Why do men barbecue other men?

Tom Morton

Richard A. Shweder Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology Harvard University Press, 2003 (430 pp). ISBN 0-67401-135-X (paperback) RRP $52.00.

hey man what’s your style
how you get your kicks for living?

Lou Reed, Kicks, 1976.

You’ve got to hand it to those American academics. They sure know a good title when they see one. On the face of it, Why Do Men Barbecue, a hefty hardback by Richard A. Shweder, is just the sort of thing you might expect to see people reading on the train or in the airport lounge, when they’ve worked their way through the numerous sequels to Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus. But anyone who bought Shweder’s book hoping for insights into the male mind might justifiably feel entitled to ask for their money back. In all 400 pages of Professor Shweder’s book, there is only one reference to barbecuing, and no more than a handful to men and masculinity.

What the inquiring reader will find is a challenging set of arguments about the role of culture in shaping the way we feel about the world, our bodies and our selves. Shweder is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, and the book is an eclectic collection of essays, spanning topics from the domestic life of Hindu women in the Indian province of Orissa, to the much-discussed question of whether small children should be allowed to share a bed with their parents. By far the most provocative essay, though, contains a measured defence of female circumcision, and an attack on the ‘imperial liberalism’ of Westerners who campaign against it.

Let’s begin where Shweder begins. In late 1999, Fuambi Ahmadu, a young African scholar took the podium to give a paper at the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association in Chicago, and announced that she had recently undergone traditional circumcision—of her own free will. Ahmadu was born in Sierra Leone, grew up in the United States and studied anthropology at an American university. At the age of 22, she decided to return to Sierra Leone to be circumcised amongst the Kono people to which she belonged. Ahmadu told the conference that she herself was a sexually experienced woman who had made the choice under no duress or pressure. Moreover, she argued, the repeated claims by opponents of female circumcision of ‘adverse effects on women’s sexuality do not tally with the experience of most Kono women’ (quoted in Shweder 2003 p. 171). Most Kono women, she said, felt empowered by the initiation ceremony.

Shweder believes Fuambi’s paper should be ‘deeply troubling’ (p. 170) to liberal intellectuals and activists who oppose female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM), as it is more widely known. The case against FGM, he says, is ‘far less one-sided than it appears’. Liberal academics—a group of ‘normally critical and … sceptical public intellectuals’—have all too easily accepted the arguments made by those who campaign against female genital mutilation or FGM. In particular, Shweder believes, they have failed to ‘cross-examine’ the cultural stereotypes which underlie Western moral indignation about FGM: ‘representations of family and social life in Africa as brutal, barbaric, and unquestionably beyond the pale’ (pp. 171, 173).

Shweder cites an impressive range of anthropological and medical evidence to support this view. To begin with, he points out, the most drastic forms of female genital surgery—the removal of all visible parts of the clitoris and external labia, and the stitching together of the vaginal opening, often referred to as infibulation—only occur in about 15 per cent of cases in those African cultures where genital modification is practised. The ‘style and degree’ of female genital surgery varies widely across cultures (p. 180). Moreover, both female and male informants interviewed by anthropologists over several decades did not report a ‘dampening of sexual pleasure or desire’ amongst women who had been circumcised. Shweder quotes fieldwork by Robert Edgerton, according to whom ‘Kikuyu men and women, like those of several other East African societies that practice female circumcision, assured me in 1961–2 that circumcised women continue to be orgasmic’ (p. 176).

Shweder asks us to see with the eyes of women in circumcising cultures, for whom, he claims, FGM is not mutilation at all. Quite the contrary: many women in Mali, Somalia, and Egypt, he tells us, are repulsed by uncircumcised female genitalia, which they view as ‘ugly, unrefined, undignified, uncivilized, and hence, not fully human’. They see uncircumcised genitalia as sexually ambiguous, and hence not fully adult. Only by getting rid of the clitoris—an ‘unwelcome vestige of the male organ’—can a woman attain ‘full female identity’, and hope to marry and have children. This is the structure of feeling, the ‘cultural psychology’ at the root of FGM (Shweder 2003 p 180–1).

Shweder's call for cultural pluralism has its own limits.

So far, so good. It’s hard to argue with Shweder’s appeal that we listen to the voices of women in cultures where FGM is practiced, and take seriously their reasons for endorsing it. But his call for cultural pluralism has its own limits. When Olayinka Koso-Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Leone Association on Women’s Welfare and an anti-FGM activist, writes that ‘African women still have not developed the sensitivity to feel deprived or to see in many cultural practices a violation of their human rights’, Shweder detects the presence of ‘imperial tones’ (p. 179). The voice which utters those tones is the voice of an ‘imperial liberalism’, which holds that ‘autonomy, individualism and equality’ should be central to our notion of human flourishing. Imperial liberalism privileges the ‘ethics of autonomy’ practiced by liberals in the United States over the ‘ethics of community’ which persists in traditional cultures and their diasporas in the West (p. 165).

Shweder plays down the fact that much of the opposition to FGM has come from women within those traditional cultures. Amnesty International lists nearly 50 organizations based in 22 separate African countries that oppose FGM (Section Ten: Female Genital Mutilation n.d.), not all of which can be the tools of imperial liberalism. But the fight against FGM in Africa is not Shweder’s principal target. The real focus of his argument is debates within the United States itself, where FGM has been criminalised by a law Congress passed in 1997. Shweder wants us to consider the extent to which a liberal, pluralistic society, with a significant and growing immigrant population from Africa, should ‘accommodate both circumcising and non-circumcising ethnic groups’ (p. 198).

Shweder believes that, under certain circumstances, it should. He notes that circumcision is already widely practiced for boys, is a relatively minor surgical procedure, and enjoys broad cultural acceptance. Consequently, it should be possible for us to sanction female genital surgery, under two basic conditions:

  1. Only minor surgeries should be performed on girls below the age of informed consent, such as the small cut in the prepuce covering the clitoris practised amongst some Somalis.

  2. No major irreversible alterations of the body should be permitted without consent. However, someone who has reached the appropriate age for ‘autonomous decision-making’ should have the right to alter his or her body in substantial ways (p. 206).

The italics here are mine. Shweder points out, reasonably, that children below the legal age of consent may have a breast implant, nose job, or even a sex-change operation, if they have the support of their parents. But his key criterion is the capacity for ‘autonomous decision-making’. In other words, the ultimate test for whether or not we should countenance FGM is grounded fairly and squarely in the ‘ethics of autonomy’. Re-enter imperial liberalism, backstage left. The choice to have your genitals surgically modified becomes a matter of individual preference, a lifestyle choice, rather than an expression of commitment to the ‘ethics of community’. Moreover, it’s a choice made, in the case of Fuambi Ahmadu, by a tertiary-educated woman with First World cultural capital.

The Meiwes case pushed the outer boundaries of the criminal law.

In order to amplify what’s at stake here, it’s worth considering a recent, apparently unrelated, but no less controversial criminal case in Germany. Most readers of the Australian press will have encountered the story of Armin Meiwes, the ‘cannibal of Rotenburg’, who killed, butchered, and ate Bernd-Juergen Brandes, a 43 year old engineer from Berlin. Brandes answered an Internet advertisement Meiwes placed, seeking a slim, blond male willing to be slaughtered and then eaten. Brandes, the victim, wanted to have his penis cut off by another man. The two men agreed that, in return for carrying out the amputation, Meiwes would have the right to do what he wanted with Brandes’ body (‘German cannibal tells of fantasy’ 2003).

Meiwes did not contest that he had killed Brandes; he had videotaped the entire killing and the subsequent butchering of the victim, whose body parts Meiwes then froze and consumed over a number of months, sautéing them in olive oil and garlic. But his defence lawyer was able to successfully argue that Meiwes should not be convicted of murder, because his victim had freely consented to the act.

In his judgment, handed down in January this year, the trial judge found that both Meiwes and Brandes had been fully mentally and psychologically competent. Brandes, the victim, had ‘desired nothing more fervently than the amputation of his sexual organ’. In the judge’s view, the two men had entered into a reciprocal pact: ‘they were two deeply psychologically disturbed people who both wanted something from each other’ (cited in Müller 2004). Legally speaking, Meiwes had committed manslaughter, not murder.

As the judge remarked, the problems the case raises push at the outermost boundaries of the criminal law. But the gruesome details of the pact between perpetrator and victim only throw its ethical content into sharper relief. This was a transaction between two autonomous, freely choosing individuals: one of whom wished for ‘nothing more fervently’ than a radical genital surgery. Should a liberal, pluralistic society ‘accommodate’ their choice, just as Richard Shweder believes it should ‘accommodate’ the choices of individual who wish to have their genitals altered?

We risk considering certain categories of person as less than human.

Plainly not. Yet Shweder entreats us to ask ‘tough-minded’ questions, and insist on the ‘highest standards of reason and evidence’ when debating the rights and wrongs of FGM. He can think of no better way to conclude his article, he writes, than to quote legal academic Lawrence Sager, who argues that ‘legal categories of excuse and mitigation … be open to the distinct experience of cultural minorities’ (p. 212, 214–5). Judge Volker Muetze remarked in the course of his lengthy judgement in the Meiwes case that sites and discussion groups dealing with cannibalism and cannibalistic fantasies on the Internet were ‘widespread’. How long before cannibals come to be considered a ‘cultural minority’?

‘Tough-minded’ discussion of the problems Shweder explores is all the more important in a cultural and political climate in which multi-culturalism, tolerance, and diversity are coming under increasing attack, from both Right and Left. In this climate, some cultural practices become imbued with a symbolic and political potency far beyond their everyday meanings and usage. Laws recently passed by the French Parliament will make it illegal for girls of Islamic background to wear the headscarf to school, and impose a range of restrictions on the contexts in which it can be worn publicly by girls and adult women. One Islamic group has already contacted the French press warning of violent reprisals.

Closer to home, the sexual assault allegations against members of the Bulldogs Rugby League team have generated an entirely justifiable and important debate about the ‘culture’ of Australian sport. Responding to remarks by Associate Professor Catharine Lumby that the ‘critical issue in all sexual relations … was consent’, academic criminologist Kerry Carrington argued that even consensual group sex was inherently ‘uncivil’, and explicitly compared it with cannibalism as an example of conduct which ‘doesn’t meet the standards of human behaviour’ (cited in Symons 2004).

The dangers of strictures like this ought to be all too clear: the further we expand the boundaries of behaviour we consider ‘less than human’, the greater the risk that we will come to consider certain categories of human beings also less than human, and thus undeserving of our ‘unconditional respect’, in Raimond Gaita’s trenchant and powerful phrase. However controversial some of his conclusions, Richard Shweder’s appeal for moral pluralism should provoke us to think more deeply about some of these questions.


‘German cannibal tells of fantasy’, 2003, BBC News World Edition, 3 December. [Online], Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3286721.stm [2004, March 17].

Müller, C.-P. 2004, ‘Kannibale’ Meiwes fuer achteinhalb Jahre in Haft’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 30 January.

O’Keefe, B. 2004, ‘On a mission to engender a new culture’, The Australian, 3 March.

Section Ten: Female Genital Mutilation, n.d. [Online], Available: http://www.amnesty.org/ailib/intcam/femgen/fgm10.htm [2004, March 17].

Symons, E.-K. 2004 ‘More than two to tango’, The Australian, 10 March. [Online], Available: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,8920658%255E28737,00.html [2004, March 17].

Tom Morton has worked in a wide range of roles in ABC Radio and Television. He is currently a reporter with Radio National’s Background Briefing. He is the author of Altered Mates: The Man Question (Allen & Unwin, 1997) and has a PhD in German language and literature from the University of Adelaide.

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