In 1994, a US immigration judge lifted an order to deport a woman named Lydia Oluloro. Deportation would have forced her to either leave her five- and six-year-old children in America with an abusive father or take them with her to Nigeria. There, they would have been at risk of a genital cutting practice called infibulation, in which the labia majora and minora are trimmed and fused, leaving a small opening for urination and menstruation.

Many Americans will agree that the judge made a good decision, as children shouldn’t be separated from their mothers, left with dangerous family members, or subjected to an unnecessary and irreversible operation that they do not understand. I am among these Americans. However, I am also of the view that Americans who oppose unfamiliar genital cutting practices should think long and hard about how they articulate their opposition.

The judge in the Oluloro case, Kendall Warren, articulated his opposition like this:

This court attempts to respect traditional cultures … but [infibulation] is cruel and serves no known medical purpose. It’s obviously a deeply ingrained cultural tradition going back 1,000 years at least.

Let’s consider the judge’s logic carefully. First, by contrasting the “court” (by which he means America)with “traditional cultures”, the judge is contrasting us (America) with a them (Nigeria). He’s implying that only places like Nigeria are “traditional” — a euphemism for states seen as backward, regressive, and uncivilised — while the US is “modern,” a state conflated with progressiveness and enlightenment.

When he says that the court “attempts to respect traditional cultures,” but cannot in this case, the judge is suggesting that the reason for the disrespect is the fault of the culture itself. In other words, he’s saying “we do our best to respect traditional cultures, but you have pushed us too far.” The reason for this, the judge implies, is that the practices in question have no redeeming value. It “serves no known medical purpose,” and societies which practice it are thus “up to no good” or are not engaging in “rational” action.

The only remaining explanation for the continuation of the practice, the judge concludes, is cruelty. If the practice is cruel the people who practice it must necessarily also be cruel; capriciously, pointlessly, even frivolously cruel.

To make matters worse, in the eyes of the judge, such cruelty can’t be helped because its perpetrators don’t have free will. The practice, he says, is “deeply ingrained” and has been so for at least 1,000 years. Such cultures cannot be expected to see reason. This is the reason why the court — or America — can and should be compelled to intervene.

In sum, the judge might well have said: “we are a modern, rational, free, good society, and you who practice female genital cutting—you are the opposite of this.”


I’ve published extensively on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa and elsewhere, focusing on the different ways opposition can be articulated and the consequence of those choices. There are many grounds upon which to oppose FGCs: the oppression of women, the repression of sexuality, human rights abuse, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, harm to health, and psychological harm, to name just a few. Nevertheless, Judge Warren, chose to use one of the most common and counterproductive frames available: cultural depravity.

The main source of this frame has been the mass media, which began covering FGCs in the early 1990s. At the time anti-FGC activists were largely using the child abuse frame in their campaigns, yet journalists decided to frame the issue in terms of cultural depravity. This narrative mixed with American ethnocentrism, an obsession with fragile female sexualities, a fear of black men, and a longstanding portrayal of Africa as dark, irrational, and barbaric to make a virulent cocktail of the “African Other.”

The more common word used to describe FGCs — mutilation — is a symbol of this discourse. It perfectly captures Judge Warren’s comment. Mutilation is, perhaps by definition, the opposite of healing and of what physicians are called to do. Defining FGCs this way allows, and even demands, that we wholly condemn the practices, take a zero tolerance stance, and refuse to entertain any other point of view.

Paradoxically, this has been devastating for efforts to reduce genital cutting. People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is more aesthetically pleasing. They largely find the term “mutilation” confusing or offensive. They, like anyone, generally do not appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children.

The zero tolerance demand to end the practices has also failed. Neither foreigners intervening in long-practicing communities, nor top-down laws instituted by local politicians under pressure from Western governments, nor even laws against FGCs in Western countries have successfully stopped genital cutting. They have, however, alienated the very women that activists have tried to help, made women dislike or fear the authorities who may help them, and even increased the rate of FGCs by inspiring backlashes.

In contrast, the provision of resources to communities to achieve whatever goals they desire, and then getting out of the way, has been proven to reduce the frequency of FGCs. The most effective interventions have been village development projects that have no agenda regarding cutting, yet empower women to make choices. When women in a community have the power to do so, they often autonomously decide to abandon FGCs. Who could know better, after all, the real costs of continuing the practice?

Likewise, abandonment of the practice may be typical among immigrants to non-practicing societies. This may be related to fear of prosecution under the law. However, it is more likely the result of a real desire among migrants to fit into their new societies, a lessening of the pressures and incentives to go through with cutting, and mothers’ deep and personal familiarity with the short- and long-term pain that accompanies the practices.

The American conversation about FGCs has been warped by our own biases. As a Hastings Center Report summarizes, those who adopt the cultural depravity frame misrepresent the practices, overstate the negative health consequences, misconstrue the reasons for the practice, silence the first-person accounts of women who have undergone cutting, and ignore indigenous anti-FCG organizing. And, while it has fed into American biases about “dark” Africa and its disempowered women, the discourse of cultural depravity has actually impaired efforts to reduce rates of FGCs and the harm that they can cause.

Originally posted at Open Democracy and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow up on her research about female genital cutting here.

The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project recently released data on attitudes about homosexuality in 39 countries. Generally, those living in the Middle East and Africa were the least accepting, while those in the Americas, Europe, and parts of Asia (the Philippines, Australia, and to a lesser extent Japan) were most accepting:


Generally, the more religious a country, the less accepting its citizens are of homosexuality:


The proportion of people who support social acceptance of gays and lesbians ranged from a high of 88% in Spain to a low of 1% in Nigeria:


Attitudes about homosexuality vary widely by age. There is a pretty consistent global pattern of more positive attitudes among younger people, with a few exceptions:


Thus far, legalization of same-sex marriage has been largely confined to the Americas and Europe; New Zealand and South Africa are the two outliers:


The Pew Center points out that of the 15 nations that have fully extended marriage rights to same-sex couples, 8 have done so just since 2010. In the U.S., we’re currently awaiting a Supreme Court’s decision, which should arrive shortly, to know if we’ll be joining the list sooner rather than later.

Thanks to Peter Nardi at Pitzer College for the link!

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Forty years ago Richard Easterlin proposed the paradox that people in wealthier countries were no happier than those in less wealthy countries.  Subsequent research on money and happiness brought modifications and variations, notably that within a single country, while for the poor, more money meant fewer problems, for the wealthier people — those with enough or a bit more — enough is enough.  Increasing your income from $100,000 to $200,000 isn’t going to make you happier.

It was nice to hear researchers singing the same lyrics we’ll soon be hearing in commencement speeches and that you hear in Sunday sermons and pop songs (“the best things in life are free”; “mo’ money mo’ problems”).  But this moral has a sour-grapes taste; it’s a comforting fable we non-wealthy tell ourselves all the while suspecting that it probably isn’t true.

A recent Brookings paper by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers adds to that suspicion.  Looking at comparisons among countries and within countries, they find that when it comes to happiness, you can never be too rich.


Stevenson and Wolfers also find no “satiation point,” some amount where happiness levels off despite increases in income.  They provide US data from a 2007 Gallup survey:


The data are pretty convincing.  Even as you go from rich to very rich, the proportion of “very satisfied” keeps increasing.  (Sample size in the stratosphere might be a problem: only 8 individuals reported annual incomes over $500,000;100% of them, though, were “very happy.”)

Did Biggie and Alexis get it wrong?

Around the time that the Stevenson-Wolfers study was getting attention in the world beyond Brookings, I was having lunch with a friend who sometimes chats with higher ups at places like hedge funds and Goldman Sachs.  He hears wheeler dealers complaining about their bonuses. “I only got ten bucks.”  Stevenson and Wolfers would predict that this guy’s happiness would be off the charts given the extra $10 million.  But he does not sound like a happy master of the universe.

I think that the difference is more than just the clash of anecdotal and systematic evidence.  It’s about defining and measuring happiness.  The Stevenson-Wolfers paper uses measures of “life satisfaction.”  Some surveys ask people to place themselves on a ladder according to “how you feel about your life.”  Others ask

All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?

The GSS uses happy instead of satisfied, but the effect is the same:

Taken all together, how would you say things are these days – would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?

When people hear these questions, they may think about their lives in a broader context and compare themselves to a wider segment of humanity.  I imagine that Goldman trader griping about his “ten bucks” was probably thinking of the guy down the hall who got twelve.  But when the survey researcher asks him where he is on that ladder, he may take a more global view and recognize that he has little cause for complaint.  Yet moment to moment during the day, he may look anything but happy.  There’s a difference between “affect” (the preponderance of momentary emotions) and overall life satisfaction.

Measuring affect is much more difficult — one method requires that people log in several times a day to report how they’re feeling at that moment — but the correlation with income is weaker.

In any case, it’s nice to know that the rich are benefitting from getting richer.  We can stop worrying about their being sad even in their wealthy pleasure and turn our attention elsewhere.  We got 99 problems, but the rich ain’t one.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

The Pew Research Center recently published a report titled “Pervasive Gloom About the World Economy.” The following two charts come from Chapter 4 which is called “The Causalities: Faith in Hard Work and Capitalism.”

The first suggests that the belief that hard work pays off remains strong in only a few countries: Pakistan (81%), the U.S. (77%), Tunisia (73%), Brazil (69%), India (67%) and Mexico (65%). The low scores in China, Germany, and Japan are worth noting. This is not to say that people everywhere are not working hard, just that many no longer believe there is a strong connection between their effort and outcome.

The second chart highlights the fact that growing numbers of people are losing faith in free market capitalism.  Despite mainstream claims that “there is no alternative,” a high percentage of people in many countries do not believe that the free market system makes people better off.

GlobeScan polled more than 12,000 adults across 23 countries about their attitudes towards economic inequality and, as the chart below reveals, the results were remarkably similar to those highlighted above.  In fact, as GlobeScan noted, “In 12 countries over 50% of people said they did not believe that the rich deserved their wealth.

It certainly seems that large numbers of people in many different countries are open to new ways of organizing economic activity.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

[Note: A couple of readers have sent in info that calls into question the graphic below — not the relative sizes and such, but the specific numbers cited for the size of various spills (making them look larger than other reports). This may be a reflection of how the organization defines “spilled” oil (they say “lost to the environment”), and I provide their definition below. Thanks to T for providing a list of generally accepted estimates of major spills. Given that the organization providing the data is an association of oil tanker owners, it seems unlikely that they would be intentionally exaggerating the sizes of spills for political purposes or something. So while the graphic’s illustration of the relative size of these spills is still accurate in a general sense, unless I can track down a clear explanation for the cited numbers, I wouldn’t rely on them. Sorry for the confusion, and I’ll continue updating if I can figure out what’s going on.]


Allie B. sent in a graphic comparing the BP leak to major tanker oil spills (and I forgot to add the numbers reported are in tonnes, which is about 2,240 pounds each):

The info is based on data from The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited, an industry group that provides a lot of data on spills from oil tankers (so that doesn’t include leaks or spills from pipelines, wells, and so on). From the website:

It should be noted that the figures for the amount of oil spilt in an incident include all oil lost to the environment, including that which burnt or remained in a sunken vessel. There is considerable annual variation in both the incidence of oil spills and the amounts of oil lost. Consequently, the figures in the following tables, and any averages derived from them should be viewed with caution.

UPDATE: Commenter T points out that some of the numbers here (especially the Gulf War spill) don’t match up with more widely-reported data and seem to exaggerate the size of some of the spills. The relative sizes still hold up in general, but be cautious with the actual reported sizes of the spills. It may be that their way of defining spills (all oil “lost to the environment”) includes significantly more oil than what is traditionally counted as being part of a spill. I’m trying to track down exactly what’s going on here.

Given how much media coverage BP leak is getting, it’s a bit shocking to see it in comparison to the tanker spills represented here. That isn’t to say that somehow by comparison the BP leak isn’t that bad; rather, it made me aware of how little I usually hear about the environmental impacts of the global petroleum industry as long as they don’t happen along the U.S. coastline.

For instance, a recent NYT article discusses the impacts of oil leaks and spills in Nigeria:

The Niger Delta…has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates. The oil pours out nearly every week, and some swamps are long since lifeless…leaving residents here astonished at the nonstop attention paid to the gusher half a world away in the Gulf of Mexico. It was only a few weeks ago, they say, that a burst pipe belonging to Royal Dutch Shell in the mangroves was finally shut after flowing for two months…

Some images from the article:

I think the illustration brings into perspective how our perceptions of environmental disasters are shaped (not surprisingly, I know) by the amount of media coverage it gets and whether it occurs in a place we’re familiar with. Some pollution gets national and international media attention (at least for a while), and some is largely ignored outside the local area directly affected. The BP leak is by no means the largest oil-related ecological disaster in history — not even close yet, and hopefully it won’t get there — but media coverage and clean-up efforts aren’t distributed equally. And, again, I’m not saying that somehow this means we shouldn’t be too concerned about the Gulf leak. But it does make clear that we’re not equally concerned about, say, all people whose livelihoods are devastated by petroleum leaks/spills in waterways.

And just out of curiosity about the link between U.S. oil consumption and Nigerian oil production, I went to the webpage of the U.S. Energy Information Administration to see how much oil the U.S. imports from Nigeria. It’s currently our 4th-largest source of crude imports, and our daily Nigerian imports are up quite a bit over a year ago (about 1.1 million barrels in April ’10 compared to 673,000 a day in April ’09):

And I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I had no idea Canada is currently our biggest source of imported crude oil (and total petroleum imports as well).

Check out this fascinating commercial for Identity Guard, sent in by Brian T., that contrasts a serene, pristine, white world with a busy, dirty, black one:

The commercial only “works” if people generally recognize the portrayal of Nigeria as a source of corruption.  It undermines this stereotype in the end, but it can only do so because the stereotype exists in the first place.  In that sense, it’s a really nice demonstration of the fact that, at least as far as the people involved in making and approving this commercial (including test audiences) are concerned, the idea that Nigeria (and perhaps “Africa” at large) is corrupt is a powerful and ubiquitous social construction.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.