Is Reality Fluid?

When I arrived at the bus stop at the lower level of the Indy airport,  there were two dozen or more people already waiting for the shuttle that would take us to the remote lot where our respective vehicles were parked.  I was among the last to arrive so I waited at some distance so that those who arrived before me could board; if need be, I would catch the next shuttle.  In due time the bus arrived and people filed aboard with their bags and luggage.  

After a while, there were four people left; me, an elderly couple, and a woman who arrived after I did. I held the old man’s elbow as he stepped aboard behind his wife, then motioned for the woman to go ahead.  

She was a woman of a certain age, and was neatly groomed with a NPR haircut and matching eyeglasses.  She was wearing REI quick-dry pants, a t-shirt with an indiscernible graphic and an oversized  flannel shirt in homage to a working class person she imagined she once knew through a friend.

She gave me a quizzical look and boarded. I followed.  Standing behind me in the aisle she leaned in and asked, “do you have some weird thing about being the last to board a bus?”

“No Ma’am, not at all. I was about the last one here, and I differed to the elderly couple because, well, they’re elderly, and you because you’re a woman,” I explained.  “It’s just manners.”

Not one to miss an opportunity to poke the bear, I added, “I suppose, these days, I should ask with which gender you identify before differing to you.”

“Yes, you should ask and never assume.”

“You are absolutely right,” I responded enthusiastically. ” And, I should have asked the elderly couple if they identified as teenagers.”  

The rest of the ride seemed longer and quieter than it needed to be, made only more uncomfortable when we both got off at the same stop. I gave her a cheerful “so long.” She gave me a dismissive grunt.

The conflict illuminated by the transgender issue has two related causes; relativism and individualism.

Relativism informs us that there are no truths, that truth lies on a spectrum of possible truths. Individualism empowers us to decide for ourselves where on the spectrum truth lies for us. 

Relativism dictates that we ascribe value on an emotional basis, how something makes us feel, and we can only agree collectively on a value when we share these feelings. For example, recently a number of politicians have described a border barrier as being immoral. But, none of these politicians has explained the principle or principles by which the barrier can be classified as such.  The verdict on income inequality is also the same: “it is immoral for some to have so much while others have so little.”  The contemporary arbiters of morality base their pronouncements on nothing more than shared emotions.

Individualism, in its contemporary form, is the belief that each person defines their own respective reality, their own truth.  The individual is free from the constraints of society and culture to define who they are and how they will live.  They are free to accrue all the benefits of the culture in which they live without any responsibility to support or pass it along to the next generation.  They can claim to be neither man nor woman, neither fish nor fowl, and possess rights and protections that exceed those for people who build and maintain our culture.

There is another aspect to this issue of the shuttle bus that deserves consideration; discrimination. During my lifetime the verb “discriminate” has changed.  It has become exclusively pejorative.  In shifting the meaning of this word we have lost an important part of our culture. To give up one’s seat for a pregnant woman, to help an elderly person up a flight of stairs, to remain standing so that women and children may sit in a crowded assembly, these are all acts of discrimination.  We discriminate, or at least we should, on a daily basis.  

If we can no longer discriminate based on a perceived gender, or need, or age, or anything else we perceive, then we have lost something civil and softening in our society.  It is true that there has been, and probably continues to be, a dark side to discrimination, but the cost of failing to discriminate altogether is incalculable.

In the end, the exchange on the shuttle bus means very little and has no impact on either my life nor the woman with whom I conversed. But, it illustrated for me how the world has changed and how deep these changes are. 

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