How to Talk About Circumcision

Have a message that deviates only moderately from the listener’s viewpoint


Some people feel frustrated at the refusal of others to consider the circumcision issue seriously. The harm and horror of circumcision seem perfectly obvious to some. Why can’t others get it?

Perhaps our society is experiencing the effects of a cultural trauma connected with the practice of circumcision. Trauma is an emotional shock from an overwhelming event. Certainly, having part of the penis cut off by force qualifies. The fact that the whole society participates in perpetuating this trauma requires that people deny the reality of what is happening. Therefore, you can literally put information under someone’s nose, and they will not see it if it is too threatening emotionally. And this can lead to frustration.

To address this situation, it is important to have some empathy and understanding for those whom we want to influence. This can be a stretch. But otherwise, we are more likely to invite unproductive conflict. Generally, the uninformed are not ill-intentioned. Regarding circumcision, they believe, feel, and act as they do without awareness. Imagine seeing the world through the eyes of the uninformed. What would you need to expand your awareness? What kind of approaches from others would turn you off? How did you discover the truth about circumcision? If that happened when you were an adult, it probably took some time and reflection, and this can give you insight into approaching others.

Another view that may help to reduce frustration from talking with the uninformed is to be realistic about our expectations and to recognize that we are engaged in a historic, massive shift of conscious about this issue. Though we would like to see it stop today, circumcision, like any cultural practice, will take many years to change. Tragically, many infants will be circumcised before the society gets the message. This is not a failure on our part, but a function of the problem itself.

Meanwhile, we have to deal with our feelings about the fact that circumcision continues to be done to over 3000 infants a day. Furthermore, if we are circumcised, we also have those feelings to address. This is a lot to deal with. If possible, it is best to deal with these feelings directly and separately from our communication with the uninformed. Otherwise, we may get emotionally “hooked” and come on too strong. (Restraint is not easy, but it is helpful to have this awareness.) Usually, this will backfire by provoking a defensive reaction in those we want to reach. If we push too hard in trying to convince them, we will be less effective in influencing a change in attitude.

Psychological research suggests what approaches would work best to influence people’s attitudes. For example, for a maximum change of attitude in others, it is best to have a message that deviates only moderately from the listener’s viewpoint. This guideline can be adjusted to suit particular speakers and listeners. Those with higher credibility can make more extreme statements to influence attitudes. The more committed a listener is to a position, the smaller the discrepancy must be between that position and the message for maximum change of attitude. Therefore, depending on your credibility and your listener, a moderate message will usually have the best chance of affecting another’s attitude.

It will also help to increase credibility by providing written material on circumcision. In addition, anything you can offer that demonstrates that many people (and countries!) are opposed to circumcision will reduce the perception that you are presenting an extreme view.

The medical claims connected with circumcision are arguments that usually occur to the uninformed in defense of circumcision. Refer to Position Statements and Medical Studies for responses to these claims. Also reveal the flawed logic of medical claims. Even if all the claims were true, the underlying assumptions are that they justify routine preventive surgery, that the foreskin is useless, and that the pain is “temporary discomfort.” The fact that circumcision is overwhelmingly painful and involves cutting off a normal, healthy, functioning body part is a major flaw in this kind of thinking.

Please speak out (even if you are uncomfortable). You will be glad you did, and any discomfort will change to confidence and power.