Mutilation, ow!

Cyril Belshaw (cbelshaw@EZNET.CA)
Mon, 15 Jul 1996 10:54:50 +0000

The exchange about bodily mutilation is intriguing me. I probably
missed the beginning, since I've only recently joined the Antrho-L
The first thing that struck me was an underlying set of value
judgements that I'm tempted to call ethnocentrism. No doubt this has
to do with the beginning subject of tattooing and body piercing in
Western cultures, observed by Western anthropologists. I hold that
members of a culture are not always the best analysts of that
culture. The prime example is in the choice of the term "mutilation"
to describe what is going on. I doubt if the individuals who do it
within a cultural context think of it as "mutilation". That remains
to be proven. Is cutting one's hair mutilation? Some members of
religious groups would think so. How about cutting toenails? What,
pray, is the distinction between mutilation and adornment? Are
corsets, bikinis, jockstraps, dieting short of bulimia, mutilation?
What is mutilation to one is gorgeous to another. If a Nordic blonde
goes to Kenya with an ring in her exposed tummy button or nose, the
only strange element is likely to be that she is a Nordic blonde, so
that the Kenyan observers are foiled when they try to place her in a
cultural context that would legitimise the aesthetics involved. To
which is what? is one of the questions. You can plot the variables of
adorning and mutilating along subjective scales from, say, one to ten
for each phenomenon you observe. Mostly I would say the issue of
mutilation is close to zero. In complex societies as well as others
the phenomena we are interested in in this correspondence cannot be
considered in isolation. The people who do whatever it is share their
actions with others who reinforce and inspire them. We are talking
about, mostly, non-linguistically based sub-cultures. True, they may
have as one of their objectives to challenge or shock the aesthetic
points of view of those who are not members. Just the same, in doing
so they share the meanings, aesthetic and otherwise, of the actions
with their peers. Is this pure cultural relativism? Not quite.
Members of cultures or sub-cultures who do not do these things make
their own judgements in observing them. "It is mutilating" is no
doubt one of them. The interactions of the two (or more) sub-cultures
results in a dynamic -- change, more innovation, reinforcement,
conservatism. Over and above that there is the emergence of global
values. To me one of the great challenges of the 21st century will be
the way in which global values can come about as "civilised" values.
One of those values will I hope be the positiveness of cultural
variation, including variation in values. Am I clear? But there are,
and will be, other values that are universal. "Mutilation" puts the
issue to us. We do not approve the mutilations of cannibalism,
torture, genocide, under whatever pretext. Cultural functionalism has
its limits -- to say that Nazism was functionally appropriate for
Germany at the time might, just possibly, explain something, but it
does not justify it. There seems to be an emerging consensus that
female circumcision is brutal and not consistent with global
civilisation. But to label decorative modifications of the body as
"mutilation" is going far too far. Just try telling that to a Maori,
as some of the contributions seem to be doing. And Maori tattooing is
such a far cry from the tattooing of bikers in North America, that to
put them in the same analytical hopper is misleading. Functionalism,
after all, still has a few uses. Cheers to all. Now h