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How Media Controls The Frame Of The "Circumcision Debate"
Whose power does this reinforce?
Of these two articles, which would you prefer to be published?
The first article is published in a mainstream liberal outlet. It explores the “pros and cons” of the “circumcision debate.” The article includes quotes from anti-circumcision activists and acknowledges that many are “questioning the practice.” The article also includes the recommendations of medical organizations and a quote from a Jewish organization saying that the practice is important for cultural and religious reasons. The article concludes that “there is not enough evidence” to support circumcision.
The second article is also published in a mainstream outlet, known for political bias. The article is unabashedly pro-circumcision. It claims circumcision prevents everything from HIV to the common cold. It says anyone who doesn’t support circumcision is a Nazi. The author waxes poetically about their Jewish heritage and how they think circumcised pensises look better. The article body-shames intact men and makes racist comments about intact cultures. There are absurd references to whatever the latest political fear is in the news. The article concludes that if you don’t circumcise, you’re anti-science and literally doing the Holocaust again.
Which article is better for those who oppose circumcision?
I’ll reveal my answer to non-paying subscribers in two weeks, but if you’d like to find out early:
I would prefer the second article. Here’s why:
The second article is terrible, but it is openly terrible. The first is covertly worse.
On the surface, the first article looks like a win for those who oppose circumcision. The article comes to the conclusion that parents should not circumcise. The second concludes that they should. If viewed through the lens of liberal debate, the first is clearly better.
However, if viewed through the lens of power, a different view emerges. The first presents itself as neutral, yet is anything but. It reinforces the idea that there is this thing called “the circumcision debate.” The idea that circumcision is a form of sexual assault, not a “decision,” is framed as an “extreme” or “fringe” position. Rather than neutral, this article is about controlling the Overton window of acceptable debate.
The article also suggests that the way to evaluate this debate is through the “evidence” or “evidence-based medicine.” In this discourse, only what is published in medical-industry-controlled peer-reviewed journals is valid, and other values such as men’s feelings, experiences, and moral arguments are dismissed. If a man says he “feels raped” by circumcision, the assumptions of this article render his comment unintelligible. It is epistemic violence masquerading as science.
Even with a rigged game, the article still concludes that parents might not want to circumcise. While this seems like a win, look at what action this conclusion produces. The conclusion that parents should choose not to circumcise assumes that parents should still make the “circumcision decision.” It assumes that parents should enter the medical system, have their babies in a hospital, and “just say no” to dozens of requests to circumcise. The action this article proposes is that parents should participate in the medical system. Whose power does this reinforce?
Absent from this conclusion is the possibility that parents could exit medical birth entirely, reform or regulate the medical system, or challenge medical power in any way. The article proposes that parents should change, not the medical system. While the article does not recommend circumcision, it supports the underlying system that promotes circumcision.
The second article has a bad conclusion, but better framing. The frame of this “circumcision debate” is that circumcision is either bad or good. The author might take the side of “circumcision is good,” but this framing is more truthful. According to this article, people can evaluate this debate according to their subject values. In this frame, personal beliefs, emotions, and experiences are all valid forms of evidence. The author might make absurd arguments, but this opens the door for any form of counter-argument.
Rather than assuming the hegemony of the medical frame, the author acknowledges that there are multiple sides and takes one. In the first article, certain perspectives are pushed outside the frame of acceptable debate or rendered invisible. The second assumes that the author’s position is not the dominant frame, but one they need to argue for in the face of growing opposition, because if you have to argue for a position, it is not an assumption. The arguments they make are bad, and anyone who doesn’t already agree with the author will begin to question the issue.
If we look at the second article through the lens of power, it suggests there are two sides to the circumcision debate and you need to pick one. One side (the author’s) supports big pharma, talking about how pretty certain baby genitals are, and being hysterical about politics. The other opposes circumcision. Whose framing does this support?
How do you think the author of the first article would react if they encountered real opposition to circumcision, like someone who said that circumcision is sexual assault, violates human rights, and should be banned? They would reinforce the frame of acceptable debate. They would call that person an extremist. They might even flip into the name-calling of the second author, by suggesting their opinion is antisemitic or anti-science. While they might say they oppose circumcision, they would act in pro-circumcision ways if the power that upholds circumcision is challenged in any meaningful way.
If the author of the second article encountered real opposition, instead of fighting for the frame of acceptable debate, they would fight for their opinion. They would actually engage and debate. They might call those who oppose circumcision many of the same names, but fighting for a perspective in a debate claims much less power than trying to set the entire frame of the debate. The second author reinforces my power while posing as an enemy. The first reinforces the system’s power while posing as a friend. I’d gladly trade “friends” like that for more “enemies.”
The reason I am writing this is because I want you to start looking at this issue through the lens of power. Many who oppose circumcision feel they are winning the “circumcision debate,” yet making no meaningful progress. While the system has acknowledged anti-circumcision arguments, in their acknowledgment they claim more power for their system. We don’t want acknowledgment. We want change. Change requires power. What would happen if instead of seeking approval, you sought power?
To understand more about this issue, read Children’s Justice.