Clopper Educates Sam Harris & Eric Weinstein on Human Rights, Anatomy and Circumcision
My Conversation with Sam Harris and Eric Weinstein
Note: the quotations I use throughout this text (including my own words) are to the best of my very good memory. If they are not exactly correct, they are very close and their quotes, even if not verbatim memorized, are not mischaracterized. I invite Harris or Weinstein to correct the record if they believe I did not do our conversation justice.
Sam Harris and Eric Weinstein have been touring the US. They are both brilliant men who sit in armchairs and have an intellectually stimulating conversation covering the gambit of thought-provoking and controversial topics in a theater full of nerds (I proudly count myself as one of them). If you sign up for VIP tickets, you can take a picture with these intellectual superstars and have a more intimate conversation with them with your other VIP holders; I thought to myself, perfect!Let’s pitch my story to Sam. He’s got a huge podcast with an extremely intelligent listener base. Not to mention the theme throughout all his books is that we can no longer grant deference to these 2,000-year-old writings just because they are “holy,” especially if they are causing immeasurable violence, human suffering, and almost all cases of terrorism. If anyone would be sympathetic to sparing children sexual violence in the name of some made up blood sacrifice, it would be Sam Harris, or so I thought…
The time came after the show to take my picture with these two rockstars. I had my 30-second pitch ready before they snapped the picture and I had to move on. I walked up to them, quickly introduced myself, and went into my pitch without stopping for air as if that would be the one and only time we would get to speak, “Hi, I’m Eric Clopper. I’m a physicist, but I used to manage Harvard’s Language Center. As we all know, these ancient ideologies are profoundly stupid and damaging to society. I gave a show at Harvard that showed this in no uncertain terms, it was well-received, and Harvard fired me for it, and now I have pending litigation with them to set the social and legal precedent that you can stand up to religions without fear of termination. I’m going on a podcast tour and…” Weinstein waved his hand in the air, I had used up my time. Fair enough. They took the picture of us, and as I walked away I exchanged a serious look with Harris as if to say “I’m not fucking around.” He got the message, and I took my seat among the other few dozen VIP holders.
They went through the long line of pictures, and finally opened the floor up to questions. Someone asked a question first; I took that time to formulate my thoughts. Finally, they moved on to question number #2. I raised my hand, and Harris, his curiosity presumably piqued from my breathless pitch, chose me, so I begun:
"In 1996 the United States Congress passed the federal law that it is illegal to circumcise any girl for religious or other reasons because it is a clear violation of her fundamental human right to bodily integrity."
"In November of 2018, a Muslim doctor was charged with circumcising baby girls for her parents' sincerely held religious beliefs. The federal judge ruled, 'as despicable as this behavior might be, the law banning female circumcision is unconstitutional.' Banning female circumcision also clearly infringes on the parent’s right to practice their religious beliefs. In this case their religious belief is that it is their right to circumcise their baby girl. So, in light of this judge’s decision and the clear conflict with the parent's Islamic beliefs, do you think that this girl’s fundamental human right to keep her entire body supersedes her parent’s religious rights to cut off parts of her vulva?"
Before I could even finish the question, both Harris and Weinstein balk, as Harris responds “Absolutely not.” Which is, of course, what I expected them to say, so I continued:
"In light of your clear support for this baby girl’s fundamental human right to keep her entire body despite her parent’s religious beliefs that conflict with this, then my next question is, are these human rights gender-dependent? Because we live in a country where we circumcise thousands of baby boys every day, flagrantly violating their fundamental human rights to their entire bodies that you’ve already affirmed that baby girls have, so are these human rights gender-dependent? And furthermore, the way we have defined religious rights and the way we have defined human rights are mutually exclusive. So, I guess my fundamental question to you gentlemen is… Should we live in a world with religious rights or human rights?Because the way they are defined now, they are mutually exclusive concepts…"
They were not prepared for this question, even though I would argue this is a softball question for anyone, let alone two high-powered intellectuals. Harris immediately responds “This issue again…” (which is good! Let’s us know that the "intellectual elite" is often being pushed with ethical concerns about this most pressing human rights violation.)
Harris begins, “First off, let me say that these are two totally separate issues. Although we use the word “circumcision” the degree of harm between male and female circumcision cannot be equated; they are two totally different topics.”
I remember thinking to myself at this point, “Oh boy, I am going to have to teach Sam Harris a lesson."
As for Weinstein, he discussed during that night that he was Jewish (as am I) and that he attended synagogue. That implies that he is a somewhat observant Jew, although he is undoubtedly a brilliant man, and you can’t be brilliant and supportive of circumcision without being evil. Because Weinstein actually struck me as a very kind and thoughtful man, I thought he may be an ally despite his open religious affiliation with a genital mutilating faith.”
I listen patiently as Harris continues… “Let me emphasize that I’m not saying I am in favor of male circumcision, but we are talking about two different topics, and it’s not helpful to conflate the two.” Here, we fall into the trap that Yale bioethicist Brian Earp has written extensively about. That is, when Westerners discuss male and female circumcision, they often think of a minor, sterile surgical procedure for baby boys and the worst form of septic torture, mutilation, and infibulation for females in Africa, and exclaim the two are totally separate issues. (One of many of Earp's excellent articles discusses this fallacious argument here.) However, in reality, the two types of mutilations are far more similar than they are different, and there is a spectrum of different types of harms on the sordid genital cutting scale (something Weinstein knew).
As Harris continued along his faulty line of reasoning, I interjected, “Well, actually the infibulation that you mention is less than one percent of reported cases. What you are doing is taking the absolute worst case of female circumcision, which is very rare, and saying that it doesn’t compare to male circumcision, whereas the fact of the matter is that male circumcision is an extreme amputation removing as much tissue as the surface area of my palm. The five most sensitive parts of the penis and over a dozen functions are amputated with the foreskin. What you are saying is incorrect. The genitals are homologous, so why can we cut up one for religious reasons and not the other if our human rights are not gender-dependent?”
Here, Weinstein interjected, “Yes, the genitals are homologous structures.” At this point, I saw a glimmer of hope, at least Weinstein knew what he was talking about. To give you an explicit visual, these are the genitals of baby boys and girls in utero, can you tell which is which?
Weinstein continued (paraphrasing), “It is a question whether we should be cutting off the foreskin of babies. However, we are also talking about traditions that go back thousands of years. What I worry is that people are using the anti-circumcision issue as a red herring to the real issue of attacking Islam.”
Immediately, I recognized the tactic he was using. Although we should be cognizant of Islamophobia, I don’t think that was his genuine concern (I realize I am imparting motive to Weinstein, so if I am wrong, please correct me, Eric). I reasoned that his real concern was using the anti-circumcision rhetoric as a red herring for mounting anti-Semitism, as an attack on his tribe, but he could use the other baby-mutilating ideology of Islam to couch his concern for a different group so he could appear like a disinterested intellectual in the matter with no skin in the game (pun intended).
I stopped him right there with the Islamophobia argument, “Saying anti-circumcision rhetoric is cryptic anti-Semitism is ludicrous. I am Jewish, but that is completely irrelevant to my arguments. Circumcision is in fact markedly anti-Semitic because it disproportionately targets Jewish baby boys. Why shouldn’t we be protecting Jewish boys from having part of their penises cut off?”
Harris interjected, “They are totally different practices; equating the two does a lot to minimize the horror of what we are doing to our baby girls.”
At this point, it was clear Harris had no idea what he was talking about. Bolstered with Weinstein’s own admission that the genitals are in fact homologous, I flat out said, “You are incorrect. As Eric pointed out, the genitals are homologous, so if cutting off any part of a baby girl is horrific and wrong as it is, then so is cutting off homologous parts on baby boys. Besides, the foreskin is a huge part of the penis.”
Sam was and is wrong (although I hope that he will come around to the light soon enough, as he is widely hailed a brilliant man). He was sensing he was losing the intellectual argument, so he started to appeal to the emotional one, “ When I’ve spoken with my friend [Muslim name I can’t remember], what she went through was infinitely worse than what boys are going through!”
Now I had two options. I could pose the obvious question, “Should we be inflicting any amount of harm on our children?” Which the obvious answer is No. But, it was clear Harris’s emotional response was eclipsing his intellectual one (from what I found online after our conversation, Harris openly admits that his judgment may be biased because he is "a circumcised male"), so I matched him with the emotional appeal, “You know babies have ruptured their stomachs and lungs screaming from having their genitals torn off. How can you say that this is not horrific?”
Harris responds, “Yes, I know… babies have died from this procedure. I have openly criticized mohels giving herpes to babies after sucking on their penises after the ritual circumcision.” I’m thinking to myself, rolling my eyes, "condemning that behavior shouldn’t be that controversial."
As I was about to point out that however horrible and evil your Muslim friend’s female circumcision was, if you hold up the corpse of a baby who died from his
“medical” circumcision and compare that to your circumcised friend and ask “Who had it worse?” it is a ludicrous argument to say that the one who was still breathing fared worse in their genital mutilation. But, before I could pose this obvious response, Weinstein interjected with a very weak analogy…
“As cultures we interfere with our children all the time. We have parents piercing the ears of their children. Is that okay? Where do we draw the line? Do we draw it at the foreskin? At the earlobe? These are all important questions.”
Albeit Weinstein is right these are subjective lines that are important to answer, comparing amputating the most erogenous part of the penis and piercing a sensation-less earlobe is a fantastically inaccurate analogy. If we were piercing the foreskin or amputating the earlobe, at least the degree of relative harm to the body parts would be analogous, although the foreskin is far more important than the earlobe. So, if we were to make the analogy even remotely acceptable, the question would be, “Would we tolerate people chopping off the earlobes of their babies?” And the answer is a resounding No. People would be losing their shit on social media if a story broke of a doctor cutting off parts of babies' ears, as they should be. It goes to show the level of brainwashing we are trying to address in even these two most eminent of intellectuals.
I sensed my time was nearing an end. I had already used far more time than a questioner is usually allowed, and I couldn’t dissect everything wrong with their statements without being kicked out of the venue, so I just asked Weinstein point blank, “Do you think we should be cutting up the sex organs of our children?”
The look in Weinstein’s eye reminded me of my father’s when he told me I was wrong to resent that part of my body was amputated for an ancient blood sacrifice. We were now approaching the identity-level problem of circumcision (that is people say “I am circumcised.” Thus it is part of their identity, self-conception, and worldview. It is painful to restructure your worldview.) Weinstein was getting exasperated; I was clearly encroaching on Holy Ground, and I had no intention of backing down. Weinstein was evasive and resorted to The US Constitution, (paraphrasing): “We have to remember that The Constitution is a fiction. A bunch of old, white guys, the literal patriarchy, wrote The Constitution. They are not holy, immutable commands. Yet, our entire society rests on this fiction.” At this point, Weinstein begins jumping up and down, as if to emphasize that “this fiction” is the reality we are occupying right now. “If I had to rewrite Judaism, I probably wouldn’t include that part, but we’re stuck with it.” Weinstein continued on with unintelligible legalese. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say, and I’m pretty good at understanding messages, especially if they are clearly articulated.
Because I was unclear what he was trying to say, I asked for clarification, “So... we shouldn't be cutting up the sex organs of our children?”
Weinstein exclaims, “That’s what I’m saying!!”
Weinstein ended his point with this (paraphrasing): “You’ve clearly identified something that doesn’t fit. If you think of society as a bus, if all the kids start swaying from side-to-side the bus will rock. If they continue to rock the bus, it will crash.”
The clear metaphor here is that I am a kid rocking the bus, and if too many of us rock the bus society will collapse. A couple things in response here, 1) I contest the notion that if we stop mutilating the sex organs of our children, society as we know it will collapse. In fact, cultures that don’t commit this crime — those in Europe — have far higher rates of human welfare across the board, including better sexual indicators such as lower rates of STDs and higher rates of sexual function and satisfaction. And 2)
If this bus that we call society includes getting part of your sex organ cut off at birth, then this bus is not working for me. And, I’m not a kid rocking the bus, I am The Incredible Hulk tearing it to pieces.
Before I could issue a response to Weinstein’s metaphor, Harris said “That’s enough.” Fair enough. I had monopolized a huge chunk of the Q&A time exposing their tentative grasp on male sexuality and basic human rights.
My conversation with Harris and Weinstein didn’t have to go on for ten minutes, let alone two. They could have answered my original question and confirmed what any minimally informed humanist should easily be able to say “Human rights supersede religious rights. End of story.” But, that’s not what they did. Why?
Let’s start with Sam Harris. It’s difficult to believe that his own circumcision doesn’t cloud his judgment, mostly because he concedes this possibility himself. Harris either doesn’t know that the foreskin is an important part of the penis, or he is willfully ignorant of this fact because of the implications it may have on his own self-image. If he has either of these problems, I would refer him to my Harvard show Sex & Circumcision: An American Love Story. I have accumulated all the circumcision research you need to know, Sam, in a mere two hours to get you up to speed.
The other possibility behind Sam’s obstinate and incorrect position that male and female genital cutting are two separate issues (in other words that gender is a relevant part of the analysis and therefore we need to view human rights through a gender-specific lens) is for political reasons. This would be an unprincipled but not unreasonable position to take in light of how others fared when they took on the “holyness” of cutting up a child’s sex organ and sucking on it (for the more Orthodox among my fellow Jews).
Take me for example. I was a “leading performer in every respect” as my late boss attested in my annual performance review in June of 2018. My dean, Robert Doyle, gave me a bonus for excellent job performance in April of 2018. Even the Dean of Administration and Finance, Leslie Kirwan, (second in charge of Harvard’s entire FAS!) went on record during my hiring that I “possessed wisdom beyond my years.” Yet, when I make a highly cogent, important, and irrefutable refutation of child mutilation, my incredibly promising Harvard career was cut short in direct violation of Harvard’s own policies after they broke the law of the land. That shows that whenever someone does oppose baby mutilation, that perhaps there are those who are ready to exert their power to professionally ruin you if you speak up against this obvious crime against humanity. Perhaps Harris’s ill-informed position on male genital cutting is inspired by fear rather than ignorance. As I said, unprincipled? Yes. Unreasonable? Not at all.
My message to you, Sam, is… please read the literature with an open mind (both religious and medical), and educate yourself. You are a brilliant man, but it doesn’t take a genius like yourself to know that this behavior is unacceptable in the twenty first century.
Weinstein is a different story. He is a Jewish man like myself, but he was actually far better informed than Harris on the medical and ethical implications of male genital mutilation.
Although I had to work for it, I got one of the preeminent Jewish intellectuals on record saying 1) “we shouldn’t be cutting up the sex organs of our children,” and 2) “If I had to rewrite Judaism, I wouldn’t include that part.” That is important, because any ideology that is predicated on mutilating the sex organs of children is going to have to reform if it wishes to continue to be welcome in this experiment that we call "civilization" — or as you could call it “Weinstein’s metaphorical bus ride.”
It is a little disheartening that these two preeminent intellectuals are still developing their awareness when it comes to the obvious and flagrant human rights violation that we call circumcision. However, the silver lining is that they are open to debate, and their undeniable intelligence precludes them from discounting the intactivist’s argument, mostly because the intactivists are objectively correct: every person has the fundamental human right to their entire bodies. End of story.
Weinstein, as both an intellectual titan and a practicing Jew, could even play a pivotal role as Jewish communities evolve away from mutilating the sex organs of their children. Weinstein clearly has the best interest of the Jewish people in his heart, and he has gone on record saying that cutting babies is wrong, and if he could rewrite Judaism without circumcision in it, he would. As my fellow Jews who are familiar with our history know, Judaism’s entire progress over the last 2,000 years is driven by influential Jewish intellects who have questioned and challenged our old ways of thinking to ensure that we act in the best interest for our people. For example, Moses Sofer ruled in the 1840s that we should stop sucking on our babies’ penises after circumcising them, and most of us Jews (less the very Orthodox) have agreed. Similarly, as is undoubtedly clear in 2019, it is best for our Jewish children that they retain their entire, functional bodies at birth.
Where do we go from here?
When I was graduating from university in physics and economics at 21 years of age, I was beginning to understand the magnitude of the male genital mutilation problem. As I understood the magnitude of the problem, I understood that one could not be both an intellectual and endorse circumcision: they are mutually exclusive.
You either understand human development, sexuality, and human rights and oppose excising functional, erogenous genital flesh, or you don’t. But, if you don’t understand these concepts, you can’t be a public intellectual, because these are fundamental concepts to grasp if you are to be informing public opinion. Therefore, if Harris and Weinstein would like to continue to be highly regarded public intellectuals, they will have to get behind the anti-circumcision cause.
I reasoned at 21 years of age, because male circumcision was still a huge problem, that means not enough public intellectuals have stepped up to the plate to oppose this crime against humanity. Therefore, there is at least one if not multiple slots open in the “public intellectual space” as long as this crime continues. I entered my role in the realm of the public intellectual space with the premiere of my show Sex & Circumcision: An American Love Story, but now the battle really begins.
I will be going on a podcast tour in the near-ish future to raise the remaining $78,000 to pursue litigation v. Harvard et al., for their demonstrably unethical and illegal actions in their frantic attempt to censor our supremely important message that all human beings deserve their fundamental human right to their entire bodies, no matter what ancient religious blood sacrifices demand. When will this podcast tour will occur? I am still unsure, it may even be as late as 2020 (although I hope not!), but I will keep you in the loop as much as I can.
I assure you, I am not playing for the ephemeral Facebook likes or retweets; I am playing to win. That necessitates that this lawsuit, and our bigger practical goal of protecting all children from sexual violence will take time, likely on the order of years, but not decades. Because I am playing for the long game, I will sometimes be heavily engaged on social media, and at other times I will recede to work on personal or long-term projects. I appreciate you understanding my periodic accessibility, and I am forever grateful for your support: emotional, financial, and in spirit as we strive towards a world free of sexual violence for all children.
Note: If you'd like to contribute to my legal fund, please find my GoFundMe here: https://www.gofundme.com/eric-cloppers-defense-fund
Note: Litigation cost estimates were of March 2019 publication date, and are subject to change.