The recent fight over transgender bathrooms represents the reductio ad absurdum of the culture war.
We argue about cultural and moral matters in the first place because we care about our characters and the characters of our children. We understand that a free society requires individuals who are capable of handling that freedom – people who can be counted on to play their social roles as caring parents, responsible workers and dependable neighbors.
Further, we know that this sort of character formation can’t be done just individually. It’s carried out in families, schools and communities. It depends on some common assumptions about what’s right and wrong, admired and not admired – a common moral ecosystem.
So we care intensely about the health of that ecosystem and we argue about how to improve it.
The laws commanding where transgender people go to the bathroom, on the other hand, show how the culture war has devolved into an overpoliticized set of gestures designed to push people’s emotional hot buttons.
These laws are in response to a problem that doesn’t seem to exist. They are in response to a threat of sexual predators that has no relation to the existence of transgender people. They are about legislating a group, not about what constitutes good behavior. They are an attempt to erect crude barriers when a little local consideration and accommodation could get the job done.
For some reason, some defenders of traditional values are addicted to sideshows that end with the whiff of intolerance. At the same time, the larger culture itself has become morally empty, and therefore marked by fragmentation, distrust and powermongering.
The larger culture itself needs to be revived in four distinct ways: We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.
Rather than fighting endless losing battles over sexual identity, we need a better culture war. We need a new traditionalism.
A tradition, whether it’s Thanksgiving dinner, an annual family reunion or a burial ceremony, takes a physical activity and infuses it with enchantment. There’s a warmth to our traditions and rituals that is fueled by love and contact with the transcendent.
That has to be the opening assertion of a new traditionalism – that we’re not primarily physical creatures. There’s a ghost in the machine. We have souls or consciousness or whatever you want to call it. The first step of a new traditionalism would be to put the spiritual and moral implications of everyday life front and center.
If public life were truly infused with the sense that people have souls, we would educate young people to have vocations and not just careers. We would comfortably tell them that sex is a fusion of loving souls and not just a physical act. We’d celebrate marriage as a covenantal bond. We’d understand that citizenship is a covenant, too, and we have a duty to feel connected to those who disagree with us.
We’d see cloning and the death penalty as reckless acts that tamper with something mysterious. When we talked about foreign policy we’d talk not just about our material interests but also about what purpose we’ve been called to play in history.
If we talked as if people had souls, then we’d have a thick view of what is at stake in everyday activities. The soul can be elevated and degraded at every second, even when you’re alone not hurting anybody. Each thought or act etches a new line into the core piece of oneself.
The awareness of that constant process of elevation and degradation adds urgency to a bunch of questions. For example, what are we doing to a prisoner’s soul when we throw him in solitary? Can we really tolerate having so many people falling out of the labor force and unable to realize the dignity that comes with steady work? In what ways do our phones lead to attachment or isolation? When is shopping fun and when is it degrading?
We’d also need a new political science. The old one was based on the model that we’re utility-maximizing individuals, seeking power. That’s true, but love is the elemental desire of the spirit. People are desperately motivated to love something well, and be loved. A core task of communities is to arouse and educate the loves, to widen and deepen the opportunities for love and to appraise people by how well and what they love.
Our culture is overpoliticized and undermoralized. This new traditionalism would shift the debate and involve a thicker way of seeing and talking about public life. The debates that would follow would not be divided along the conventional lines.