There’s an old philosophical issue known as the paradox of tolerance, and it goes something like this: if a society was completely tolerant, it would tolerate the forces in the world that seek to destroy it. Those forces, if left unchecked, would eventually destroy the tolerant society. Thus we arrive at an interesting paradox: for a society of tolerance to survive, it must find some things must be intolerable.
This may seem like a pretty abstract topic. After all, how often do we really need to think about the survival of a hypothetical society outside of a political science class? However, in the past few days George Washington University has become the center of a controversy that deals with similar issues.
Toward the end of February, George Washington University’s Student Association voted in favor of a package of bills, one of which mandated LGBT sensitivity training for all student organizations. According to the GW Hatchet, the training would “teach group presidents and treasurers about gender identities and sexualities.” A few days later Emily Jashinsky, the president of George Washington’s Young America’s Foundation, announced that the group would seek “religious exemption” from the mandatory training, saying “Mandated training is not very tolerant of all religious beliefs. The way that people who are deeply Christian behave is for a reason, and if you’re training them to avoid that behavior, there’s obviously a problem with that.” The organization has since faced substantial backlash on campus, including accusations of being a “hate group” and a “cancer.”
Before I continue, it’s worth saying one thing: the YAF should not be considered a hate group just because they have an intellectual objection to mandated sensitivity training. However, the group’s request of exemption is still problematic for, two major reasons.
First, it seems that the justifications for exemption Jashinsky gives don’t actually apply to the situation. She is worried that the training sessions are an attempt to train away a behavior founded on deeply held religious beliefs, but the stated goal of the training sessions is education. Education in and of itself is not an attempt to change behavior, simply a sharing of knowledge. Furthermore, a member of the GWSA, Brady Forrest, has said “We plan on… meeting people and organizations where they are at,” which gives the impression that these training sessions will be focused one informing rather than indoctrinating.
Second, even if Jashinsky’s reasons were spot on, they would not be sufficient to justify the YAF’s exemption from sensitivity training. The Hatchet quotes her as saying that certain aspects of the training, such as learning how to use the preferred pronouns of transgender students are things that YAF members “don’t believe in,” and that for this reason, among others, her group should be exempted. However, behaviors like refusing to use a transgendered persons preferred pronoun, are exactly the kind of dehumanizing that a tolerant society cannot allow.
Let us not make the mistake the privileged so often do and question whether this is “really that big of a deal.” A central facet of identity, after all, is having a personal identifier one agrees to (what is more dehumanizing than referring to people by number only, as the Nazi regime did in concentration camps?), and to refuse to call transgender people by their preferred pronouns is to deny them their personal identifier, in a way denying them their existence and humanity. It sends them the message “you should not exist, you are wrong.” Whether the members of George Washington’s YAF believe this or not, it cannot be acceptable that they tell transgender people something so insulting and offensive, and risk causing them real psychological harm. Just as it cannot be ok to reduce women to caricatures by calling them “doll” or “skirt,” it is not alright to reduce transgendered people to an incomplete self, to ignore the complexity so integral to who they are.
Imagine, for the moment, that the United States tolerated ISIS, that it allowed them operate unchecked and uncondemned in the world. How horrifying does that sound? Obviously, even though virtually no one believes our nation should not be a tolerant one, virtually no one believes that we should simply tolerate the existence of groups like ISIS. For tolerant nations the world over to exist, groups like ISIS must be intolerable.
George Washington University’s student body faces a similar, tough far less extreme, question today. The world in which we live today is not a simple one, especially when it comes to gender, and we cannot treat it as such. Opting out of LGBT training, like George Washington’s YAF is attempting to do, is to pretend that all the complexity of sexuality and gender can be ignored, which is simply another way of attempting to deny LGBT individuals their existence and humanity. If a society of tolerance like the one we wish ours to be is to survive, some things must be intolerable. And when it comes to a society worth living in, intentional ignorance and denial of each other’s humanity should be two of those things.