America’s history can be viewed as a long and continuing stream of cultural shifts. Her inception itself was a radical departure from the widely-established forms of governance the colonists knew and lived under, towards one that was more egalitarian, representative of, and responsible towards the average person. It was imperfect (to put it mildly) at its start, with slavery left intact as part of a compromise, with women denied the right to vote, and with other inequities, but the root principle was laid down in its formative language. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration, “all men are created equal.”

And, indeed, the stream of cultural shifts has flowed steadily in the direction of fulfilling that premise of equal treatment – by the government and by each other. Eighty-seven years later, Lincoln reminded us of Jefferson’s words, verbatim, as the nation fought a war in large part over the unequal treatment of some.

Another fifty-seven years went by before the inequity of women being denied the right to vote was corrected, and it took another forty-four to undo the Jim Crow laws that denied equal treatment to blacks. Five years later, the Stonewall riots marked the inception of the movement toward the equal treatment of gays under the law.

All these landmark happenings were preceded by cultural evolutions in the direction of equality, and with each passing year, we see greater equality, parity, and acceptance of those that throughout history (American and world-wide) have been treated unequally. It’s fair to say that most of American history has been a continuing pursuit of the fulfillment of the premise that we are all created equal.

Until recently, that is. The most visible cultural movement of the last couple decades has been that of identity politics, and identity politics, at its very core, advocates inequality. Your treatment – by society and by the law, is to be determined by various visible markers and personal traits, not by virtue of your being born a human being. If you are A, B, and C, you are subject to a different set of rules than if you are D, E, and F.

A natural and inevitable consequence of this presumption of and aspiration to unequal treatment is jockeying for position and ascendance in that treatment, with self-appointed cultural dictators and apparatchiks deciding who matters more than whom.

I’m reminded of this constantly by the world around me, whether it be entertainment, advertising, political commentary, or current events, and I’ve mostly grown a tough shell to what I consider a violation of the nation’s core principle. From time to time, however, I encounter a moment where I wonder how we’ve gotten to where we are, and whether there’s any hope of recovering that first principle.

This was one such moment. A high school girl, changing in the school’s locker room, encountered another student who was biologically male.

Rights for transgender persons has been a very high profile (disproportionately high, in the opinion of some, but leave that aside) issue in recent years. It’s a tough nut to crack, because it involves challenges to long-established cultural norms (e.g. single-gender bathrooms and locker rooms) that have existed to protect people, especially those of traditionally oppressed groups, from discomfort and possibly predation.

I assign no motives to the second student in the tale here. Such are irrelevant, since the matter raised in the video is about the first student’s feeling of safety and comfort. The answer offered by identity politics is that the first student’s discomfort is of lesser importance than that of the second student, who has been granted access to [insert preferred pronoun here] preferred locker room.

We can draw a line between discomforts that are legitimate and discomforts that are “on us,” so to speak. Homosexuality is among the latter, for example. There’s no justification under any premise of equality to enact sodomy laws (which existed in some states until a 2003 Supreme Court ruling), no matter that some people find gay sex immoral or icky. What consenting adults do in private is not for third parties to debar. Relieving one’s self and changing one’s clothes, on the other hand, are actions where we can legitimately assert boundaries, where we can justifiably claim a right not to be watched or to have our space invaded.

One of the great disconnects/ironies of the social justice and identity movement lies in the concept of the “safe space.” Advocates and activists would be the first to declare that women are entitled to safe spaces, where they don’t feel the oppression of being among mansplainers, patriarchists, every-man-is-a-rapists, and so forth. However, the fundamental inequality of identity politics means that the safe space they are to be granted against men is not to be honored by the transgendered. This is because women rank lower in the grievance hierarchy than the transgendered do. Thus, the teenage girl’s discomfort at being looked at while changing by a biologically male student is deemed “on her.” As the attorney in the video noted, “they believed that [her] client was the problem.” In the grievance hierarchy, teenage girl < teenage transgender, and it’s up to the teenage girl to adjust, no matter that, merely by substituting “teenage boy” for “teenage transgender,” the social justice crowd would vocally stand in her defense and her entitlement to a safe space in which to change out of her gym clothes.

As I already noted, this is a tough issue even for those of us dedicated to equality. There’s no 100% satisfactory solution: there’s no circumstance where the trans teen can feel totally comfortable and the teen girl feel totally comfortable. Even if we go so far as to create individual changing rooms, I’m certain there’d be complaints about the exclusionary aspect, and how they’re a dodge against trans acceptance.

More broadly, we see this hierarchical dichotomy, where some persons’ discomforts are addressed while others’ are dismissed, all over society, a dichotomy that’s true even when we exclude the “on us” discomforts (e.g. sitting next to someone of a different race/gender/religion on the subway, seeing a gay couple kissing in public). Famous among these is the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, where the government sought to force someone to act against his beliefs. Just as a reminder, “free exercise thereof” is a right enshrined in the Constitution, not an “on them” discomfort illegitimacy.

Yes, the line between legitimate discomfort and “it’s your problem” discomfort can be debated. We get that debate wrong, though, when we grant an absolute right of declaration to some over others. If someone says “this makes me uncomfortable,” and arbiters decide, based solely on his/her identity markers, whether that declaration is legitimate and actionable or unfounded and dismissible, we’re on a bad path. The foundation should be a presumption of equality, not a hierarchical prioritization based on who belongs to the more historically oppressed groups. Yes, we’re going to have conflicts and imperfect outcomes regardless, but an imperfect outcome based on a presumption of equal treatment is better and more just than one based on overtipping the scales in pursuit of making up for the past. We don’t advance society by dismissing someone’s legitimate discomfort, even if we feel our cause is just.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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