“He won't remember”, Circumcision, Pain, and Age Discrimination

Posted on: January 18, 2013

“He won’t remember” Circumcision and Age Discrimination

A short excerpt from the footage I’ve shot includes a passerby at viagra vs cialis price an intact advocacy march telling me:

“You might as well have it [circumcision] done as a baby. It would hurt as an adult.”

From off camera I respond: “So you think that it doesn’t hurt a baby?”

The man, a guy in his mid-twenties answers back: “I don’t know.” Then, with an inflection which suggests he’s offering evidence to support his assertion that an infant doesn’t feel pain, says “I don’t remember it.”

Did you catch that? Questioned about pain, the man replies instead about the memory of pain.

But maybe this would have been your response as well?

This individual is not at all unique in his inadvertent track switching when attempting to examine the pain aspect of male infant circumcision. It is incredibly common for people to conflate the separate issues of experiencing pain in the moment, and having a memory of said pain. I have exchanged virtually these same lines of conversation with numerous people and the consensus seems to be: Pain unremembered is pain that does not “matter”.

I would submit that we ought to find it very troubling that people are comfortable with the idea of inflicting pain on someone who is unable to record pain to his conscious memory… and yet many of us are, why is that?

I can hazard a guess.

Compassion stems from empathy, and empathy from an ability to recognize sameness to oneself in another. Possibly, many of us have trouble relating to infants as a group because we lack first person perspective from that phase of life. Time spent remembering is time spent mentally ‘visiting’ points of life when we were capable of forming memories. We cannot do that though with our infanthood. We cannot occupy the same first person vantage point. And if we cannot identify with ourselves as infants, that may mean that we find infancy, or any phase which predates recorded memory, to be a generally unrelatable state.

We have a template for what it is to be a six year old in pain, a fifteen year old in pain, a twenty year old in pain. After experiencing and emotionally logging various instances of pain and consistent reaction to pain, we become able to formulate a reliable impression of how our future selves will experience pain, allowing us to generate compassion for someone of an age that we ourselves have not yet attained, an elder. But an infant? We may not naturally be able to generate a similarly visceral response to his pain because without any of our own memories of pain in infancy, we cannot “feel” an infant’s pain as saliently as we feel that of a person of an age of recall.

But stopping to reflect upon the fact that we know objectively that pain is upsetting and something we wish to avoid -all the moreso as a child- we should try and conform our thoughts to reflect that reality.

It isn’t at all logical to apply a double standard to infants. Why should our sole criterion for permission to inflict pain, be that the victim be unable to record said pain to his conscious memory? When did we become okay with trespassing on another’s body, provided that the violated is none the wiser?

We already have a standard for those post-infancy which says that even under conditions where a victim is spared physical pain or the memory of physical pain, violation of one’s physical boundaries is unacceptable. The very notion of co-opting one person’s body for another’s use is offensive to American rule of law. As a society, we abhor rape. However, frequently what stirs a rape victim’s memory of a drugged assault is not lingering physical pain, but a fragmented recall of the incident. If as a culture we are uniformly averse to bodily trespass only under circumstances where victims remember such assaults, then the real crime of date rape is being stingy with the Rohypnol. Yet that’s not Society’s complaint… notice that you’ve never heard a rape survivor lament: “If only he’d dosed me more effectively!”

It would be worth attempting to apply the Golden Rule to the memory of yourself as a young child, and asking honestly whether you think that Infant You would have appreciated having an advocate to prevent him or her from being subjected to unnecessary pain.

Maybe once we strengthen our capacity for empathy, we will stop confusing this question about pain with the entirely different question about memory. The present conflation resonates as a genuine blur, not deliberate evasion or obfuscation. But the fact that our brains struggle to distinguish between these two issues suggests that we aren’t probing the subject very deeply. We would do well to actively seek to increase our capacity for empathy for infants, and come to appreciate their pain even if it goes unremembered.