Bathroom Issues: A shared reality

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We are presently seeing a cultural reaction to transgender people and what bathroom they can use. There is a good synopsis of the history of this problem here. In a nutshell, gender-neutral bathrooms started on college campuses at least as early as 2009. As legislation began to spread from city to city, usually more liberal leaning, we saw a backlash that has now culminated in North Carolina’s legislature signing into law the requirement that people use the bathroom that matches their natal (birth) sex. Most recently the White House issued letters to school districts requiring them to allow students to use the bathroom that matched their gender preference. There has already been push back to this move.

This phenomenon is a great opportunity to explore our desire for a shared reality. Curtis Hardin and Tory Higgins first developed a theory to explain how the way we understand the world and our relationships are intertwined. They proposed that “people are motivated to achieve mutual understanding ‘shared reality’ with specific others” for two reasons: to establish and maintain relationships, and to see our world as stable, predictable and controllable. A few years earlier John Jost and Mahzarin Banaji described their system justification theory as a tendency “to justify and rationalize the status quo … a motive to see the system as good, fair, legitimate and desirable.”

They proposed there are two motives for doing this: it provides order, structure and certainty to how we see the world, and we also tend to think we are safer when we see the world this way. In other words it provided both emotional protection from the anxiety of believing the world isn’t what we believe it is, and we also believe we have literal physical protection from harm when we are with others who believe as we do.

Jost, Hardin and Alison Ledgerwood have described the overlap of these two theories. When put together they help us understand why we long to have shared reality with one another, and why we struggle with changing beliefs that we have believed to be true. Although “system justification results in negative consequences for some individuals-most especially for members of disadvantaged groups who are harmed by the current state of affairs”, the desire for shared reality, for connection with others, may lead to this.

We can use the lens of Nonviolent Communication as developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg to view these theories and give us a working understanding of what is going on right now for people struggling with this issue. We can see frustration and anger on both sides of the issue. People who can’t understand why anyone would want to use the bathroom that doesn’t match their natal sex probably need some consistency with the beliefs they have always held about this; the belief that men and women are simply just that, and should use the corresponding bathrooms, give order to their world. It keeps the world structured and safe. They honestly do think they will be physically harmed somehow if these rules aren’t followed. These beliefs are woven into a religious community that provides them relationships and community that they cherish. They feel frustrated that everyone else can’t see this “truth”.

Those that believe people should be able to use the bathroom that corresponds to how they see themselves find it difficult to understand why others don’t believe this way as well. They like to believe that people will want to contribute and support each other, that this is their basic nature. They honestly fear that people, who don’t want to support others in this way may physically harm them, could be more violent.

We are going to need to do more than find a compromise if we want to see everyone move beyond where we are now. A compromise means nobody gets what he or she want, we want to come to a place where everyone is satisfied, everyone’s needs get met. That may look impossible at this moment. That is the magic of believing in the process of Nonviolent Communication. There is at least one answer to this. We may not be able to see it, but when we can come to an agreement that neither side is trying to talk the other into anything, and that we are both committed to finding a solution that satisfies all, we will find it.

These theories are helpful because they let us understand why change can be frightening. It helps us see each other as human, not as an enemy. We have to acknowledge the fear and sit with it. We have to have the patience to be with each other in empathy. We can come to this connection not wanting to change the other person’s mind, and still stay in integrity with what we believe. We don’t have to think we will be giving up something. There is no win or lose, just win and win. This is the new shared reality we can have with each other.

“All it takes is a lot of patience, the willingness to establish a human connection, the intention to follow Nonviolent Communication principles until you reach a resolution, and trust that the process will work.” Marshall Rosenberg