue and now you have a choice to make.

Out of the hundreds or thousands of circumcisions you’ve done, it’s possible I’m the only one who regrets it. But next time you stand over a baby boy, ready to cut, ask yourself: Can I be sure that this boy won’t be the same? Can I be sure that I’m not dooming this child to a life of physical discomfort and inconvenience? Can I be sure that this child will embrace my faith and this symbol of it for the rest of his life? Can I be sure that I have the right to make this decision for him?

You might respond: what about the majority, those who never have any physical problems and remain religious Jews their whole life? Well, my question to you would be: What would they lose? Do Jewish daughters have a less joyous start to their life due to the simchat bat [the female celebration of birth ceremony, with no analogue to circumcision] not including any permanent physical modification? Do Jewish women who retain their faith into adulthood have any less of a role in God’s covenant with Abraham as a result of their lack of a bodily symbol of the contract? And could not a Jewish man who was left intact, upon reaching adulthood, decide that he would like to be circumcised? Given that half of the Jewish population manage to be celebrated members of the community without circumcision and that the other half could choose circumcision when they are more aware of what Judaism means to them, can you justify your next cut?

Regards,
Shea Levy

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