Our Bathroom Obsession Reveals the Banality of Evil

5 minute read

I recently found myself in a cab in Washington, D.C. I had just attended an exhilarating conference at the Smithsonian about “The Future of the African American Past”—all in great anticipation of the opening of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The driver was nice enough. He was an older African American male, born and raised in Virginia Beach, with rough hands that suggested his life hadn’t been easy. He moved to D.C. in 1969 and has been married for, I believe, 43 years. With an infectious laugh, he joked that his wife was “crazy,” but he loved her unconditionally and couldn’t imagine “dating again at his age.”

As we made our way to Union Station, the subject of politics came up and he declared, without a hint of irony, that he was voting for Donald Trump. He offered the usual reasons I often hear from black Republicans: that the Democratic Party took black people for granted, that entitlement programs deepened dependency in our communities, and that we needed to stop relying on others and do for ourselves. His was an old and familiar claim for black self-reliance.

But in the midst of the usual stuff about black victimhood, he said he was Christian and that, “although Trump wasn’t really a good Christian,” he couldn’t vote for anyone or any party that supported same-sex marriage or “this mess around bathrooms.” “You are either a man or woman. And if you cut whatever off, you’re still what God made you,” he declared. He then went on to echo, among other things, Roger Gannam’s contrived panic that this bathroom stuff would endanger women and girls “as perverts would pretend to be women.”

After a bit of back and forth, I asked him to pull over before we reached the station. He smiled. I paid him. And as I walked to the train station, I thought of the banality of evil. We tend to think of monsters when we think of evil. People like Hitler or Sheriff Bull Connor. We should instead think of the habits that normalize evil in our daily lives. Monsters are actually the exception. We, warts and all, are the rule.

Americans are embroiled in a national debate about bathrooms and who can use them. North Carolina’s law has become emblematic of that debate. And the bathroom, that all-too-human place of excrement and urine, has become, once again, a battleground over the dignity and standing of our fellows. It would seem that it is in the mundane places that bigotry and its attendant evils live. And somehow the urgent and basic need to “go,” that most primal of human activity, has become an occasion to mark the inferior status of another human being.

Talk of bathrooms and discrimination has reasonably led some to reach for an analogy with the segregated bathrooms of the Jim Crow south. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in a passionate condemnation of the North Carolina law, said “This is not the first time that we have seen discriminatory responses to historic moments of progress for our nation. We saw it in the Jim Crow laws that followed the Emancipation Proclamation.” And Beth Miller, the mother of Mathew Myers of Ocala, Florida, said in the New York Times, “It’s separate but equal, so they might as well put black and white up on the bathrooms, too.”

The analogy offers a semblance of moral clarity. The monsters and wrongs of the segregated south are readily known and generally condemned. Funny, though. Sometimes our analogies obscure more than clarify.

Just as the segregated bathrooms of the Jim Crow south were about more than bathrooms, the issue in North Carolina is about more than denigrating the lives of transgender people. In that same law, North Carolina has prevented cities and county governments across the state from setting a minimum wage. It has also limited the ability of North Carolinians to sue for discrimination. Some are up in arms over the issue of bathrooms, but they are relatively silent about the other provisions (sections of the law that would still obtain even if the provision about public bathrooms is struck down).

The more I think about it, though, the more I understand the symbolic importance of bathrooms and the need for monsters. Bathrooms are the one place in human societies where most of our differences fade away—even if you’re sitting on a golden toilet. Pretense and illusions, constructions of inferior and superior human beings disappear in the face of the biological need to relieve oneself. No wonder the bathroom is such a freighted space. The words of the Czech-born writer, Milan Kundera, come to mind: “Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil.” I guess we all need to hide our “shit.”

We also need clear monsters. They absolve us of our own complicity in evil. We can easily point to them as bad people in our midst or in our history, and let ourselves and our hatreds off the hook. But that is too easy. Much more is required of us in these dark and ugly times. I thought about this as I walked to Union Station and murmured to myself in disbelief that my cab driver was “nice enough.”

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