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Chesterton's Fence

May 2, 2020

"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, 'I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away.' To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: 'If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.'" [1] [2]

Michael Knowles, a conservative political commentator and author, recently gave a presentation at UC Santa Cruz. [3] Although his speech was oriented toward politics and democracy, during the Q&A session intactivist Sean Cutler asked him for his view on circumcision. Without endorsing the view of either speaker, we have transcribed the exchange for public interest. (A video of the entire event is embedded below.)


CUTLER: Is it ethical or moral to mutilate the genitals of a baby under any circumstances? Even religious circumcision - no matter like - Should mohels and anybody at all who mutilates a child’s genitals - should they be put in prison for five years and put on a sex offender registry?

KNOWLES: NO, NO! That’s crazy, that’s crazy. You know, in the United States we’ve always had a pretty strong respect for religious faith. And our country was founded - as I mentioned by my great-great-great grandaddies who came over on the Mayflower - they were pretty zealously religious. And circumcision is a ritual that’s taken place in world religion for a very long time. We see it all throughout the Bible. Christ himself was circumcised. And so I ... If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me, and I don’t want to pass a law against it.


CUTLER: Hi Michael. I think it’s really gross that you agree with cutting a baby’s penis. That’s just the most disgusting thing I’ve heard in my entire life.

KNOWLES: [laughing]

CUTLER: When I see a baby I think, “Cool.” I don’t think, “I want to cut off their penis.” Or, “I want to cut off the fifty percent of the mobile skin. I want to take away their foreskin, which has over fifteen different biological functions.” I mean, I lost some respect for you when you gave me that answer, cause - Don’t cut children. Don’t cut your daughter’s vagina. Isn’t that basic? Why on earth would you say that? “Yeah, you can do that to your child.” But I mean that’s so disgusting and obscene and primitive and barbaric.

KNOWLES: I don’t want to ask if there’s any backstory here that’s like - although I’m not gonna-, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to get into that.

AUDIENCE: [laughter]

KNOWLES: But to your real point. I think the argument you’re advancing is a very modernist argument. It’s - pardon me for saying, it’s a very leftist argument. What you’re saying is: There is, there’s been a tradition that has existed since time immemorial, that for - most people in this country are Christian. The God who walked on earth, it was a tradition that was good enough for Him. And what you’re saying is, “Now under the light of cold, scientific rationalism, it is a bad thing, and now we’re gonna get rid of it.” I think there are a great many people who make those arguments. But I would recommend that if you’re going to make those arguments, you have a little bit of humility. I think those arguments come from a place of pride. I think that’s where leftists make a lot of their arguments.

When I look at a tradition that’s made it through all of the ages, that’s made it from the very, very - before memory all the way to the present: I don’t look at that as just some very old thing. In many ways I think of it as the newest thing, as the freshest thing. Chesterton, Edmund Burke, great conservative philosophers, would talk about it that way. Because it’s endured throughout time. It has some significance. It has some meaning. I mean you’re talking about it in very materialistic terms. We’re just bags of meat and bags of flesh.

And Winston Churchill put it very well. He said, “When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn that we’re spirit, not animals.” [4] That the destiny of man is not measured by material computations. Even the kinds of gory ones that you’re describing right now. And obviously this ritual has a deep religious significance. It has for a long time. And I would have a little bit of humility in the face of that ritual.

[1] G.K. Chesterton; "The Thing: Why I am a Catholic"; Dodd, Mead & Co; 1930

[2] See also: "Chesterton’s Fence: A Lesson in Second Order Thinking"; Farnam Street; March 3, 2020

[3] Michael Knowles; “When democracy goes wrong?”; speech at UC Santa Cruz; March 4, 2020

[4] Winston Churchill; “The Old Lion”; radio broadcast from London to America; June 16, 1941


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