Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bathroom Wars: Tribalism Is Only Sometimes Bad

During the ongoing Bathroom Wars, I note the inherent tribalism of both extremes of the debate, of those who are bigoted against LGBT individuals and of the LGBT activists themselves. In some respects this is not a problem, per se, because people have some right to be tribal in their approach even when it is irrational. However, the modern Progressive position and that of Progressive LGBT activists for decades has been staked against that tribalism and everything it stands for. Therefore, the Progressive position in this and other issues is inherently hypocritical where a bona fide nativist or bigot is not: they explicitly state their tribalism,them against the world.

Four Characters of An Honest Approach

More honest still are the people who:

  1. Admit their tribal tendencies in their own life and interactions;
  2. Realize that other people who do not fit into those boxes have a right to exist and to their own choices regardless;
  3. Admit the utility of those tribal tendencies and of a hierarchy of difference in guiding social interactions and societal structure;
  4. Realize that there are times and places where we need to seek relationships outside those molds to check our own assumptions or surpass our own limitations, that, too, testing boundaries is part of developing our own sense of who we are;

The homophobes and bigots in the Bathroom Wars have at least gotten to #1 on this list and do not apologize for it. They often pull in aspects of #3 in a self-examined manner but may or may not have figured out #2 to any significant degree (often lumping everyone who is different for any reason in the "pervert" category). This depends on whether they are actively hostile to LGBT individuals or merely want to be left alone themselves. Clearly, whenever this behavior leads to violation of anyone else, it is wrong and must be opposed. But that kind of bigotry is not the only problem.

Many of those in the LGTB-advocacy and the Progressive wing generally (those who appear to be actively promoting the ordinances which started the issue) have not even found #1 or have but reject #2 with respect to people who are not transgender. Post-1965 Progressive thinkers tend to be actively and explicitly hostile to #3: the stated goal is to break down and destroy traditional structures wherever they are found, in marked contrast to pre-1965 Progressives. In college, I frequently encountered and opposed both of these categories:

  • those who would do violence against or otherwise harass an LGBT individual who was doing no harm to them (which is how I found myself participating in a Bigayla sit and and march, being knocked to the ground by an attacker while standing in front of a transgender student I did not even agree with), and
  • those extremists on the other side who labeled heterosexuals or cisgender individuals "perverts" and wanted to break down any vestige of distinctions (while simply replacing them with their own categories and distinctions)

People who generally oppose both extremes but believe that upending everyone and everything else is not the right approach accept 1 through 3. These are the people who realize that the bathroom issue is not about transgenders per se (but much more fundamental societal issues) and who advocate for access to single-occupancy or otherwise re-purposable facilities to accommodate any and all needs for additional choice in private spaces. Many of these folks (myself included) don't really care why someone expresses the need for that space. #4 is where we all need to get to and is specifically evidenced by, say, Carly Fiorina's team-management at HP where the goal was to assemble teams with different approaches to a problem in order to court divergent views [@CITATION NEEDED]. I explicitly used that same approach to filling out design/problem solving teams at the Pentagon/AFSAA back in the 90's and actively picked up 'discards' from other teams who had been rejected for divergent views I wanted access to and I did that again in my own consulting business later on.

Folks on both sides who are comfortable with their own identities (as much as humans are capable of being so), who may or may not advocate for their favored choice but at the same time have no desire to impose their views or choices on everyone else are also exhibiting (at least) characters 1-3. So, neither the tribalism of the LGBT community banding together for self-protection against bigotry and to advocate for their cause nor the tribalism of the Christian advocating for heterosexual relationships within marriage is bad as long as that remains within the bounds of the public peace.

We Are Required To Attempt All Four

I also believe that as Christians, we are explicitly commanded to exhibit all four of these characters. We must make space for people to make their own choices while attempting to maintain our own integrity ("discernment" vs "judgement") and our own social structures; being a disciple to others requires reaching out to them and developing divergent relationships without compromising our own principles or the exercise of our faith. These are not easy things to do and they are not meant to be. We will often fail at these things, but we are still commanded to attempt them.

It is also particularly necessary to attempt these approaches in the context of little-r republican self-government. This is where the current tribalism in American politics does hurt us as Ronald Dworkin so ably points out in Is Democracy Possible Here: without agreement on fundamental principles of self-government, there can be no rational policy debate no matter what positions and facts we bring to it

Rejecting Moral Relativism and Strict Utility, Thomas Aquinas

None of this means that we embrace moral relativism (which I explicitly reject). The idea that all persons are entitled to be accorded with some level of dignity for their beliefs does not presuppose an equal dignity of those beliefs. At some level, people are simply entitled to hold beliefs which are wrong, insincere, or even self-destructive without unwarranted interference. Whether their beliefs are right, wrong, or neither particularly right nor wrong is independent of the dignity accorded to the person as a fellow being and fellow creation.

Nor does the requirement for recognizing that dignity in others erase the special duties we may owe. As St. Thomas Aquinas noted in his Summa Theologica, the universal requirement for charity toward others does not mean that we do not choose to favor those to whom we owe a special relationship (self, family, friends, community, fellow citizens) all other things being equal. A man may sacrifice himself for a stranger and at some points may have a duty to do so, but the same duty is not owed, all other things being equal, for him to sacrifice his family or community for a stranger or strangers. A man may (and often ought) bend his customs or traditions as a sign of respect for the dignity of a stranger, out of Christian mercy and charity, but does not have duty to destroy his customs or traditions, to abandon his faith, simply in order to avoid offense. As a man, I do not have a duty to abandon my manliness nor a woman to abandon her womanliness because someone else finds it offensive, but that may mean I am not entitled to enter their private space.

Ending the Bathroom Wars Requires Some Balkanization

On the issue of bathrooms upon which we have become so fixated, different communities create slightly different social structures for balancing privacy, efficiency, and simple bodily needs. A single-occupancy room provides the most privacy but often the least efficiency. Bathrooms separated by gender provide some degree of privacy and some degree of efficiency but do not work for people who (for whatever reason) require a degree of privacy or utility not allowed in that structure, e.g.:

  • dad with a female child
  • someone with a medical condition requiring discretion
  • a pre-op transgender
  • a disabled man needing assistance from a wife
  • someone who has suffered abuse who will not disrobe in front of others, etc.

Note that we do not necessarily care whether the need is "reasonable"; the mere desire for accommodation ought generally be enough. Bathrooms separated by gender with one or more designated "family restrooms" provide a good overall mix of function.

In some places, the requirements are different. The all-female dorms at college had customs and social structures for when a visiting male had to pee. If the visitor did not obey those customs, he could well expect to be summarily ejected. In the coed dorm I lived in at points, each hall had a single bathroom where, say, one person could use the shower and the other the stall at the same time. Customs for resolving that issue with mixed sexes also existed. When I visited the Legends bar and dance club (this particular one being an LGBT hangout), they had their own social conventions for the restrooms which one either accepts or leaves. That is all as it should be: a city such as Springfield, MO or Charlotte, NC ought not attempt to enforce the same structure on Legends that it does a Franciscan monastery, on a public hall and a private business.

Sometimes when you arrive at someplace where the rules are not what you expect or where you need extra consideration, you must appeal them to the proprietor or community. Sometimes the community or individuals may be gracious and sometimes not. Sometimes asking for consideration requires revealing a private need (such as a disabled man needing assistance from his wife) that you would prefer not to reveal or which risks humiliation. Although we should try as communities to set the best policies we may and attempt to deal graciously with the exceptions, it is an unfortunate fact of humanity that this often fails--- sometimes spectacularly--- but it is not a problem that blunt use of legal force can necessarily solve.

There will always be exceptions and there will always be ungracious people. The debate within constituencies on what policies to have will often be ugly (as all policy debate often is) and that is OK. Somehow we need to find the means to live together (or live apart, see 1-3 above) to resolve things as best we can, not necessarily such that everyone gets what they prefer.

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