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Friday, June 3, 2016

Self-Expression, Freedom, the Supreme Good . . . and Bathrooms

So, apparently we're at a point in our civilization that one of our most important controversies has to do with where people use the bathroom. This alone should dismantle the myth of human progress.

Though I jest, I readily admit that there are issues of major importance in the transgender/public bathroom debate, notably the weighty questions, (1) what is a human as a sexual being?, (2) is a human being sharply divided between mind and body? (3) if there is a conflict between one's mind and one's body, which "wins" in moral reasoning?, (4) what is the proper balance between the concerns of the one and the concerns of the many?, and, (5) in what circumstances and to what extent ought the government to adjudicate the balance between the concerns of the one and those of the many?

As for question (1), I gave an entire series of talks on it (and if you want to jump to the part about transgender, that's here). But today I want to focus on question (4).

Our civilization is now so radically individualistic—and pampered—that people assume that "freedom" means that I can express who and what I think I am to the utmost, and everyone around me not only has to allow me to do it, but they also have to congratulate what it is I've expressed about myself. At least they must signal no disagreement whatsoever. If anyone says, "Dude, your self-expression is lame" or "abnormal" or (the horror) "wrong"—or if a community or organization says, "Express away, but we're not altering our custom or standards to fit your expression"—that's considered a violation of freedom. Sometimes it's even considered hatred.

My gut response to this state of affairs is that our entire civilization has regressed to adolescence; our obsession with being young forever has so gotten the better of us that the bulk of adults in our society have never grown up. But on further reflection, I admit that this strident individualistic demand on the surrounding world is not totally new or crazy. Indeed, in a certain vein I agree with it and share it myself.

One of the good and perhaps unique fruits of Western civilization is the conviction that there are certain things about an individual that are so sacred that society must go to the utmost lengths to avoid violating them. Historically, the chief among these—though it took a very long time to emerge—has been freedom of religion.

What most people today do not understand about freedom of religion is that religion is not primarily an identity marker or a means of self-expression. The confusion is natural, because in the Express Yourself Era, your favorite topping on a hamburger is marketed as an identity marker and means of self-expression. And without a doubt, there is an element of this that goes on in religion. People don't put "Jesus fish" on the backs of their cars for nothing; they do it to register to the world who they are. (Ironically, people with "COEXIST" bumper stickers are doing the same thing.)

Unfortunately, when religion degenerates into being mainly an identity marker for this tribe or that, then the situation is ripe for ugly, pointless power struggles and even bloodshed (e.g., Northern Ireland in the twentieth century). But over the first fifty years of the American republic, the critical mass that coalesced around religious freedom didn't view religion as an identity marker. They did not see religion primarily as the way to be me or even as the way to be us but as the way to be(come) good.

Some optimistically believed that if everyone tried to be good in the best way they knew how, even if their different ways clashed, the aggregate result would be a good country, and therefore a stable and prosperous one. But even those who were not so optimistic maintained that the individual's quest to be good was so superlatively important that it must never be restrained. Above all, an individual must never be coerced into doing something he or she believes to be morally bad. Therefore, the rest of society needed to bow down to that—it needed to accommodate itself to the needs of the individual who was trying to be good, even if the person was widely believed to be off the mark and if accommodating them was somewhat annoying to everyone else.

An assumption behind freedom of religion was that the most important relationship that an individual was negotiating was not their relationship with their society or even their relationship with themselves but rather their relationship with their omnipotent Creator and Judge. The individual was not trying to conform to a socially or individually constructed, subjective truth, which was temporary, but rather to the objective truth, which is eternal.

Advocates of freedom of religion also assumed the immortality of the soul. If this life is all there is, then whatever makes for the greatest comfort (however defined) in this life would seem to be of greatest importance (though it still leaves open whether the greatest good is the greatest comfort for the individual or for the many). But if the human self survives eternally in some form, and if that self's activity during its present biological lifespan decisively influences its comfort over an infinitely longer term on an infinitely greater scale, then individuals ought to be free to ensure their eternal well-being amid the discomforts of the present life, and nothing should stand in their way.

It is evident that the beliefs that once undergirded freedom of religion have largely been lost in our culture except among a strong and resilient minority. People may believe in a Creator, but they do not believe that the Creator is a Judge. They do not believe that that Creator is or determines truth, and thus "truth" is slang for "what seems 'right' to me or to us right now." Whether or not people believe in the immortality of the soul, people do not believe that there is a determining link between activity in this life and well-being in the hereafter. They certainly do not function that way; even many who pay lip-service to traditional religious beliefs function as if comfort in this life is the supreme good. And even if there is some connection between this life and eternity, fortunately the bar to be hurdled to reach everlasting blessedness is extremely low so that everyone or nearly everyone steps across it without trying to.

It was once believed that being good and doing good resulted in feeling good, though perhaps not until after death. Today, feeling good is considered to be being good in and of itself. Going after that feeling is what we mean by doing good, and the way to advance in that quest is self-expression.

It used to be that the most sacred thing about a person, which no institution should ever violate, was their attempt to live according to what their Maker said was morally right, as best as they understood it. Today the most sacred thing about a person, which no institution should ever violate, is their attempt to live according to what they, their own maker, believe to yield maximum comfort in their own skin at the present moment.

In sum, our civilization treats present comfort being me the way it used to treat eternal comfort being good. Therefore, a rule that sorts persons into segregated bathroom facilities based on genitalia is not only less than ideal because of the genuine difficulty it raises for some with gender dysphoria or certain intersex conditions. It is, rather, an immoral violation of the most sacred thing about a person, their self-concept, the expression of which is the chief route to painlessness now, which is the supreme good.

Regardless of bathroom management practicalities—and setting aside the acutely real problem of the suffering of gender-dysphoric and intersex people—I believe that the assumptions underlying our culture's elevation of individual expression are bogus. Its practical atheism, materialism, and subjectivism wilt before the God I've come to know.

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