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Cheers - AE

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Mixing issues.

Over at The Age Dick Gross asks a strange question:
What do heroin and female genital mutilation have in common?
Since I've strong opinions on both the answer had to be worth a read, even if I was a little worried about what it would turn out to be.
Not much at first blush but they share one controversial attribute – both heroin and female genital mutilation are the subject of ferocious harm minimisation debates.

When we despise something, we generally react with prohibition. But there are certain practices that do not lend themselves to prohibition and so a ban causes more damage than good.
True. Go on.
Prohibitionists inevitably command the high moral ground in any debate about something we detest. On issues from crime to drugs to Paleolithic religious practices, critics line up to compete about who can get the most cross. Prohibition is simple. It most directly expresses outrage and opposition. When we find something repugnant, outrage is what we really want to see expressed in public discourse. So we see bidding wars on who can evince the most anger:

"I hate (crime/drugs/object of detestation)."

"I don't just hate (object of detestation), I deplore (object of detestation) and I believe all purveyors of (object of detestation) should be jailed."

"That's nothing. I believe anyone caught anywhere near (object of detestation) should be impaled."

"That's nothing. I despise (object of detestation) so much that I reckon (insert your own dire consequence)."

You get the picture. The vilification of the heroin or mutilation or whatever is so pronounced that no rational argument is easy or even possible.
Sorry to interrupt but a rational argument against prohibition of [insert issue here] may well be possible. The problem is simply that many people don't want to listen rationally.
If there is evidence that prohibition has failed or even exacerbated harm, that evidence does not receive sustaining oxygen as the vigilantes pounce to condemn not only the problem but those who might promote a non-punitive response. So we see with heroin, where murderous harm comes not so much from the drug but from the prohibition that condemns users to unsupported pariah status and makes their suppliers move into the violent shadows of criminality. The flow of blood in Mexico's borderlands is a hideous example of the counterproductive effects of a crap form of regulation.
Couldn't agree more, DG, but surely you aren't going to claim the same applies to female circumcision? Well, sorta kinda.
There, my self-protective rave is out of the way. I cannot abide even the thought of female genital mutilation (FGM). Genital cutting is something I would wish on no one (although I have been cut myself without memorable trauma).
Glad to hear that you are opposed to the practice, even though your own experience didn't damage you. However, couple of points there. First, presuming that you're referring to the ritual circumcision of Jewish male babies, naturally you can't miss what for all practical purposes you never had, so providing the op isn't stuffed up - which can and does happen now and then - of course it's done you no harm. But does that justify the process? Would you approve of cosmetic procedures such as tattoos or piercings on a week old infant on the basis that it's safe and will not have, to use your words, memorable trauma? The fact is that there will be memorable trauma for an unfortunate few and the rest of you can never know if you've lost out. Only men who have been circumcised as consenting adults can answer that, not those who were forced to undergo the procedure as un-consenting infants. The second, and far more obvious point, is that there is a large difference between male and female circumcision, and your experience as a circumcised male may not be analogous.

And that's not the only problem I have with Gross's thinking on this.
... please open your mind if you can. Notwithstanding the revulsion we all feel at the reports we read of this barbarism, there might be a solution other than prohibition. It takes a certain courage to move beyond simplistic prohibition in the interests of the victims.

I have been involved in several harm minimisation proposals, from heroin use to street sex work. I have lost most of these battles for many reasons. But it seems to me that people generally prefer a punitive approach on these issues. Evidence-based solutions, such as safe injecting rooms and safe precincts for street sex workers, are thrown aside in horror and in error. However, we must seek the best for the victims, regardless of our desire to magic away evil in the world.
Oh dear. Yes, a lot of people do prefer, even demand, prohibition and punitive action to, well, not to put too fine a point on it, to a few minutes of rational fucking thought. And yes, this is why most governments in western nations still stick to the tried and tested policy of prohibiting drugs, despite the fact that the results of the trying and testing is decades of epic failure and that every dinner party argument suggested to support prohibition applies as much to the glass of wine the prohibitionist usually has in front of them. And yes, all this leads to evidence based solutions being ignored. I'm with you on all of that.

But, and it's a bloody monster of a but, does all that apply as well to female genital mutilation (I'm no more a fan of using an acronym to hide the 'mutilation' elephant in the room than I am a fan of the practice itself)? I'd say it doesn't and for the same reason as some of the commenters over at The Age, which is that there's a world of difference between accepting that prohibition of drugs does more harm than good and applying the same reasoning to setting about a child's crotch with sharp implements. That difference hinges on two things: the presence of an identifiable victim and the fact that their consent has not only not been given but it hasn't even been sought.

I've tried for several hours to make this point in the comments at The Age but the bloody thing's playing up, so I'm going to give up and paste what I've tried to post there here instead.
There's a huge difference between the argument for ending drug prohibition and that of allowing limited female genital mutilation. It's not just a case that both would reduce harm, which might well be true, and so therefore we should no longer punish either. I can see the pragmatic argument but I feel it misses another aspect entirely. Taking heroin or any other drug is, in itself, a victimless crime. There may be associated crime (at least some of which would probably vanish with legalisation), as there is with alcohol, but if you want to stick coke up your nose or heroin in your veins why should it not be your choice providing you can do so without harming or stealing from anyone else, just like it is with booze? Does that apply to female genital mutilation? In short, no. Taking drugs is a victimless crime, or at least it could be if legalised. That Dick Gross talks of moving "beyond simplistic prohibition in the interests of the victims" concedes that FGM is *not* a victimless crime. And it's hard to see how it could ever become a victimless crime when no matter how much it's minimised it necessarily means an intimate and medically unnecessary procedure on someone without their consented. In that respect the discussions of female genital mutilation and drugs are not at all comparable. The last point that DG makes, that prohibition will fail, is a strawman. DG's correct but continued prohibition of rape and child abuse won't eradicate those either. Should we then agree - with great reluctance, natch - to copping a quick feel and other minor sexual assaults, and stuff the rights of those victims, if in turn rape etc was reduced? It'd be no different to allowing little nicks of infant girls' genitals.
It may be true that this small concession will lead to a diminishing of this hideous practise, and incidentally I'm with Dick Gross that it's at least as much cultural as religious (as shown by its occurrence in some Christian nations) but the price would be to sanction many generations of victims to come. Even if it could be reduced to something as harmless (arguably and usually) as circumcision of male infants, is that a price we should pay? Or should we treat it as what it is - an unnecessary assault on a child too young and helpless to give consent or offer resistance, and worthy of a very hefty prison sentence?

I don't think I need to repeat myself to say where I stand.


JuliaM said...

God, these people are never going to go away, are they?

Angry Exile said...

I'd hope that he simply hadn't thought it all the way through.

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