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Property and Self-Mutilation

If I own it, I can pierce it. If I own it, I can paint it. It is mine, mine, mine, and I can do what I want with it.

That is the message that the staples-through-the-eyebrows crowd is attempting to convey, about their bodies, with their self-mutilations. Apparently Eve Ensler did not understand that when she said:

I went from Beverly Hills where women were getting vaginal laser rejuvenation surgery--paying four thousand dollars to get their labias trimmed to make them symmetrical because they didn't like the imbalance. And I flew to Kenya where [women were working to stop] the practice of female genital mutilation. And I said to myself, "What is wrong with this picture?"

What Ensler misses is that what "property" means to modern people is "that over which I am tinpot God": that the idea of ownership as responsible stewardship within a constraining and at the same time freeing web of moral obligation has passed into the dustbin of history.

I think this peculiar positive (which is to say, disconnected from moral constraint) conception of property rights in particular and liberty in general is, to use the technical term, poppycock. If an innocent child became trapped on your property, and had to be fed for nine months before carefully being extracted, that would not confer upon you the right to shoot her as a trespasser. "Owner" does not mean, and never has meant, "I am the demi-God of this patch of dirt and whatever I say is law within these fences". It doesn't mean that about your house. And it doesn't mean that about your body.

Comments (15)

No doubt everyone is familiar with this quotation, but it's apropos here. From Letter XXI of the Screwtape Letters:

The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell, and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men's belief that they "own" their bodies -- those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energies that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and are ejected at the pleasure of Another! It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love's sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counsellors, should come to fancy that he really owns the cities, the forests, and the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.


The passage goes on to discuss the fact that people can be taught to treat "my boots," "my dog," "my servant," "my wife," and "my God" as all using the same sense of "my."

If I'm not mistaken, I believe Locke (a good Modern!) had some wise things to say on this subject to the effect that one cannot legitimately sell himself into slavery. In other words, for Locke we do not have absolute self-ownership.

Ah, the wages of voluntarism and positivism.

What piques my curiousity is the utter triviality and vulgarity of the fashion Eve Ensler chose to illustrate our moral incoherence. It is surely a consequence of the pornification of our society, for I cannot imagine a woman not in some way or other shaped by the perversions of that culture caring about such a thing. It is just so ridiculous.

Then again, the notion that a the body is mere property, a piece of biological real estate that we happen, accidentally, to inhabit - which is the logical predicate of so many of these bizarre practices - is itself quite ridiculous.

As Bill Luse of Apologia says, "Zippy is on a roll!"

"We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride, but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun - the finely graded differences that run from 'my boots' through 'my dog', 'my servant', 'my wife', 'my father', 'my master' and 'my country' to 'my God.' They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of 'my boots' the 'my' of ownership. Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by 'my teddy bear' not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom it sends in a special relation (for that is what the Enemy will teach them to mean if we are not careful) but 'the bear I can pull to pieces if I like.'"

-Uncle Screwtape

If I understood the linked post correctly, the actual point of Ensler's comparison was that somehow the foisting of exaggerated body images upon women in the U.S. is equivalent to the mutilation of 6-year-old girls in Muslim countries. That sort of moral equivalence was definitely the point of other feminists quoted, and the poster was saying, quite rightly, that this is morally insane. After all, the women in question going for this horrible surgery are not being tied down in a back room at the age of six. That doesn't make it right. Not by a long shot. And in Lydistan (to borrow Zippy's idea from a different thread) voluntary self-mutilation is illegal. But the fact that both things take place does not make the status of women in the U.S. equivalent to that in those other countries. Not that anyone here was saying it did. I was just giving the context to explain why Ensler was apparently mentioning both of these things in the same breath.

Lydia, you're right. The quoted passage is from a current article in the Weekly Standard by Christina Hoff Summers, in which she takes Ensler to task on precisely those lines. She found the parallel disgusting. The title of the article is "The Islamic Subjugation of Women", and Summers wants to show how ineffectual, ignorant and apathetic American feminism is to their plight. But I consider feminists an irrelevancy. I wish she'd spent the whole article making clear what the nature of that subjugation is.

As Bill Luse of Apologia says, "Zippy is on a roll!"

Finally, someone quotes me accurately. Close enough anyway.

...and the poster was saying, quite rightly, that this is morally insane.

Yeah, I wasn't riffing on the same theme (given a choice between reading one of Jim Kalb's articles and one of mine the discerning websurfer will always prioritize the former) as much as bringing in another one that the quotations and the treatment of body-as-property brought to mind. It is ... interesting ... (that is, insane) that Ensler makes equivalent consensual self-mutilation on the part of adult women here and mutilation of little girls there, by bringing to bear the dreaded outside social pressure as equivalent to enslavement of the will.

Finally, someone quotes me accurately.

Hmmm. I'm not sure "quote" is an accurate paraphrase of "paraphrase". :-D

"Owner" does not mean, and never has meant, "I am the demi-God of this patch of dirt and whatever I say is law within these fences".

A common answer but one that betrays something deeper. I don't know how important it is for the problem at hand. In any case, given that the power to act is identified with one's nature--sometimes even godlike in the case of human nature--do we risk holding divinity guilty by association with tyranny or absolutism? Does the meaning change at all to say, "I am the demi-devil of this patch . . ."? Why is having a power over one's body godlike?

. . . It doesn't mean that about your house. And it doesn't mean that about your body.

And last, but not least, it doesn't mean that about "your" virtue. To what degree is virtue my virtue? What would a Kantian say?

Does the meaning change at all to say, "I am the demi-devil of this patch . . ."? Why is having a power over one's body godlike?

Very interesting comment. The notion that whenever one asserts personal godhood (that is, answerability only to one's self in the exercise of one's will) over some particular thing that person is in actual effect asserting demonhood seems amenable to my point of view.

What would a Kantian say?

More importantly, what would happen if everyone said it? =:-)

Ownership is often understood in the context of the individual-society dichotomy such that private property meant independence from the purposes of the government or larger body politic. It is in this sense that the protection against state usurpation has been a constant conservative theme. But when the body politic recognizes no higher authority, then the Eleventh Amendment wraps the Ten Commandments all in one: "If I can get away with it it's fine. For where the law has no force, there is no law. This is why Socrates thought the whole thing is a bust if there is no day of judgment.

I mention Kant, because he gave that lofty ethical imperative that commands us to "Act so as to use humanity, whether in your own person or in others, always as an end, and never merely as a means." Suppose he had said, "Act so as to use God . . ."

Using persons merely as means is an injustice, no doubt using God as a means is likewise one of the root problems in ethics.

Here's a post from Wesley J Smith on the new bioethics and medicine fad of cutting off healthy limbs if people are distressed because they believe their "real self" is an amputee.


If that isn't bizarre enough, try this story: WJS has posted on this topic several times. I can't find the particular thread of his on which I had a couple of comments. In the thread in question on this same topic I just said a few things that indicated support for Wesley's position that this practice is obviously totally nuts. I wasn't even, as I recall, the major participant in the thread. I *got a phone call* from a guy who had tracked me down and who wanted to assure me that this BIID thing is real, that he is a sufferer, and that his quality of life is so much higher now that his healthy leg (I think it was) has been cut off. His argument was that for his whole life his "body image" had been such that he "envisaged himself" as an amputee. This was "who he was" and now, with the leg gone, he was much happier. What the dickens does one say to that? I asked why he hadn't phoned Wesley Smith instead. He said he was planning on it...I was actually quite kind in tone (no laughing, folks), but of course I had to tell him that I think he is very misguided and that I'm sorry someone went along with it and removed his leg.

I was pretty much feeling speechless, which is saying a lot. It was incredibly, bizarrely sad.

I *got a phone call* from a guy ...


Lydia, you might enjoy this post from 2006, only part of which is relevant to the topic at hand.

Zippy, you got me on the paraphrase.

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