Last week, my family and I went on a much-needed break to a little holiday park on Lochgoilhead. Much of the entertainment on offer was unsuitable for our kids as they are just that wee bit too young, but one evening we decided to give the kids’ disco a try.
I took great pleasure in watching my son attempt to socialise with other children, but as the entertainer enthralled the little ones, I was suddenly confronted by an irritating and intrusive thought: why is he dividing them into teams of boys and girls?
“It’s just a kids’ disco,” I thought to myself, hoping the disruption was temporary. I looked around at the kids, as if to double-check they all appeared to fit neatly into one of the two specified categories. “What if one of these kids isn’t sure if they are a boy or a girl,” screeched this shrill, joyless voice in my head. It was supposed to be a break after months of non-stop work and there I was, completely forsaking what should have been a beautiful moment, considering the psychological and social implications of heteronormative play on kids between the ages of five and 13. Even though my son is only two, it won’t be long until there’s more on his mind than chocolate eggs and Thomas the Tank Engine.
This was all mildly annoying. Like my cosy worldview was being polluted by some foreign contaminant. One minute I was taking great pleasure in watching my son, completely free of society’s expectations and responsibilities, laughing his head off. The next, I was preoccupied with an intrusive ethical dilemma to which I was losing precious time. The mental schism was caused by two conflicting moral impulses, battling it out in the contested territory of my head. This new, intrusive thought emerged out of a creeping awareness of the diversity of opinion that now exists regarding matters of gender expression and, indeed, a broadening awareness of diversity more generally. Admittedly, the fraught nature of conversations about matters of identity – on social media at least – aroused much scepticism in me, initially. On occasion, I’d even categorise those who would challenge my preconceptions as politically correct finger-waggers who lacked the life experience to understand anything but their own strident idealism. Sometimes that was true, but often it wasn’t.
Nonetheless, this unfamiliar kids’ disco concern made its incursion into my moral world, an inhospitable terrain where ideas are fixed and underwritten by years of internal and external reinforcement and justification. But every now and then, something new emerges from beyond the horizon line, forcing me to reconsider my deeply held beliefs.
“It’s just a kids’ disco,” came the old familiar voice, but the more I tried to talk myself into it, the more hollow and self-serving the words became. I thought of the recent story involving a nine-year-old boy from the United States who took his own life after being bullied for revealing he was gay. The story challenged my preconceptions of sexuality and the need for inclusive education in a profound way but integrating a new idea into your moral world is not easy. Maybe that’s why so few of us do it? It can feel like letting part of yourself go, as you make a quiet concession to yourself that new information is too compelling to ignore.
I had a similar experience at a wedding I attended last year. One minute I was taking part in a celebration marking the union of two people who were deeply in love. The next, it was like I could see an evil capitalist patriarchy in Matrix-code: a ceremony where a woman is given away by a man, to another man, before all the bride and all the other women sit down, shut up and listen to men giving extremely ropey speeches for an hour while everyone gets pissed and pretends not to be hungry.
How do you go on with day-to-day life when, seemingly, everything you could conceivably do is tinged with a subtle corruption or injustice? Or was I over-thinking it? The discomfort and irritation I experienced came from my wanting the world to remain as it was. A world where my core beliefs remained unchallenged. Where I did not have to change or accept my assumptions may have been mistaken. My gut told me to brush off these intrusive ideas and dismiss them out of hand, but is that an honest way to conduct oneself?
And what of more serious, pressing matters? Like, say, the news that one of your political heroes has suddenly found himself at the centre of allegations of sexual impropriety? It would be counterintuitive to consider the possibility such allegations might be true, wouldn’t it? For if they were, it would reflect poorly on you, in some way. I suspect many would rely on their gut-feeling to do their thinking for them in this instance and find common cause with others doing the same. And having made their choice to go with their all-knowing gut, they’d become not only resistant, but also sceptical and even hostile to any subsequent information that is presented which did not validate their initial moral impulse.
My own gut-feeling, while presenting as a beacon of unbroken certainty across a range of issues I know little about, is often wrong. I find myself conflicted often, caught in a purgatory between what I want to be true and a nagging sense I may also be full of shit. In this time of sweeping sociocultural change, it’s inevitable that we will each feel deeply challenged as the moral landscape shifts. Many of us will find ourselves balanced precariously on a particular fault-line as the tectonic plates repel one another, stretching us to our ethical limits.
One day, our commonly held assumptions are regarded as perfectly normal, from kids’ discos and weddings, to what is and is not appropriate in personal relationships and even what constitutes anti-semitism and Islamophobia. The next day, those assumptions are held up to uncomfortable scrutiny that may have implications for our cosy worldview. It can be unpleasant and challenging, but we must strive to return to a place where our thinking is not held hostage by the unconscious desire to be proven right or, worse, the servicing of pre-existing loyalties that must be maintained at all costs. For while this subtle self-deception might prolong a sense of righteousness or validation, binding us to our respective tribes, it may also push us further from the very truth and justice we claim we’re searching for. Or worse.