October 18, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, October 18, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Time to desegregate the sexes? The conflicting absolutes of the gender revolution
In this day of moral confusion, we often find public controversy centered on conflicting opinions or conflicting policy proposals. Every once in a while we find conflicting moral absolutes. This often happens in the encounter between the right and the left in the United States with a deep chasm dividing these two worldviews one from the other. But it sometimes happens on one side of that divide, and this has been particularly acute in recent years, even in recent weeks and days and months, on the left when it comes to the conflicting worldviews that now confront themselves as absolutely diametrically opposed moral absolutes when coming from the ideology of the transgender movement as it runs into a head-on collision with modern feminism.Show Full Transcript
We could actually go so far as to say there is an inevitable collision between the ideology of the transgender movement and the historic, now very well documented ideology of modern feminism. Modern feminism as an ideology insists that it matters a great deal whether one is a man or a woman, and the entire logic of the modern feminist revolution only makes sense if it is a stable objective definition. And that modern feminist worldview insists that the gender with which one is marked at birth in terms of biological sex is either the ground of privilege or of oppression, according to its worldview. Thus modern feminism focuses its intentions when it comes to political action on what it would define as liberating women. The gender issue doesn’t factor into the feminist worldview unless gender is actually something that is objective and continuing and permanent and absolute.
On the other hand, the prevailing worldview behind the transgender moment insists that gender is nothing more than a cultural construct and, furthermore, that it is a matter of one’s self-identity, self-discovery, and self-progression, that is, one’s own self-development. There is the open argument now that gender is so fluid that it’s not only fluid between and among human beings, but even within a single individual. And thus we see a direct, head-on confrontation because when it comes to matters like what defines an historic women’s college, who is a woman and who is not a woman, those are issues that feminists must consistently answer one way and the transgender revolutionaries will answer in a very different way. And this often comes down to the practical, pragmatic question of which bathroom or locker room one uses, and these issues become particularly sensitive when we’re dealing with teenagers and children.
This controversy exploded onto the pages of the New York Times on Sunday in an argument by Judith Shulevitz that very honestly addresses these contradictions. However, the title of her article is this,
“Is It Time to Desegregate the Sexes?”
“You could be forgiven for thinking that the most fiercely contested territory in America right now is the bathroom.”
She goes on to document the contested territory of the gender-assigned bathroom in America’s schools. Of course, the controversy is far larger than schools, but it’s most acute there because of the age of the citizens who are involved. She goes on to write,
“There’s another theater for the clash of values — gender inclusiveness versus bodily privacy — raised by transgender rights, and it may be even more charged. I mean the locker room. Most restrooms have enclosed stalls. Locker rooms are open, at least in older schools built on the assumption that students of the same sex would un-self-consciously disrobe. In these spaces, bodies stand revealed to other bodies.”
The scenario that she then details is one that is not only potential, but happening in America right now. She writes,
“Imagine the following scenario. Two teenagers have to change for gym. Both wear the skinny jeans and Converse sneakers that make up the quasi-uniform of the American middle-schooler. But one was born with a girl’s body, the other with a boy’s. The second has asked the school to consider her a girl, and the school has agreed to do so. But the girl-born-a-girl (the cisgender girl, to use the preferred term) does not want to strip in front of the transgender girl or have that person strip in front of her.”
But as Shulevitz continues the scenario,
“Meanwhile, the transgender girl does not want to be banished from the common area like some sort of freak. The standoff will end only when one retreats to a stall to change in private. Which one,” that is which student, “will it be?”
Now, after raising the scenario, Shulevitz points to the fact that there is a huge legal issue that is looming over this question, and it has to do with the federal government statute known as Title IX. That particular law requires that schools exercise no discrimination against anyone based upon their gender. That is to say, it renders sex discrimination illegal. At the same time, the Obama administration has by executive order extended that to the transgender identity question. But then Shulevitz recognizes the problem. How can schools show that they are either complying or how could one be shown not to comply in terms of no sex discrimination if no one actually knows anymore what sex means, which sex one is? Shulevitz writes,
“The problem schools face is that they can’t prevent sex discrimination unless they can say with certainty what sex is. And in an age of gender fluidity, the word is hard to define. This year the agencies told schools”—that is the Department of Justice and the U.S. Education Department—they told schools “to interpret ‘sex’ as a psychological condition, an ‘internal sense of gender,’ rather than an anatomical one. The new interpretation has some science to back it up. But the way the change was made — by fiat, without public debate — has produced a surprisingly broad backlash, from secular feminists as well as evangelical conservatives.”
The clash of worldviews that is involved in this clash between historic ideological feminism and the modern transgender revolutionaries is also a matter that now points to a legal contradiction as well. And the legal contradiction at the center of this has to do with Title IX. Shulevitz points to the Dear Colleague letter that was infamously sent in May by the Departments of Education injustice in which the Obama administration said that it would require all public schools, whether those be elementary schools or even federally funded preschool programs all the way up to middle school, high school, and colleges and universities, must not discriminate on the matter of transgender identity and must make available to transgender students access to the bathrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities that would match their own current gender identity.
Shulevitz points out that many schools have gone on to extend the same logic to sports teams, and eventually it is likely the federal government would mandate that as well. A school that doesn’t comply would simply lose its federal funding, and that can be huge. On The Briefing in recent months, we have followed a controversy in suburban Chicago where a school district had ruled that it would be required that students use the bathroom and locker room corresponding with their biological sex. The Obama administration brought cause against them threatening the loss of $6 million in annual funding for the schools. Not surprisingly, the school caved.
In her article in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, Shulevitz makes the contradiction very, very clear when she writes,
“In defining sex so expansively, the agencies,” she means the Obama administration, “may have walked themselves into a legal contradiction. Title IX has also been interpreted as saying that schools must not tolerate a ‘hostile environment’ that makes girls feel threatened and could impede their education. If the cisgender girl,” that is the girl born as a girl, “claims that the transgender girl is invading her privacy in a discomfiting way, that could also constitute a Title IX violation. As the Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen wrote in The New Yorker, ‘The federal government is putting schools in a position where they may be sued whichever route they choose.’ And so they have been.”
To her credit, Shulevitz recognizes that there are very deeply conflicted and controversial questions here. She doesn’t rule one way or the other when it comes to this clash between historic feminism with the unlikely allies of evangelical Christians on the one hand, and the transgender revolutionaries on the other. But where this heads is very, very revealing. What Judith Shulevitz argues is that if the idea that gender is merely a social construct and is endlessly fluid takes hold, if indeed defining sex as a subjective feeling becomes the law—and right now, of course, in terms of the statutory law, the Obama administration is arguing that it is already ensconced in the law—then as Shulevitz says, there are probably only two options. And she’s writing here particularly of the locker rooms used by America’s school students. She says the only two options are these: either end all sex, that is gender-specific, facilities and have students just change in a common area regardless of their gender and biological sex or, she says, one has to segregate everyone so that there are no longer any common spaces what so ever.
Now here you have the result of this kind of contradiction, and the end result—even that’s hard to say—of the transgender revolution at least made clear in terms of the architecture of a locker room. Shulevitz points to something that she says is legitimate without spelling it out, and that is that it’s not just conservative evangelical or orthodox Jewish or traditional Catholic parents who don’t want their middle schoolers changing with someone of the opposite biological sex. It turns out that an awful lot of the supposedly liberal people who would claim to be entirely behind the LGBT revolution have the same concerns when it comes to their own children. It’s one thing to be a hypothetical liberal posing on this issue in public, but when it comes to one’s own children well that’s another matter entirely. This is one of the reasons why, by the way, the Christian worldview reminds us that parents tend to be considerably more morally conservative than adults who are not parents. It’s simply because the experience of having children and being responsible for raising them requires a certain amount of moral conservatism because the hypothetical is no longer hypothetical. It is now altogether real.
Shulevitz acknowledges that it just may be that the Supreme Court will eventually try to settle this issue as the Supreme Court has arrogated to itself the deciding of so many other contested moral issues in America. Or, she says, Congress might take this up, but Congress appears to have a rather bipartisan timidity when it comes to honestly engaging these issues, and this has left the Executive branch, the Obama administration, relatively, at least politically speaking, free to act on this issue. And it has acted decidedly on the part of the transgender revolutionaries. Shulevitz actually cites many people who are for the LGBT revolution who fear that the Obama administration’s decision to do all of this by fiat may actually end in a setback for their cause.
In any event, the most important Christian worldview analysis of this is that the controversy itself is what is inevitably set loose when you decide that you can redefine human sexuality and human gender, even gender identity, virtually bringing chaos into where civilization had organized itself around a very clear understanding of male and female for all of human history until the very present moment. When you intentionally confuse something this basic, you set off an endless wave of confusions that shows no apparent end and, furthermore, will eventually come down to very practical questions, practical questions that will be experienced by every citizen, not just by the hypothetical middle schoolers in Judith Shulevitz’s article.
But the Christian must go further and say that what is demonstrated in this confusion is the goodness of our Creator God in giving us a very clear declaration of what it means to be male and female, and the declaration found in Scripture that that identification as the human creature made as male and female is according to his glory and is foundational for human good, for human health and happiness, for human flourishing. When sinful human beings try to undo what God is given us in creation, it’s not just chaos and controversy that will in inevitably result. A controversy like this could serve to bring some clarity and a return to common sense, or it can bring about a further indulgence into insanity. As it stands right now, clarity appears to be losing to insanity.
Millennials against free speech? The disappearance of common ground in the public square
Next, a couple of stories that are apparently unrelated that have to do with the generation divide in the United States, particularly between those who are 35 and older as compared to 35 and younger. In that 35 and younger category is the generation now routinely described as the millennials, and one of the things that’s becoming very clear, the 2016 presidential race is at least a catalyst for making that clear, is that the divide between older and younger Americans now extends to issues that had not been foreseen. One of the most central of these issues is free speech. Even if you look at the Baby Boomers and the political liberalism that was very much their cause during the 1960s on America’s college and university campuses, the Baby Boomers demanded free speech. They demanded free speech in every context, and free speech so long as the Baby Boomers were concerned was an absolute, a good unto itself. Of course, there are deep roots of this free speech tradition that go back not just to the 1960s but to the 1780s and 90s during the very period that was the debate and later the ratification of the Constitution of the United States and that First Amendment, which makes very clear the freedom of speech.
But we’ve also noted that at various times in American history, freedom of speech has been under threat and sometimes even undermined or compromised. But the interesting thing right now is that the millennials demonstrate far less commitment to free speech than older Americans, and they often do so in the name of a certain kind of liberty. And that liberty is a liberty not to be disturbed, not to hear anything that might be considered disturbing, and of course this is now ricocheting across America’s college and university campuses where speakers are being shut down and students are demanding only safe speakers that do not bring any kind of message that they would consider to be intolerant or that would not affirm everyone on the campus.
This has become particularly acute in recent months, and now we have an outbreak of liberal concern over this. This tells us something also. It tells us that oftentimes either side in the cultural controversy can set loose an argument that comes back to rebound on itself, and that’s what’s happening to America’s liberals right now, at least to older American liberals. They recognize now, at least some of them, that they may well have sown the seeds of the kind of intolerance that is now marking so many campuses where even some of these historic liberals are not finding a welcome audience. The college and university campus is increasingly becoming a space dominated by the new ideology of inclusiveness and diversity, and yet in the name of inclusiveness and diversity what has been shut down is actually inclusiveness and diversity, a diversity of opinions.
Now when it comes to many issues, including the LGBT issues, you can only speak on the campus if you are in agreement with the revolution and if you will speak to these students in the terms in which they demand to be spoken. This is the generation about which it has been written on some campuses when there is something that might happen that might be in any way disturbing, there are these safe spaces that are equipped with soft upholstery and sometimes even with puppies to bring about some kind of protection and feeling of safety on the part of students. Many historic liberals are arguing that if the university is to be a safe space, it will never actually be safe for education because education itself requires confrontation with ideas and indeed philosophies and ideologies with which one disagrees. That’s the very premise of a university as a place where there is a genuine and honest exchange of ideas. You can only have an exchange of ideas if more than one idea is allowed to be present and allowed to speak.
Yesterday’s edition of the New York Times has a timely article by Jennifer Schuessler in which she writes about a very liberal group of world authors well-recognized for taking political stances who are now writing of their concern that America’s college and university students are seeing free speech as a weapon rather than as a basic right to be respected. She’s writing about a report to be released by PEN, that is PEN America, this authors group. It’s warning that free speech is now being restricted on America’s campuses. As Schuessler writes, the report does,
“…worry about an ‘apparent chasm’ between free speech advocates and student activists, thanks in part to a conversation that sometimes dismisses students’ demands for equity and inclusion instead of parsing how they do, or don’t, infringe on the “bedrock principles” of free speech.”
The report says,
“A rising generation may be turning against free speech. Before these developments deepen and harden, PEN America hopes to open up a wider, more searching dialogue that can help all sides to these debates better identify common ground.”
And yet, what’s apparent in terms of the report and the publicity about it is that the report has made very little headway towards common ground. Why? Because these student activists really aren’t looking for common ground at all. Floyd Abrams, a very famous First Amendment and free speech advocate, a man well recognized as a defender of free speech throughout successive generations, says that there not only is not real common ground in this report, but that the authors of the report in describing the problem don’t seem to have read their own words. The issues are even larger than they admit, the internal contradictions of this moment, especially as made clear within this student generation. This was made very clear by the reporter in citing a student at the University of Missouri by the name of Storm Ervin. She’s a cofounder of the group known as Concerned Student 1950. That group made a lot of headlines in terms of the very flashpoint nature of the race controversy on that campus over the last couple of years. She said,
“Free speech is the reason we were allowed to protest.”
But notice how she turns around almost immediately. The reporter says that,
“Ms. Ervin, like many fellow students, does not see untrammeled free expression as always the paramount value, or one that is easily reconciled with equality and inclusion.”
In other words, she’s certain that free speech is a basic human right for herself and for her group, but when it comes to a group that might disagree on some basic issue, well then it appears she’s not so committed to free expression or to free speech after all. The University Missouri student said that the campus,
“…is not a psychological safe space for all, and part of the reason is that of free speech.”
If you follow her statement, it’s clear that she sees free speech as an asset until it’s not; then it becomes a liability. I think the group PEN America is absolutely right that this is a problem, but I agree with Floyd Abrams. It’s a problem a lot bigger than they are admitting in this report.
Support for the deadliest political ideology in human history is on the rise among millennials
I mentioned there were a couple of reports that indicate how differently younger and older Americans are viewing the world. But a recent report just came out also indicating that support for communism among millennials is markedly higher than for older Americans. And when we say markedly, we’re talking about huge numbers here. According to this report,
“Only 37 percent of millennials have a ‘very unfavorable’ view of communism, while 57 percent of the rest of Americans do.”
According to the report,
“Over half of millennials (55 percent) believe communism was and still is a problem.”
That’s 55%. That’s a majority, but that’s to be compared with the same assessment made by 80% of Baby Boomers and 91% of senior Americans. Communism, let’s remind ourselves, was one of the most murderous ideologies of human history. The death toll of Stalin and Lenin in the Soviet Union and of Mao and his colleagues in the communist revolution in China have led to the greatest death tolls of any human catastrophe. This is a clear wake-up call that we better do a better job in informing younger Americans about the reality of communism and the basic human rights issues and human dignity issues that are at stake. But, of course, this would require a conversation and without free speech, if the students shut that down, it’s a conversation that won’t happen. That’s the real danger.