Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon conversed with Dr. Ronald Goldman, a psychologist and published Intactivist, about the psychological consequences surrounding the practice of circumcision. Here is the recording.
From the White Letter Productions studios in Los Angeles, California, I'm [Eliyahu] Ungar-Sargon, and this is The Cut Podcast.
Welcome to another special edition of The Cut Podcast; I'm very happy to be sitting here with Ronald Goldman, and we're going to be having a conversation today about some of the psychological aspects of infant male circumcision.
This is a field [into which] I've been a little wary to wade; I think when I talk to people who don't necessarily agree with my position on this subject, I find it much easier to talk about things like Meissner's corpuscles—the hard scientific stuff [to which] I can just sort of point, [and for which] we have hard data; my impressions—and I would love to get your reaction and your opinion about this—is that when it comes to the psychological data, just by virtue of where we are in our understanding of the human brain and the human mind, it's a little trickier to get hard data on these questions. Is that right? or is this a misperception [that I have]?
Well, I agree with you; part of the problem is there's a resistance to doing these kinds of [study]. Most of the researchers who do the studies on circumcision are looking for benefits, not potential harm. They happen to be medical doctors for the most part, so they're starting with what they're familiar with, which is the physical body. Studying behavior is a lot more complicated. You can't so much put it in a box and put it under a microscope [to examine] it that way. So, human behavior requires a different kind of research, and we haven't had the will to do that for the most part.
If you could talk a little bit about your professional qualifications [and] your academic background. Where are you are coming from on this issue?
I have a Ph.D in psychology. I've written 2 books on circumcision:
These books have been very well received by professionals in the field. The first book is endorsed by dozens of professionals in mental health medicine and social science. The second book is endorsed by 5 rabbis, among others.
Let's kick off our conversation by having you share with our audience how it is that you came to this subject in the first place; this is a taboo subject to a large extent, [so] I'm always interested in learning how people first came to thinking about this critically. So, what [is] your story?
In the 1980s, I attended a [relative's] ritual Jewish circumcision in a home. I was reluctant to go; I felt uncomfortable with this kind of procedure. When I was there, I felt extremely uncomfortable during the circumcision: The infant cried I would think at the top of his lungs for over 20 minutes; I felt distressed; I wanted to get away. I noticed other people feeling very uncomfortable. The parents were crying—
Was this the first bris you had ever attended, or was there something about this particular bris that made it memorable or traumatic or difficult for you?
It was the first, and it was the last. I vowed to myself [that] I will never attend one of these [again], because I felt like a silent accomplice to this circumcision, and I didn't like that feeling, and I don't want to be part of this—and as I learned more about [circumcision], my feeling of wanting to raise awareness about circumcision became stronger, and I will never attend another bris.
I'd like to come back to the Jewish side of your activism a little later, but first I want to deal with what I see as the fundamental core issues related to the psychological [impact] of circumcision.
Is there any evidence that infant circumcision has psychological effects on the person being circumcised, and if so, what are these effects, and where does this data come from?
There [are 2] answers:
- The [immediate] effects on the infant.
- The long-term effects on the adult [whom the infant becomes].
There have been studies on behavioral changes in infants; we can't ask infants “What are you feeling now?”, but they're pretty good at expressing themselves or withdrawing, as the case may be. So, there have been studies that show [behavioral] changes for infants who have been circumcised as compared to infants who have not been circumcised.
The medical journals [frequently] use the term irritability; I think that's a [euphemism] for “Hey, they're upset!”—a little more than “irritable” [as we might] use the term in descriptions of adult behavior.
There's also anecdotal evidence. I've talked to many mothers of circumcised infants [who] report, for example, [that] their infants were calm and content before the circumcision, [yet] after the circumcision, they would cry for hours every day for months. [On the other hand], sometimes the infants become quieter and withdrawn after the circumcision [for a significant period of time]. My interpretation of that: It took them that much time to work out the trauma of the circumcision experience. Again that's the response of some infants, but not necessarily all infants.
There's also information based on studies that showed changes in mother–infant interaction after circumcision: The observed changes include less eye contact from the infant with the mother, and also difficulty in feeding. So, again, this is something that has been observed [by] comparing infants who [were] circumcised and infants who [were] not circumcised.
[These things] affect the bond between the mother and child.
I will also say that in talking with mothers of circumcised boys, some mothers are very distressed either from having witnessed the circumcision or learning [more] about it later, or just dealing with the infant's behavior after circumcision. This is something that's very much overlooked. I'm not aware of any studies on this, but I hear about this a lot from individual mothers: [Mothers] can become very distressed about having to deal with a baby [who is] crying hours at a time every day. Their own emotional state can be affected; they can have doubts about [whether] they are [being good mothers]. This [infant] behavior is labeled “colic” by some pediatricians, and that diagnosis [entails] a lot of misunderstanding and a lack of [knowledge on] how to treat it; [pediatricians are] really guessing at what causes this kind of behavior.
There was a significant study that showed changes in pain response of infants [up to at least six months after circumcision] when they were [being] vaccinated; [the researchers] found that the circumcised infants had a stronger response to pain during vaccination than the infants who [had not been] circumcised, and the investigators concluded that this [is] a sign of lasting neurological effects. They also believe that this was a symptom of early trauma—post-traumatic stress disorder (changes in behavior 6 months after the event).
Can you talk a little bit more about this idea of the pain response, because I see this in the literature, and I'm not entirely certain—and I don't know that our audience is clear on what [it means]. What does it mean that there's an increased pain response, and what are the consequences of that?
The pain response to the vaccination refers to the [behavioral] response of the infants when they are vaccinated; circumcised infants cried longer and louder. So, from the same stimulus, they found a significant difference in the 2 groups:
- Not circumcised
They actually measured the cry and how long they cried, and they found that the difference between the 2 groups [suggests] a relationship with the circumcision status—
How does that work? What mechanism is at play here—
What the investigators were concluding is [that] the original trauma—the circumcision—changed the neurological [response] of the infant; in other words, it changed the way pain gets transmitted and [processed]. As a result, [less signficant] trauma [becomes] overwhelming.
The way we deal with [trauma] is sometimes [behavioral] (withdrawal, for example) and [sometimes] physical (neurologically speaking); so, [in circumcised boys] that physical change became permanent—at least lasted 6 months. Because of the change in the neurological structure in the infants [who were] circumcised, they were more sensitive to pain later on.
We touched on this a little bit, but [let's] go a little more in depth into the psychological effects of this practice on the parents, and is there variability [among parents] at all?
Well, there is variability; some parents simply want to believe that they did the right thing, and that's a defense against feeling the discomfort and emotional pain of recognizing that maybe they made a mistake in judgment here ([a judgment] based on either not enough information or misinformation). So, [there is] the denial aspect:
- It's OK.
- We did what was best.
- There are potential health benefits.
The other side of the response is regret. Sometimes, if [circumcision of an infant] is a ritual that's observed, then the parents are actually seeing what's being done to the infant and how the infant responds; observing the infant's response can be very distressing, particularly for the mother. I've talked to mothers who wanted to stop it, [but] were just frozen—couldn't respond—either by saying something or doing something; they were just frozen and in some sort of shock from witnessing what was happening to their [babies].
[Let's] talk a little bit about the people who perform circumcisions, and the ways in which they allow themselves to do this.
One of the things that I've noticed—and you see in my film actually, very clearly: Dr. Phyllis Marx (who's the mohelette) talks about circumcision at the beginning:
You know, it's not the circumcision that causes the baby pain; it's the mucking. Anything I can do to reduce the mucking helps.
and then, of course, at the end of the film, you see she's doing the circumcision and the baby is completely calm until she starts [cutting], and then the baby is screaming. What occurs to me is that—and I think Dr. Paul Fleiss has talked about this a little bit—[it] is remarkable that the people performing the circumcisions may literally not hear the baby's crying.
Can you address this? How does that happen? What [psychological] mechanisms are at play here?
I've heard that also, and that's part of the defense mechanisms of practitioners—to protect [themselves] against the conflicting feelings and the recognition that they are causing harm. So, some of these feelings are so strong that they require equivalent strength in the defense mechanism to protect the [practitioner] from having these strong feelings.
So, for example, denial can prevent an individual from hearing what everyone else might hear, seeing whatever everyone else might see, and recognizing what might be obvious—particularly to parents—that this infant is in severe distress, and sometimes even the language [practitioners] use [is very telling]: In the [medical] literature, they are very unlikely to describe the infant's response to the stress of circumcision as "trauma". So, the language tends to minimize the effect of this practice on the infant [and thus on the practitioner].
I've spoken to doctors who [have told] me about when they were in medical school and they [did] their first circumcision[s], and there is a lot of pressure on them to comply with this training and do what they're being told to do. So, [while] they may have an instinct not to do a circumcision, they're required to do this (for the most part), [and] they have to protect themselves psychologically so [that] they can follow through with what's being asked of them. That protection gets to be sort of habitual in the way they recognize what they're doing and what's happening as a result of that.
The other thing is they want to [perform] the best circumcision they can—this is a very delicate procedure, of course—so, their attention is focused on doing the procedure; their attention is ignoring what the baby is experiencing; with that focused attention, they're less likely to recognize what's going on.
I spoke to one doctor who did not recognize the infant's response, and then he watched someone else do a circumcision, and he was horrified at what he was seeing with the infant's vocal [and] behavioral response[s]—obviously in agony—and he decided he would not do anymore circumcisions and he would not have his own son circumcised. So, these are very powerful psychological mechanisms that protect people from recognizing what's going on.
I think also one of the things that I've seen—and I often say that this is one of the most bizarre points of this sordid tale, to me—is this belief that took root in the medical community—and I think [that] to a large extent, some doctors [still] honestly believe this—that babies don't feel pain. This myth—that anyone in possession of sense could very easily disprove by just observing a baby being circumcised—is actually deeply believed.
Then, the sort of corollary to this is that if you give [these babies] a little sugar-infused water, somehow that would have some kind of anesthetic effect.
These beliefs seem to be to me without any foundation in either just direct experience or—even at this point—in the scientific literature.
That's less common now than it used to be, but it's still out there. That's another indicator of a defense mechanism to prevent individuals from recognizing what's really happening. So, what happens with [this psychological] defense is that people will adopt beliefs to support their defensive belief that [they're not causing harm].
This [was] addressed directly back in 1987 when some parents were discovering that major surgery was being done on their young infants without pain medication, and they complained to the medical profession about this, and as a result of a series of complaints about this, a couple of investigators decided to go through the literature on newborn infant pain and write a review article that got published in the New England journal of Medicine, in which they concluded quite clearly that newborn infants not only feel pain at least as much as adults, but probably more so—[there is] lots of data and research to back up that conclusion.
[However], that's a huge shift in what was common belief and practice for decades preceding. So, some doctors who have been doing circumcisions for decades had a difficult time accepting [it]. Again, denial comes in: They would not believe that result, or have a little difficulty in adapting their own belief to [it]. For a long time, circumcisions continued to be done without pain medication. Then, back in the 1990s, there was more research [into] the best form of pain medication to give an infant [during circumcision], and one of the options they were testing was [indeed] sugar water, passifiers—sure, if you put a passifier in a baby's mouth, it's a lot more difficult [for that baby] to cry!
Some of the researchers have a bias going into their research; they're looking for a particular result. This is a great problem on this topic. What they concluded in a lot of this research was that injecting pain medication into 2 spots on the penile shaft was the most effective way of reducing the pain experienced by the infant, but it did not eliminate the pain, and occasionally it was not effective at all, either because the way the practitioner did the injection or some other factor, so there is no guarantee that any pain medication today [would] eliminate the pain [experienced by] an infant during circumcision.
Of course, in addition to the pain of the actual procedure itself, once that anesthetic has worn off, there's pain for at least a week after—
That's true. It takes at least that much time to heal, and anesthetic wears off after hours.
[Let's] move onto talking about some of the psychological mechanisms involved in preventing men from dealing with this issue. Let's actually talk about the long-term effects [of circumcision]. Are there any consequences that extend beyond infancy or beyond childhood even? What evidence do we have of this?
Well, again, there's little research on this. To do this kind of research requires a will and resources; we're in short supply of both in mainstream medicine and psychology.
There was just a study that was published in the International Journal of Men's Studies [in which] the investigators conducted a survey of 300 men who were self-selected (something was posted on a couple of websites, inviting men to take [a questionnaire on their feelings]), and [researchers] found a significant difference between the circumcised group and the non-circumcised group: The circumcised men had greater difficulty identifying their feelings and expressing their feelings.
This is consistent with what I wrote about in my book Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma, particularly in the chapter on post-traumatic stress disorder and long-term psychological effects; a common long-term effect of trauma [in general] is [a] reduced [ability for] emotional expression; this is a way individuals can defend against the pain of the earlier trauma: They become less responsive emotionally; if they're more sensitive emotionally, then they're more likely to connect with feelings that go back to their early trauma, [which] is extremely painful.
So, it's a defense [mechaninism that is psychological and physical]. The tension of repressing these feelings [affects] the body and affects personality. In a way, with circumcision being so common here in the United States, some behavioral traits of men like having difficulty expressing feelings are assumed to be normal male behavior. Here, at least, we have a preliminary study that shows that there is some connection between a lack of emotional expression and having been circumcised.
[Feelings expressed by men] who are dissatisfied [with having been] circumcised, include:
Those are some of the feelings that are very common among men who are dissatisfied [with having been] circumcised. How do they become dissatisfied when other men are not dissatisfied?—
That's the significant question.
Well, it's based on individual experience:
I talk to [these upset] men, and they say [something like]:
Well, when I was 4 years old, I was playing with a friend of mine—a peer—and we were examining the genitals of each other, and I saw that he had this skin over his penis and I didn't, and I've been upset about that ever since—the rest of my life; later on, I asked about it and I found out that this was cut off of me, and I could never understand that!
So, when they're aware that they are missing something, they feel inadequate, and this can be part of [their feelings of] shame, and it can affect their self-esteem.
For another man, it might have been an incident when he was in the showers in junior high-school, looking around and seeing boys who have foreskins—whose penises looked different [from] his—and very often, boys don't talk about this; it's uncomfortable for them. Maybe they don't want to hear what the answer is going to be. No one has ever talked to them about it, so they adapt to the silence that goes on around them in the culture: This is something that people don't talk about—“circumcision”, “penises”, etc. So, they're left with not understanding:
Why am I missing this piece of skin [from] the end of my penis?
So, there's a silent denial going on here.
Other men maybe don't have such experiences or ignore [them]—again, they have to come up with their own ideas and beliefs. If they see somebody with foreskin, they may [think]:
That kid's gotta strange looking penis! There must be something wrong with him! I'm the one's who is OK.
Then, if they see that [a large number of their peers were] circumcised, they think [the minority of] guys who [weren't] circumcised [are the ones] who have the problem.
Boys and young men come up with different beliefs to explain some kind of experience—either it helps to protect them from feeling discomfort, or triggers the discomfort that never goes away.
In our culture (which is largely a circumcising culture), I think a lot of people listening to this—and I encounter this on a regular basis—[we look] at someone who complains about [his] circumcision as if there is something wrong with [him]. Because it's such a pervasive practice, and because there are so few people who speak out about this, I think there's a sense that there's something psychologically wrong with the people who do speak out about it. So, could you address that perspective a little bit?
That's true, and that's the way the majority defends its own belief that circumcision is OK. If somebody is going to threaten that belief, someone who has believed that deeply for decades is going to defend that belief, so that's where the conflict comes in.
It's going to be painful for somebody who believes in [the goodness of] circumcision to question [it]. If it's a man, then he may be questioning his own circumcision status, which is likely to be painful if he hasn't questioned it before, because for a man to recognize that he's missing part of his penis is very significant—it's a realization that can completely change his feeling about himself and his sexuality. What man wants that psychological disturbance? So, rather than have to deal with that, most men just deny, and defend [circumcision].
There's also the factor of conformity here—being like what you see around you. People are much more comfortable conforming to their culture and what they observe to be normal. People are less comfortable questioning what they observe to be normal behavior and appearance. So, understandably, there's going to be some defenses here to protect the status quo, the cultural belief, the cultural bias that circumcision is OK.
I think, also, there's a spectrum of response among men when they're exposed to information about circumcision, [which] sort of goes all the way from complete denial [on one end] to apathy [in the middle] to feeling that they've been harmed [at the other end].
I don't know how one would answer this question, but what is it that [makes these differences]? Are there personality types that come into play here? [Are] certain personality types more prone to apathy, and [others] more prone to denial, and [yet others] more prone to feel the trauma that was [imposed] on them? How does that play out?
Also, [for] the people who do really feel harmed by [having been circumcised], what do you think characterizes them as group? Is there anything that sort of connects them as a group?
I think what is going on here is individual differences—lots of psychological aspects. Some people are more open to feelings—[as in] the result of the study [to which] I referred [earlier]. Some people have difficulty with feelings, and some people are more open to them. So, if people are more strongly [defensive psychologically], [have] less emotional expression, [are] suffering from more or stronger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their circumcision[s], [then] they are more likely to be either apathetic or just to simply deny this information and say: “Well, look! We've got all these medical studies to say [circumcision] is wonderful!”
So, I agree [that] there is a spectrum depending on personal experience. If [a] person had an experience when he was a kid, for example, [then] that would affect a later experience: Either [that later experience] confirm[s] the feeling he had as a kid, or [it is] in conflict with what he assumed to be true (and he would still deny the evidence to the contrary of his existing belief).
You know, some younger men in their 20s and 30s who are circumcised will say:
I've heard that—which reminds me that circumcision may be associated with a limited ability to feel—as we talked about before. Now, feeling is not just limited to bad feelings; [there are] also good feelings! So, if you have a limited capacity for feeling [in general], that could be associated with a limited ability for feeling sexual pleasure; if your capacity to feel sexual pleasure is limited—is less than it might otherwise be if you weren't circumcised—[then] when you reach that limit, you're feeling as much as you can stand, because the limit is lower. [However], if the limit were higher, and you had your foreskin, you could [possibly] feel more pleasure.
So, you mentioned the alexithymia study that recently came out. What other kinds of evidence do we have of the long-term psychological consequences of circumcision? What kind of data exists? I understand that there's not much, but what is the data that does exist? [Also], I know that you have famously gone on record as suggesting that there may be severe social consequences to circumcision, so could you address that?
Well, again, there are not a lot of data about psychological effects. All we can do is survey men—actually, there was a survey published in the British Journal of Urology in 1999 [in which over 500 men were interviewed by self-report]—a [survey on harm], if you will. The results of that survey showed some of the feelings I referred to earlier: shame, grief, anger, distrust, sexual anxieties, low self-esteem, avoidance of intimacy, and (for some men) depression.
So, we don't know how these symptoms would show up if we had done, for example, a [randomly sampled] national study [rather than one that is self-selected]; I seriously doubt that [such a survey] will ever [be performed], because of the [lack] of will and resources to do something like that (it would cost a lot of money). However, I would say [that what we have is still] significant: Here we have hundreds of men—understandably self-selected—who are reporting some serious psychological difficulties that they connect with circumcision.
There's [also a kind of] clinical evidence: There are ways of psychotherapy being conducted that are outside the mainstream, [which] get into some very interesting approaches to [confronting] early experience [in life]; there are practitioners out there [who] can support their clients in actually reliving early experience. This is controversial—no question about it—but again, this is a situation where the mainstream, conventional wisdom (so to speak) wants to believe that only certain things are possible psychologically and anything outside of [the current understanding] is viewed with great skepticism without any open-mindedness [to finding out] what's going on here. For example, some of these clients have relived birth, and then when the session is over, the client [says something like]:
Well, you know, the [umbilical] cord was strangling me.
Now, an adult walking around wouldn't remember that—most of us don't remember much before 4 or 5 [years of age]. So, then [the clinician] checks with the obstetrician's records, and there it is: The cord was wrapped around the baby's neck. There [are] many examples of that correlation between what's reported in the clinical session and [what's reported in the obstetrician's] report of a birth decades earlier. So, that's pretty strong evidence that this is reliable.
If you observe what goes on with a client reliving birth—I mean, nobody can act that out; the cry sounds like a baby, the movements look like a baby's—obstetricians have observed these sessions [and agree to the bizarre realism].
So, if all of these people—and this is [a] world-wide [phenomenon]—[can actually] relive [their births], [then it should be possible for some people to relive their circumcisions]. So, it certainly supports the idea that circumcisions can be remembered, and how [such events are] remembered is in the body—not in the conscious mind; this becomes repressed memory.
There have been sessions [during which] clients relived their circumcision[s]—and this isn't something [for which] they go into a session saying “Oh, I think I'll work on my circumcision today!” It happens spontaneously, because the body is ready to experience it; it's not going to happen in your first session. This is a body-oriented psychotherapy; it's geared towards the questions:
- What is the body saying?
- What sounds are coming out of your mouth?
- Are you breathing?
- Are you moving?
and these kinds of sessions are very powerful and have resulted in significant changes for people after they have:
relived these experiences.
expressed the repressed feelings that they've been carrying around for most of their lives.
It can be very effective for some people.
So, this comes from the Freudian idea that making the subconscious [become] conscious has a healing and salutary effect on the individual. Is that right?
Well, it's connected, and at the same time, it's not a cognitive-approach, it's a body-approach. So, where Freudian therapy is very much a conversation with a therapist, this is not a conversation; it's an experienced person supporting a client in letting the body express itself, and again, that can be vocal—it usually is vocal—but it's also movement. Sometimes, for example, in reliving the birth, the practitioner may set up with pillows (or some such thing) [a simulation of a] birth canal for the client to work himself or herself through as the client is reliving the birth.
I'm trying to understand why someone would want to relive [his] circumcision!
Well, why do you see any mental-health practitioner? You're having some difficulties psychologically (or behaviorally) [with which] you want to get some help. [For some people], this would be the last thing they want to do if they're dealing with their psychological issues—
I guess I'm trying to understand the theory of how it helps. If I've gone through a trauma, in what way does reliving the trauma help me overcome the effects of that trauma?
Well, there's a physical change because the trauma is repressed with body-tension holding back these feelings, so the way the body-oriented therapy works is it weakens the defenses against the feelings that are held back, so when the feelings are released, you release the tension, [and] you in some sense can accept yourself more:
Hey! It's not an accident that I happen to be scared of whatever it is [of which] I'm scared; this is connected with something that happened to me when I was 2 years old, and now I've released that fear, so I'm not walking around with that fear anymore, and I'm more opened to my present experience, because I'm [no longer] being affected by my past [experience].
I mean, [the issue] is physically and emotionally resolved at the same time.
So, [it's] almost a catharsis—
That's very interesting.
So, not only are you a psychologist, Ronald, [but] you're also Jewish—
which puts you in very rare company in terms of people who are opposed to circumcision; I know there are some vocal Jews out there—myself included!—who are against this practice, but it's not the norm in our ethnic or religious community, and that poses a whole host of unique challenges.
So, how have you navigated those challenges, and do you see a contradiction between your views on circumcision and your cultural, religious, and ethnic heritage?
Well, it depends on how I would define the contradiction; certainly, I'm advocating something that is in conflict with what the Torah says, but I don't accept everything the Torah says—[a stance that] is consistent with the great majority of Jews, by the way. Generally speaking, it's mainly the Orthodox community that accepts everything the Torah says as the literal word of God, so there is a distinction there.
So, I don't approach Jews who are [circumcising boys] strictly for religious reasons in terms of “God commanded this”—it's very clear to me that [such a position is based on] a belief [from faith rather than evidence]—those [who] have that belief don't view it as a belief; they think it's [an absolute truth]—it's Truth for them, and I accept that, [but] there are many Jews out there for which that is not their Truth. So, other things being equal, they are more likely to be open-minded to hearing new information, for example.
The Circumcision Resource Center [website] has a section called the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center, which seeks to raise awareness among Jews about the practice of circumcision. As I said earlier, there are some rabbis who are questioning or opposed to circumcision, so it's not necessarily a function of how observant one is; one can be observant, and still question circumcision—not the norm by a long shot, but then again, in this country, a very high proportion of Jews are secular, and circumcision may be the only thing they do that is connected with their Jewish identity.
To me, [this] gets back to [the] trauma [aspect]: Another very important article in the psychological literature is about the compulsion to repeat trauma; what the investigator found was that when trauma is experienced—particularly in childhood—it increases the likelihood that when that child grows up to be an adult, he or she is more likely—not necessarily [guaranteed], but more likely—to inflict that same trauma on his or her children.
Hence, the very popular [reason for circumcision]: Wanting Junior to look like Dad.
Yeah. Again, that's the belief that someone would use to defend or excuse [circumcision], but underlying that—beyond awareness—would be a compulsion to repeat the trauma that was done to the father.
There have been surveys on this in the medical literature: The father, if he's circumcised, is the one who more likely wants the circumcision of the son, so he's the one who wants to pass on the compulsion:
[My] trauma is now going to be my [son's trauma].
Again, we have to rationalize behaviors to make sense to us as adults; whereas the psychology is below awareness, what is in awareness is the cultural belief system: The cultural belief is [that circumcision] is “cleaner”, “has medical benefits”, “[the boy] won't get teased”, “he'll look like his father”, on and on and on… I mean, there's a website out there that's got hundreds of these beliefs and excuses that have been used over the decades to justify or defend circumcision in this country—some of them can be quite humorous, stretch[ing] the imagination.
But, hey, when adults make decisions, they have to believe something [to answer] “Why am I doing this?” If they don't know the underlying psychological motivation, they'll come up with a belief to defend it.
What are some of the unique psychological challenges that a Jew might face in resisting this central practice?
Well, certainly, a lack of social support in the Jewish community. That can be difficult to deal with. By that, I mean: Say you're Jewish and you're expecting a baby boy, and you're talking about not having him circumcised; if you start talking to grandparents and cousins or [whomever], they are very likely to be dismayed that you would even be thinking that. So, making a decision not to circumcise is done for the reason that the parents sincerely believe it's best for the child.
People have different psychological influences [that guide] their behavior, and as I said before, conformity is a very strong influence for a lot of people—actually there's a study [in which] they had a person come into a room [where] there were [other people, and they were all supposed to describe what a certain illustration looks like]. This newcomer—the test subject—walks into the room, listens to these [other] people say [what they see] and clearly [what they say] is not what's there [in the illustration], so the test subject looks at what's there and three-quarters of the [time agrees] with what the other people reported that they saw even though it wasn't true. So, three-quarters of the people agreed with the majority [about a false description] of this illustration. I mean, there's scientific evidence that shows people will deny what they see in order to be accepted and to conform with what other people say and do. So, that's a lot of what's going on here.
I think [that] also on that same line—and this is obviously a much more radical sort of side—I've been thinking a lot about the Stanley Milgram experiments lately, because a lot of people who are against circumcision (and there are some people who [understand our position] immediately), they don't understand how it is that people could do this [sort of thing] to another human being. So, for that reason, I've been having a lot of those discussions with people who say:
How is it that this goes on?
[This is] especially [true of those individuals] from a culture that doesn't circumcise, and they come here and they learn this [fact about our culture]; we just had an experience last night with someone who's from another country and was completely unaware that this [is] the norm here [in the United States], and [for them], [the idea of widespread circumcision] sort of strains credulity [and] boggles the mind. I've been sort of referring people to the Stanley Milgram experiments to understand that given the right environment [and] conditions, [seemingly regular] human beings are capable of horrible—horrible—things.
Do you think that [this] applies? Do you think it's too extreme to bring those experiments up?
Sure [it's applicable].
For those who aren't familiar, it's an experiment about following the direction of an authority [who is telling you to do something hurtful to someone else]. The experiment involves subjects being told to inflict [an increasing] degree of pain on [someone else], and so they're finding out who agrees with the direction of the [authorities] and who decides not to follow the instruction [to press] a button [that supposedly shocks the other participant, causing that fake participant] to scream in pain.
[Interestingly], most of the [subjects] complied with the instruction to inflict the pain [again and again to extreme levels]. To me, it gets back to how we perceive authority in this culture: Most of us accept what authority has to say without question—and the key thing here is [the] “without question” [aspect]. Independent thinking is not a strong component of our culture; [most of us] don't raise children to be independent thinkers. [Children] are pretty much raised to be like—and to think like—everybody else, and it's the minority of people [who] question cultural beliefs and practices.
In the Jewish community, for example, we have [90% or more] circumcising; it's very difficult to put yourself at odds with that [kind of majority]—
Yet, this is largely [how I'm basing my position against circumcision] firmly in the Jewish tradition: It's a very strong Jewish value to question and to challenge authority, and so for me, that's the Jewish value that trumps circumcision, and I think it's an authentic Jewish move to question circumcision for that reason.
Yeah. It's not unusual for a culture or a group to have conflicting values—and then [people] pick the value that fits the situation at the time! That's what being human is; it's very common behavior—whatever fits the situation.
So, it's the minority that will point out [flaws], and as the size of the minority increases, that helps the folks who are dependent on conformity to see that [a minority view is worth consideration]:
Well, [this minority view is not held by] just this one person. I'm seeing this all over the Internet now—I'm seeing it in videos, and in articles, and on the front pages.
People get a little more comfortable with the idea of questioning circumcision the more they see [others out there questioning circumcision]. So, that's why we're continuing to put it out there in different ways, trying to reach different audiences—just [trying to plant] the seeds all around, so [that] the next time they see it, it won't be the first time.
Ron Goldman, thank you so much. This has been a wonderful conversation.
Where can people learn more about your work?
Thank you very much!
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