In the discussion on FGE that I mentioned, one angry woman, who didn't understand why Western women's opposition to the practice was perceived as imperialist, challenged someone else's comment that "barbaric" was an offensive term. Why, she asked, did we consider "barbaric" to be imperialist and offensive?
The obvious answer is that we in the West, particularly but not exclusively white women, tend to use "barbaric" only to talk about "other" cultures. For example, we almost never call "barbaric" the mainstream forms of body modification, such as high heels. Partly, this is because when we compare high heels to, say, foot binding, we feel safe in the knowledge that high heels only deform the foot and leg a little, and they may slow some women down, but they at least leave her mobile. So, we see high heels on a spectrum, and on the spectrum, they're not so bad.
We also tend to see mainstream forms of body modification as, well, mainstream - fairly safe, fairly accepted (except by radical feminists, bless their hearts, who remind us of what these practices actually do to our bodies), things that don't make us gasp. Pierced ears, for example. Tattoos. Many plastic surgeries are quickly becoming these kinds of accepted practices, such as breast augmentations and lifts and reshapings, or stomach "tucks", or face lifts. Many of these things hurt (a lot or a little), but the person having them done recovers, and our perception is that they are not life-threatening (though certain plastic surgeries that are common, like liposuction, are) nor do they impede sexual pleasure (though breast surgeries frequently result in significant loss of sensation). When it comes to more extreme types of body modification, things that are not so mainstream - like tongue-splitting, for example, or even, for many, spreaders in ear piercings - we are quick to say "barbaric!" because it doesn't describe many of us, or our family members, or our friends.
Against footbinding and FGE, these procedures look tame.
IGM (Intersex Genital Mutilation), performed on nonconsenting infants and children, and male circumcision, also performed on nonconsenting infants and frequently without anesthetic, are not really taken seriously by some feminists. Many pooh-pooh objections to these practices as a waste of time, when there are more serious issues, like FGE, to address. Some point out that IGM (they often don't call it this - they feel that using this terminology diminishes the brutality of FGM) only affects a very small percentage ofthe population. And often, it is pointed out that male circumcision doesn't have lasting negative effects, or if it does (loss of some, but not most, sensation), they are minor.
Maybe it's time now to define "barbaric".
"1 a: of, relating to, or characteristic of barbarians b: possessing or characteristic of a cultural level more complex than primitive savagery but less sophisticated than advanced civilization
2 a: marked by a lack of restraint : wild b: having a bizarre, primitive, or unsophisticated quality."
So "barbaric" means primitive, wild, unsophisticated, savage. These are terms that have historically, repeatedly and EXCLUSIVELY been used to refer to people of color and poor people.
And yet - we use them to talk about a certain level of brutality, right? While we refuse to see the brutality within our own culture.
I could post pictures of IGM to prove a point - or, for that matter, videos of plastic surgeries - but I won't.
Finally, I'd like to suggest that "barbaric," in addition to being a racist term, is also offensive in that it comes from "barbarian." Terry Jones (yes, THAT Terry Jones) writes in his book, Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History:
"Nobody ever called themselves 'barbarians'. It's not that sort of word. It's a word used about other people. In fact, it's a form of otherness. It has been used by the Ancient Greeks to describe non-Greek people whose language they couldn't understand and who therefore seemed to babble unintelligibly...The Romans adopted the Greek word and used it to label (and usually libel) the people who surrounded their own world.
Once the term had the might and majesty of Rome behind it, the Roman interpretation became the only one that counted, and the peoples whom they called Barbarians became forever branded - be they Spaniards, Britons, Gauls, Germans, Scythians, Persians or Syrians. And of course 'barbarian' has become a by-word for the very opposite of everything we consider civilized. In contrast to the Romans, the Barbarians were lacking in refinement, primitive, ignorant, brutal, rapacious, destructive and cruel.
We actually owe far more to the so-called 'barbarians' than we do to the men in togas. And that fact that we still think of the Celts, the Huns, the Vandals, the Goths, the Visigoths and so on as 'barbarians' means that we have all fallen hook, line and sinker for Roman propaganda...Now, however, we are beginning to realize that the story of a descent from the light of Rome to the darkness of Barbarian dominion is completely false."
So let's just examine our subject positions, shall we, when we invoke words like "barbaric" and use them, both to slander ancient civilizations as well as contemporary cultures? Perhaps there is more accurate and honest, and less imperialist, language we can use to mount a critique that will help save women's and children's bodies. Perhaps there are better ways to be allies than by pointing out how wild and savage those "other" cultures are.