Something feels indecent about the Massachusetts referendum this November. It is the fact that Question 3 is even being asked.
George Orwell said he fought in the Spanish Civil War against fascism and for decency. He meant that, as James Traub explains in the latest episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast: “There is something self-evident about decency…a fundamental sense of: You don’t mistreat people. You don’t have a system in which the powerful can squash the powerless. That’s indecent.” We might argue which political system is best, but Orwell’s appeal to the principle of decency was intended to be more basic and to transcend debate about political details and preferences.
The idea of decency, in Traub’s view, is in a bit of trouble today. If I have correctly interpreted his Atlantic essay last month, he thinks it suffers attack from at least two directions.
From one end, decency can degrade when those who are interested in the “tacit consensus on what it means to do right by others” (emphasis on the word tacit) tend toward “shrouding the most divisive issues in silence.” They fear bursting the bubble of that apparent consensus and finding out that their principles are not, in fact, widely shared, understood or upheld. They expend energy pretending that there is no division rather than addressing injustice proactively. Tossing a large net of silence makes common decency seem more common than it really is.
From the other end, decency can degrade when people pursue political victory at all costs. When they prioritize their ideological group, then personal integrity, social cohesion and consensus are less likely to be valued for their own sake. Such positive values may be exemplified by individuals across the ideological aisle. Recognizing that, however, conflicts with tribal identification. The cultivation of decency is then largely abandoned because it does not win elections or gain power. Overemphasizing divisions between people makes common decency seem less common than it really is.
Where, then, is the healthy balance? How can we develop more honest insight into seeing who we need to persuade to share our ideals of respect and equality, and who (even though they might have other political disagreements) already shares that foundation? How do we know when it’s necessary to more loudly advocate and defend our core beliefs to bring more people to our side and when we are being too polarized and forgetting how much we already have in common?
These questions resonate with me today because I am thinking about Question 3 that will be on the Massachusetts ballot this November. This referendum regards a state law that protects an individual’s right to enter the public bathroom or locker room—the men’s or the women’s—that corresponds to their own gender identity.
This nondiscrimination law is important. It upholds a standard of decency that, in my opinion, the vast majority of us follow anyway. It is already a common ideal. The law just makes it explicit, and thereby supports people whose gender is sometimes questioned or attacked.
Of course the person who enters the bathroom is the only person who decides which gendered room is most appropriate for them. Who else would decide what their gender is? When we go to the bathroom, do all the customers and staff in the restaurant, concert hall or sports stadium have a chance to weigh in on our gender? Do we ask for other people’s opinions when we go to the bathroom? No, because that’s not how going to the bathroom works.
Decency is when we find the serenity and composure to share spaces with strangers. Decency is when we do not resort to thoughtless cruelty or violence to make our way through daily life. Decency means that, whether we know or merely suspect that someone is transgender, we realize that their public bathroom use is a matter for which they should be afforded the same measure of privacy that everyone else receives. Decency means we aren’t frightened or troubled by transgender people because we know that being transgender is not a crime and that transgender people do not cause problems in bathrooms. Decency means we don’t report the presence of possible transgender people: a woman who appears to have a bit of a mustache, a man who’s rather short. Decency means we are aware that our assumptions and stereotypes don’t always describe reality and that we shouldn’t force people into our boxes. Decency means that, if someone looks funny to us, we know it says more about us than it says about them. Decency means we know it can upset and actually endanger people to “out” them or to call attention to them in a way that might risk outing them. Decency means we don’t put unnecessary burdens on strangers by asking them to show us their legal papers and medical records when they go out for coffee.
Decency, too, is reporting actual crimes if and when they occur. Public safety is important. But decency requires that we make an effort to distinguish whether our suspicions are motivated by valid concerns or by sheer prejudice before we accuse someone.
When Question 3 is asked to Massachusetts voters, a “No” vote would repeal the existing nondiscrimination law that protects transgender people, and a “Yes” vote would keep the law. I am pleased to see support for transgender rights from so many individuals and organizations that have signed onto the “Yes on 3” campaign, including the clergy who have joined the faith leaders coalition and groups like the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Keshet that have joined the nonprofit and advocacy coalition.
There doesn’t need to be a Question 3 on the ballot. We should keep the nondiscrimination law. We have no need for permission to harass people who are different. We shouldn’t cast skepticism about the validity of people’s gender, nor should we plant ideas about the inherent criminality of LGBT people.
Since there is, unfortunately, a Question 3, everyone in Massachusetts needs to register to vote, show up on Nov. 6, and vote Yes on 3. This is a case in which we cannot sit at home in silence and in which we need to come together across the political aisles. We need to see how we already uphold each other’s dignity, often without noticing it, and we need to make this common ideal more explicit so that we do not take it for granted.
This is not hard. This is a nondiscrimination law that has been in place for two years without a single negative consequence. “Yes”: We still want it. We have to keep speaking up for the rights of those who are marginalized. That is decency.
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