The Obama administration’s executive decree compelling public schools to allow students “use the bathrooms that match their gender identity” is the loudest shot fired to date in the transgender-rights kulturkampf, but it won’t be the last. The “debate”, such as it is, will go on, with crusading progressives insisting that the existence of traditional men’s and women’s restrooms is comparable to Jim Crow-style discrimination, and conservatives, on the defensive, falling back on demagogic arguments about gender-neutral restrooms enabling the large-scale sexual exploitation of women and girls.As Michelle Goldberg writes in Slate, there is something unusual about the way both sides—but especially conservatives—are prosecuting their case. The right, she says, “marshals the language of campus-style social justice politics, with its emphasis on victimization, trauma, and triggers” to argue against allowing (biological) men in women’s restrooms, even though it has repudiated these modes of argumentation in other contexts:
Right-wing websites that usually sneer at the idea of rape culture earnestly invoke it when warning about bathroom predators. Last year, a piece in the Federalist asked, “Are dubious claims about ‘rape culture’ an attempt to create a scapegoat for the emotional dark side of promiscuity?” Yet when it comes to bathroom bills, the Federalist takes rape culture as seriously as an Oberlin gender studies major. “We women don’t need men telling us how to live or when and where our safety should be a priority,” said a recent Federalist piece about bathrooms. The piece aimed biting sarcasm toward men who dismiss anxiety about bathroom privacy: “Because concerned women are always just hysterical, aren’t they? Like rape victims—hysterical broads with no self-control.”
How to account for this inconsistency (if it is an inconsistency)? According to Goldberg, “there’s bad faith at work here … it’s a kind of high-level trolling meant to highlight contradictions in mainstream feminist discourse, not to build support for rape victims.” There is definitely something to this diagnosis—resistance to genderless bathrooms is probably not entirely rooted in a desire to protect women and girls from sexual assault, and conservatives probably do opportunistically play up the idea of perverted men invading women’s locker rooms to win support for their side. But it does not follow that their sentiments are illegitimate, or that the bathroom dilemma is an easy one.In The Righteous Mind, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued that human beings have at least five “moral foundations,” including harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. His research found that liberals and progressives only respond powerfully to the first two: that is, they care strongly about protecting people from harm (care) and making sure people are treated equally (fairness). Conservatives respond to each of these moral foundations, but they also respond to the latter three: They are likely to place a higher premium on social cohesion (loyalty), to be more deferential to hierarchies (authority), and to guard established norms and rituals and traditions against perceived degradation (sanctity). In other words, while the liberal mind prioritizes the alleviation of suffering above everything else, the (socially) conservative mind tends to be more attuned to more nebulous moral concepts that can’t necessarily be defended on rights-based utilitarian grounds.Haidt’s framework helps explain why the bathroom wars are so vituperative—and why the arguments being deployed can be so contorted. For progressives, the issue is black-and-white: Transgender people are a victimized group, and the logic of harm and fairness dictate that we should do whatever it takes to alleviate their suffering, including, of course, letting them use the bathroom of their choice. Why not? Skeptics have raised a number of objections—including the specter of sex offenders abusing the law, and, more plausibly, that encouraging cross-sexual bathroom usage is actually not in the best interest of gender dysphoric children, many of whom will not actually grow up to be transgender.But I suspect that a more potent source of resistance derives from some of Haidt’s conservative moral foundations—especially sanctity. Conservatives intuit that the difference between the two sexes is (possibly the most) fundamental fact of nature, and that—by erasing one of the few remaining symbols of that difference from our public life—society is manipulating something that just shouldn’t be manipulated, at least not without careful deliberation and study. They don’t recoil at the Obama administration’s transgender bathroom directive because it might put schoolgirls in peril, but because it undermines a natural institution—male-female complementarity—that they believe is fundamentally sacred.In our increasingly secular and individualistic society, however, appeals from sanctity carry less and less weight. People on the right are resorting to arguments from harm—i.e., “gender-neutral bathrooms will cause women to be molested”—because they accurately perceive that a growing share of the public, and elites in particular, regard the conservative moral foundations are primitive or malicious. There is of course good reason for this—some version of arguments from “sanctity,” “authority,” and “loyalty” have been used to justify insidious discrimination in virtually all its forms.But expelling these moral foundations from our public discourse altogether would be a mistake. For one, as Haidt (himself a moderate) has reminded many liberal audiences, concepts like sanctity and loyalty—and the moral intuitions that flow from them—can serve important functions in human societies, even if their benefits are not immediately visible. Seemingly arbitrary rules and norms of behavior can sometimes help build social trust, sustain important institutions, and constrain the excesses of pleasure-seeking individuals.It’s not impossible to imagine that the existence of some social institutions affirming the basic difference between the two sexes might be healthy for a society in the long run. Moreover, as Mollie Hemingway has said, the transgender bathroom project arguably amounts to a declaration that “objective reality doesn’t matter” as much as “self-perception or identity.” One can debate the merits of this view, but there is no question that its formal ratification in the public square will have downstream consequences for other political and cultural questions.These types of attenuated considerations may well turn out to be entirely baseless. The widespread elimination of sexually segregated bathrooms might have no negative long-term impact on gender norms, or it could help create more positive ones.But it’s still important that we find ways to make room for the conservative moral foundations in our public discourse. They are deeply rooted in the human psyche, and simply ignoring them won’t make them go away. They will merely resurface in the guise of “acceptable” moral appeals, like harm and fairness. And as we are seeing with the “bathroom predator” demagoguery, those appeals can have a strong whiff of bigotry as well.