When I first heard the story below, about a New York City public school, I didn’t believe it. It seemed too convenient, like something concocted for a fundraising letter. My wife had the same reaction. I read the whole piece to assure myself of the reliability of the author. I am now assured.
The bathroom crisis hit our school the same year our son took the standardized tests. A girl in second grade had switched to using male pronouns, adopted the initial Q as a first name, and begun dressing in boys’ clothes. Q also used the boys’ bathroom, which led to problems with other boys. Q’s mother spoke to the principal, who, with her staff, looked for an answer. They could have met the very real needs of students like Q by creating a single-stall bathroom—the one in the second-floor clinic would have served the purpose. Instead, the school decided to get rid of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms altogether. If, as the city’s Department of Education now instructed, schools had to allow students to use the bathroom of their self-identified gender, then getting rid of the labels would clear away all the confusion around the bathroom question. A practical problem was solved in conformity with a new idea about identity.
Within two years, almost every bathroom in the school, from kindergarten through fifth grade, had become gender-neutral. Where signs had once said boys and girls, they now said students. Kids would be conditioned to the new norm at such a young age that they would become the first cohort in history for whom gender had nothing to do with whether they sat or stood to pee. All that biology entailed—curiosity, fear, shame, aggression, pubescence, the thing between the legs—was erased or wished away.
The school didn’t inform parents of this sudden end to an age-old custom, as if there were nothing to discuss. Parents only heard about it when children started arriving home desperate to get to the bathroom after holding it in all day. Girls told their parents mortifying stories of having a boy kick open their stall door. Boys described being afraid to use the urinals. Our son reported that his classmates, without any collective decision, had simply gone back to the old system, regardless of the new signage: Boys were using the former boys’ rooms, girls the former girls’ rooms. This return to the familiar was what politicians call a “commonsense solution.” It was also kind of heartbreaking. As children, they didn’t think to challenge the new adult rules, the new adult ideas of justice. Instead, they found a way around this difficulty that the grown-ups had introduced into their lives. It was a quiet plea to be left alone.
So touching; so sad. Something good is dying. Maybe these children will grow to recover it after this early lesson.
The lesson the writer draws from the story (and the rest of his excellent essay) is profound:
In politics, identity is an appeal to authority—the moral authority of the oppressed: I am what I am, which explains my view and makes it the truth. The politics of identity starts out with the universal principles of equality, dignity, and freedom, but in practice it becomes an end in itself—often a dead end, a trap from which there’s no easy escape and maybe no desire for escape. Instead of equality, it sets up a new hierarchy that inverts the old, discredited one—a new moral caste system that ranks people by the oppression of their group identity. It makes race, which is a dubious and sinister social construct, an essence that defines individuals regardless of agency or circumstance—as when Representative Ayanna Pressley said, “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice; we don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.”
At times the new progressivism, for all its up-to-the-minuteness, carries a whiff of the 17th century, with heresy hunts and denunciations of sin and displays of self-mortification. The atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self-censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent—these are qualities of an illiberal politics.
I asked myself if I was moving to the wrong side of a great moral cause because its tone was too loud, because it shook loose what I didn’t want to give up. It took me a long time to see that the new progressivism didn’t just carry my own politics further than I liked. It was actually hostile to principles without which I don’t believe democracy can survive.
I’m not smart enough to speak with authority on the best political system out there, except to say this: it’s called the Millennium. Only the Lion of Judah will be a perfect ruler. All human efforts at establishing justice and ensuring domestic tranquility will tend to exalt some created thing until it becomes an idol. Equality—or a deracinated and twisted form of it—appears to be that idol right now in American culture. Equality bequeaths identity, because the effort to achieve equal outcomes for all will inevitably run into the disproportionate gifts and opportunities different people have.
Classical liberalism is, at its best, a Christian effort to recognize that justice is not served on a fallen planet by enforcing a state orthodoxy. It gives as wide a latitude as possible to people to have differing religious opinions. But when you give any latitude whatsoever to fallen people (among whom I emphatically include myself!), they will exploit it and cause trouble. The balance of powers structured into the American political system by the founders was a recognition of this fact.