Suppose those in the medical system presented “reducing sexual sensation” as a benefit of circumcision. Would this be an objective benefit? Even though it is objectively true that circumcision reduces the number of nerve endings on the body, most would see this as harm, rather than a benefit, because our culture values sexual pleasure. A culture that saw sexual pleasure as harmful would see reducing sexual sensation as a benefit. Yet reducing sexuality was the primary “benefit” presented for medicalized circumcision in the Victorian era.
Reducing sexual sensation didn’t change from being a “benefit” of circumcision to a “harm” because of new science. It changed because social constructions around sexuality changed. While we can see that Victorians were acting from social constructs rather than objectivity, the same is true of all medical “benefits.”
The medical system presents the “benefits” of circumcision as objective when they are a social construction. Take for example the claim that infant circumcision reduces sexually transmitted diseases. Why is this a “benefit” to children? Reducing sexually transmitted diseases is only a “benefit” to those who are sexually active. The only reason someone would socially construct this as a benefit is if they hold certain social constructions about the child’s sexuality or view the child as a potential sexual partner. “Reducing sexually transmitted diseases” is only a benefit to infants in a systemically pedophile culture.
When we view “medical benefits” as a social construction, there is a second possible discussion about those benefits. We can evaluate whether or not the claims of the medical system are objectively true, which is what most people do when debating the claims of the medical system. However, there is a larger issue that has gone undiscussed: Why did the medical system socially construct certain claims as significant or beneficial and not others?
“Medical benefits” become a social construct when some outcomes are included and others omitted. Outcomes that directly impact the medical system like disease transmission are included. Outcomes that do not, such as psychological, emotional, and cultural outcomes, are usually omitted. This is a choice designed to benefit the dominant system at the expense of those without power outside that system.
Outcomes themselves are neutral. If psychological outcomes were included, it would be social constructions that determined whether or not they were called “benefits” or “harms.” For example, a society with a negative definition of masculinity might list one of the “benefits” of circumcision as that it causes trauma and reduces men’s ability to access their feelings. To a society that values men’s feelings, this is harmful. Yet the outcome “reduces feelings” is actually neutral and could be socially constructed as either benefit or harm.
This second discussion is important. Social constructions reveal the values and beliefs of a culture. It is possible for a claim to be true even as it is used in a harmful social construct. It is also possible for a false claim to be used to support a beneficial social construct. Whether or not a claim is true is a separate question from whether or not it is being used to cause social benefit or harm.
Social constructions can actually mask “harm” as “benefits” or omit them entirely. They can create “benefits” out of irrelevant data. Even asking whether or not a social construct is “true” or false” is the wrong question, because social constructs are not “true/false” claims. The real issue is whether or not the creation of these social constructs included the class of people they were going to impose those claims on. If not, if they were instead constructed for the benefit of a dominant system at the expense of others, then they are by definition oppressive.
If a social construct is created by one class to impose on another for their gain, no amount of “debate” about that construct will make it less oppressive, since the process by which it was created was oppressive. If the process by which it was created was oppressive, the outcome will be oppressive. The “benefits” are not truth claims. They’re social constructions designed to create power. The only solution is to deconstruct and dismantle the power behind these social constructs.
If you want to create and dismantle power, read Children’s Justice.
An insightful essay. Yes, the social constructs with intent to defraud. AAP religious/financial interests undisclosed and a circumcised culture, more than happy to accept circumcision serves a social good.
IMO It's very useful to talk about the truth value of a claim separate from the role that claim plays in a social system. Reminds me of the truth value of a statement vs the provability of a statement relative to a logical system. Perhaps the conventions around quoting could be usefully employed here.