The Church: 18. Public Toilets and the New Rationality of Western Tribalism
One of the contemporary issues in the news in the United States is the matter of the use of public restrooms. This is actually an issue indicating a much wider change in social rationality in the West (including, of course, areas of the world settled by the West or under the influence of Western values, particularly urban centres around the world). As Christians, we need to understand the reasoning of society, and a new rationality has emerged in the last few decades. If Christians, living as aliens in the world (as the early Church so clearly saw), are to make Christ the Lord of their lives, and if they are to be prepared to give a defense to any person demanding an accounting of the hope they have (1 Peter 3.15), then they—we—need to understand how people reason in our society. Social reasoning is changing and changing fast, and this brief essay is an attempt to bring some clarity to these changes. We are witnessing radical changes in social rationality which have a direct bearing on how we articulate the Christian faith now and in the years to come in the West.
The restroom issue has to do with the question, ‘Should biologically male (or female) persons be permitted into female (or male) restrooms if they identify themselves as female (or male)?’ The question has to do with a distinction being made between biological sex and personal identity. Herein lies a new, social concept, namely, that biology does not determine sexual identity. What is interesting about this is not so much that someone has proposed yet another strange idea in the history of the world but that Western society can so quickly and easily change its view on so fundamental a matter. What is it about social reasoning—and the ability to argue and articulate a viewpoint—that has changed?
The so-called ‘North Carolina Bathroom Bill,’ or HB2, actually focusses on the question whether government can or should require private businesses to do x or y in such a matter. The reasoning offered in the bill is based on the role of government to enforce a perspective on private businesses and a concern for state-wide commerce. Republicans, who tend to agree with Thomas Jefferson that the government that governs best governs least, are opposed to any enforcement in this matter, and so they come out in favour of identifying gender with biological sex: men should go to the bathroom through the door that reads ‘Men,’ not ‘Women.’ Since it is difficult to find a reporter or commentator on this issue who has actually read the simple, five page bill, I recommend actually doing so before commenting on it (see: http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2015E2/Bills/House/PDF/H2v0.pdf). The reporting of this matter focusses on the alleged bigotry of the North Carolina legislature and governor in this matter for not accepting and enforcing a measure approved in the city of Charlotte that would enforce allowing persons to choose their bathroom (toilets, locker rooms) based on their self-identity, not their biological identity. All this entails some major shifts in rationality, not only the ability of reporters to read legislation before commenting on it.
A New Perspective
What is fascinating about this debate from a more academic perspective than the very real issue of grown men who are either gender confused or perverts in restrooms with women—even little girls—is that a growing population believes that a very recently articulated perspective should obviously be approved and enforced through every mechanism of power that is available in society—every legal procedure, every economic option, and every media outlet. How is it that such a perspective can appear to so many to be so obvious?
The answer has to be in a fundamental shift in social reasoning. We have become accustomed to speak of intellectual history in the West in terms of Modernity and Postmodernity. The change we are witnessing, however, is a shift to something post-Postmodernity, something I would call ‘Tribalism.’ I have written briefly on this before, and so I intend to make the point here with regard to the restroom issue itself. One way to look at the three different kinds of social reasoning is by asking the question, ‘Which department in the university controls the reasoning in the university?’
Enlightenment Reasoning and Reasoning from the Sciences
During the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment period—the period we call ‘Modernity,’ the sciences controlled the university. This is indicated not only because the period saw amazing scientific discoveries but also because science began to shape the way people reasoned in other fields of study outside the sciences. The theory of evolution involved a notion of increasing progress that permeated other fields of study. It defined human beings as a species among other animals. It challenged certain views on creation and the Bible. It raised questions in ethics (disturbingly, fascism works very well with ‘survival of the fittest’). Science ruled out the miraculous and side-lined Christian faith—any religion—in the university context. It therefore affected what New Testament scholars wrote about the historical Jesus or what Old Testament scholars wrote about the history of Israel. The dominance of science in the university, therefore, affected every other discipline in the humanities, and it gave rise to the social sciences (psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science). However, the Enlightenment period agreed with the pre-Enlightenment period, where theology dominated the university, in its affirmation of an objective reality, a naturalism, that gave good answers to questions about life. (And, of course, such a view pre-dated Christianity in Europe in the philosophy of Stoicism.)
Postmodern Reasoning and Reasoning from the Humanities
The period of Postmodernity, although with roots further back in the 1800s, came into clear view in the 1980s. I would see its essential outlook already in early 19th century Romanticism and late 19th century Existentialism. Some of its development as a ‘Postmodern’ perspective originated in a more scientific field, architecture. Yet Postmodernity came into prominence as science relinquished its dominant position in the university to the humanities and especially, of all departments, the literature department. Now, reasoning was not conducted along the lines of what we could learn from nature—the scientific quest. It was conducted in terms of how one encountered reality and what one made of it. The notion of objective truth was replaced with subjectivism. Truth was local, not universal. It was not observed and affirmed but constructed. It was functional—what worked for ‘me’ or for ‘us,’ not what is actually ‘out there.’ Diversity, relativism, questions of human existence, opposition to any ‘totalizing’ outlook or any ‘metanarrative’ explaining existence defined the shift in reasoning from the scientific outlook of Modernity to the literary outlook of Postmodernity. It was in this ‘climate’ that established identities and cherished arguments were eagerly deconstructed and anything that had been marginalized gained celebrity status. From the ANC overcoming the Apartheid government of South Africa’s Nationalist Party to the move from the historical-critical method to literary criticism in Biblical studies to the downfall of Communism and the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, old ‘regimes’ toppled one after the other, leaving a gigantic question mark over what could emerge from the murky lake of Selfness.
Tribalism and Reasoning from the Social Sciences
What has emerged is Tribalism. Postmodernity was a period open to alternatives, as individuals found the meaning that they wished in the ‘narrative’ of existence. Who was to say that they were reading the story ‘wrongly,’ or that their interpretation of the poem was incorrect? It was theirs, and that was all one could say. There was no meaning in the text, no ground zero, no truth. But even as everyone was trying to learn how to articulate this shift of reasoning from the literature department, they were also wondering what would come next: there was a sense that something would follow and probably not long afterwards. We are now seeing what this is going to be, even if how it will take shape is still undetermined. It is Tribalism.
Tribalism accepts the diversity and relativism of Postmodernity, but it introduces a stronger social dimension to this. Not the individual interpretations of a piece of literature but the ‘politically correct’ interpretation of a dominant group are ruling the day. If Postmodernity emphasized the multi-valiancy of reader-response criticism, Tribalism emphasizes the privileged authority of a particular way of reading—typically some form of liberation. If Postmodernity pointed out what established orthodoxies of Modernity had left outside the edifices they had constructed, Tribalism gathers these together and builds a fortress out of them. If Postmodernity championed ‘freedom to choose,’ Tribalism legislates what everyone must choose. If Postmodernity offered some flickering hope for religion to reenter the public square in the West and voice its opinion alongside other perspectives, Tribalism shuts down religious perspective as inappropriate hate speech. If mainline, Protestant denominations beholden to Postmodern thought turned theology into continuous dialogue, Tribalist mainline denominations use legislation and economic clout to bully orthodox believers.
Tribalism, then, represents the shift from the literature department defining reason in the university to the social sciences, particularly Sociology, defining acceptable reason in the university—and therefore society in general. Now, the logic of society runs along the lines of what makes sense for different groups. Just when one thought that the racial issues in America could fade in light of growing diversity and acceptance in society, lines are being drawn between the races. This group’s lives matter, that group needs to be shut out behind a wall, this group needs free university education. Sexual freedom from the 1960s is fading into questions of sexual identity, to the point that it is unacceptable in psychology to conduct serious studies around how sexual identity might be formed. Social grouping rather than social formation is where the emphasis lies, such that study is not so much anymore about the Social Construction of Reality (Peter Berger’s title) as it is about the ‘Enforcement of Social Identities.’ If critical linguistics in the period of Postmodernity (as, e.g., in the writings of Roger Fowler) studied the potential change in social identity that could come from how language and discourse was used, now the focus is less on the literature department’s contribution to this and more on the politics of this—the use of power to establish desirable ideologies. The social sciences rule.
So, back to bathrooms, locker rooms, comfort rooms, restrooms, toilets, and water closets. The shift in public reasoning to the politically correct Tribalism of the social sciences accounts for the shift in thinking about the use of toilets in Western society—among other things (like homosexual ‘marriage,’ limitations on shop owners regarding their services, free speech, diversity of views on university campuses, the kind of research that is allowed in psychology, and so forth).
If one thinks about these things in terms of a pre-Enlightenment logic, where theology was the ‘queen of the sciences,’ logic dictated that a person was made a certain way by God—either male or female—and that was enough to know which bathroom to enter. The shift to the Enlightenment brought no change on this matter: science—biology, to be precise—clearly sorted out the issue. Postmodernity, however, created ambiguity. Or, as Existentialism (the version of Postmodernity that was around until the 1980s) puts it, ‘existence precedes essence’: because we are ‘thrown’ into existence and lack any identity until we create it ourselves, we are free from any external definition, even as to our sexual identity. The new Tribalism, however, is focused not on construction of identity but affirmation of identity. It is concerned with identity itself, and it is concerned with power, the enforcement of views on everyone despite their consciences. Now, the logic is that some powers (governmental, economic, and the power of social media) should enforce a certain social agenda on all society.
We will continue to witness any number of surprising reversals of logic and practice as post-Christian, Western culture explores the limits of its own, new logic, the logic of the social sciences. The question is no longer how do we move from an ‘Is’ (nature) to an ‘Ought’ (ethics)? It has become, ‘How do we move from an ‘Ought’ to an ‘Is’?’ We will continue to see surprising legal issues in society, such as those issues represented in recent legislation (the Supreme Court’s decision (by one justice’s vote!) to enforce on the entire nation a new definition of marriage that includes homosexuals (Obergefell vs. Hodges, 2015), North Carolina’s ‘bathroom bill,’ or Tennessee’s law protecting counselors from having to counsel clients against their own religious convictions). The fight is on not only for what Western society is but also, and especially, for the way Western culture reasons and what it will see as reasonable. The West has moved from reasoning from God’s Law (Religion) to Science (Modernity) to Personal Choices (Postmodernity) and now to Tribal Law (Tribalism).
A final word about toilets and locker rooms. The logic of the new Tribalism calls for a different solution from what Tribalists are actually advocating. Tribalists currently are arguing for the ‘transgender’ group—for their ‘right’ to enter the toilet facilities of their chosen identity over against their biological sex. But this denies Transgenders their own identity. If toilets are not about plumbing but about sexual identity, then there really needs to be a Transgender toilet option as well. And what about bi-sexuals? What about someone like the recently deceased musician, Prince, who saw himself as neither male nor female? The logic of Tribalism is either to return to the public toilets of the Roman Empire, where one large facility with no walls and just rows of toilets served everyone, or to create any number of separate toilets that could help people affirm their chosen, sexual identities. The Roman option is not really the good one for Western Tribalism, even if it would save builders the nightmare of building numerous toilet facilities to service all the new identities people are embracing. Rome saw the toilet far too functionally; it did not allow a person to affirm their self-constructed identity when going to the toilet. If the Transgender person could not cross over into the ‘other’ toilet facility, his or her trans-identity could not be affirmed. Western Tribalism, in its post-Postmodern version, requires political assertions and correctness around group identities, not one, undifferentiated identity. If the Tribalists really think their logic through and get their way, we will see a hallway of numerous toilet facilities to help everyone affirm their sexual identity while relieving themselves.
 See Rollin Grams, ‘Issues Facing Missions Today: 49. The New Tribalism of post-Postmodernity and Christian Mission to the West.’ Online: http://bibleandmission.blogspot.com/2016/04/issues-facing-missions-today-49-new.html.
 See Rollin Grams, ‘The Church: 17. Conscience and Freedom.’ Online: http://bibleandmission.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-church-17-conscience-and-freedom.html.