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Fear Itself: From Zika Virus to Public Bathrooms


Fear is by its nature irrational, instinctual. That is partly why it can, at times, be very useful. It takes us outside the limits of the mind. The flip side: once activated, it is rarely responsive to the dictates of reason. When it works for us in the intended fashion, it serves as an early warning to real danger, allowing us to take corrective action before it is too late. For instance, we might well be afraid of nuclear power plants situated on earthquake faults, stop building more and take the ones already in place offline. We might be afraid of widespread microencephaly and other genetic anomalies and think more carefully before modifying mosquitos’ (or any other) genes. We might be concerned about islands disappearing into a rising sea, plant and animal species likewise ceasing to exist, ‘natural’ disasters on the rise, and approach with urgency the need to stop relying on fossil fuels. We might be frightened by the extensive and irrefutable carnage resulting from virtually unregulated access to guns. Likely, we should worry about our complete lack of privacy and the access to the very intimate details of our lives currently in the hands of those whose interests are antithetical to our well-being. Any of these—and countless other circumstances on the radar of CounterPunch readers—illustrate the biological purpose of fear: to help us survive. It arises in response to information, to fact, and from our ability to think ahead, out into our future. It motivates us to marshall everything we’ve got to save ourselves.

But perhaps what ought to scare us most are the devastating tornados of intentionally generated fear and loathing for one another that seem to be wrenching people right and left, off their feet and out of their minds. And many of us, we are frightened: building walls, banning people from the US based on their faith–to name just two of these whirlwinds–denote a madness, a profound disconnection from the innate capacity of human intelligence to analyze and solve the problems we face. This sort of fear—a projection onto the other–contracts and paralyzes. It shuts down minds, sends us scuttling in circles, robs us of the ability to see the big picture. It is a virus that makes us weak and distracts us from responding to the real crises.

The so-called ‘bathroom bills’ proliferating around the country fall into the latter category and offer us a chance to look at how this kind of fear turns reason on its head. The current rationale being offered for public consumption—for it remains marginally of value that there be some reason other than naked hatred offered up as motive—goes something like this: we are not legislating against LGBT people, but rather protecting women and children from male predators who will impersonate transgender women in order to gain access to public restrooms, where those women and children are most vulnerable.

Despite a lack of evidence that public accommodation non-discrimination laws have resulted in any increase in restroom assaults in twelve states and municipalities where they have been in effect for up to two decades, the notion that there are male rapists who will seize this opportunity to enter women’s rooms disguised as females persists—and frankly, it beggars belief. Even so, some people with otherwise good minds are letting go the tethers of their intelligence and plunging headlong into the arms of those who are intentionally whipping up this particular twister of fear.

Let’s be clear: women and children (of any gender) do have reason to be concerned for their safety. Rape and sexual violence are rampant, affecting nearly 300,000 US residents annually, one in five women in their lifetimes. This is a serious subject, a real and present danger which must not be allowed to be trivialized or used disingenuously to leverage discrimination and hate. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 80% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows; at least 63% of rapes are never reported, investigated, or prosecuted; The Office for Victims of Crime reports that one of every two transgender people will be the victim of sexual assault; and the federal government estimates that there is a backlog of hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits. Anyone with genuine concern for women’s safety might reasonably turn their energy to prevention efforts which could actually decrease the unconscionable number of rapes which occur in all sorts of venues. Women who have been sexually assaulted cannot be faulted for their fear, but this is important: no matter how much compassion we have for victims, or outrage on their behalf, effective policy flows from fact, not fear.

However, for those who are determined to go down the rabbit hole of fear, one has to ask why the ‘scary scenario’ revolves around the remote possibility of a male dressed as a female gaining access to the women’s room. Far more likely is the prospect that in locales which insist people use bathrooms consistent with the biology of their birth, compliant transgender men, in all their male glory, will be using women’s rooms. And what, for a male predator intent upon attacking women in their sanctuary, could be easier than posing as a transgender man? No disguise necessary at all!

If one applies just the tiniest bit of logic to the issue, it becomes clear that the fear being successfully fed in North Carolina and Mississippi, slightly less successfully in a number of other states, has nothing at all to do with the security of women and children. To the contrary. It is simply the same old fear-of-other, wearing one of the most tattered garments trotted out in recent memory. If we stipulate that the vast majority of sexual predators are male, then is it not a matter of only a moment’s consideration to see that bathroom-by-birth-gender legislation creates a far more dangerous environment for women and children, opens the doors, literally, to men who need not even bother donning a dress? Ironically, it is bathroom bills like North Carolina’s that are far more likely to integrate gender-specific restrooms than are the non-descrimination policies they are designed to prevent.

Leaving aside the hypocrisy embedded in what might generously be termed an inconsistent demonstration of concern for women’s safety, there is an element to this call to safeguard women and children which reveals not just the obvious transphobia, but a kind of survival fear related to the current fragility and fluidity of gender roles. Transgender people, by their very existence, must strike terror into the hearts of those whose identities are built on an external framework. Who hold idealized or calcified notions of man and woman. If masculinity (or femininity) can be that easily erased or created, seemingly by choice, then what does that mean for life as we know it?

The very small number of men who forsake the privilege of their birth, who break ranks to become or identify primarily as women (we can be clear that the ruckus swirls around trans women in the ladies’; no one seems particularly worried about trans men in the gents’), raise worthwhile questions about what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman. About how those designations work–and don’t–anymore. But these questions are not asked or discussed in the context of this particular controversy. No, not surprisingly, there seem to be neither inclination to advance understanding nor any honest effort to enhance public safety.

Patriarchy is built upon a clear division between the genders, and as it crumbles, the kind of misguided and ultimately self-destructive aggression is sparked that tends to arise wherever fear, power and identity cross wires. The threat to the demographic or identity group (not of the individual, nor of the species) becomes the instigator of what appears to be nothing but fear itself, survival instincts gone awry, untempered by reason or logic.

Men, and women as well, who rely on a patriarchal perspective to orient themselves in the world are highly vulnerable, especially as the results of that failed world order make themselves manifest all around us. Male domination has long since begun its journey down the slippery slope, and as we know, powers in decline will do almost anything, no matter how blatantly absurd, to scrabble for purchase.

This business ranks pretty high in terms of both absurdity and transparency. A desperate, if dangerous, tactic to point our attention away from real crimes and water the seeds of separation. You’d think something as silly as the bathroom bills aren’t likely to be terribly divisive in this political space, so what might justify the time and effort expended to write about them? It turns out that we are not all in accord on this one, so it offers an opportunity to meditate on the nature of fear and how it either assists or impedes our evolution, our ability to move forward as individuals who care about the collective. Fear disconnected from reality can wreak havoc, rob us of our good sense, and create enemies where none need exist. Being right (or feeling right) has a tendency to banish fear, so it can be quite seductive, a powerful antidote to the gnawing panic which accompanies demographic decline. But when we realize that we are often intentionally manipulated and polarized; reaching across the divide can be a truly radical act.

Fear of the other will take us down faster than we can kill the bees. It is the root of so much of our suffering and loss. There is more than enough arrayed before us to generate legitimate fear for our planetary survival. In my view, we who can see what is at stake have the additional responsibility to both stand firm against ‘othering’ where we find it, and to guard against any excess of zeal or righteousness within ourselves which might cause us to fall into that same trap.

I wonder: can our fear for our future motivate us to act as originally intended, to do all within our power to save this beautiful place? We are in it together (though clearly a majority of us have yet to realize this), and together we have so much to offer, great minds and hearts both. Can we use them to find common ground instead of squandering that brilliance to secure our own little bailiwicks, all destined to perish when the seas rise? Can we prioritize wisely in this most critical of times? Can we let go of being right–even when we are–if to do so frees up our vital force for more urgent challenges? Can we employ our unique human ability to project ourselves into the future, to see which way the wind blows? Can we stop excluding and start embracing, even in our own sometimes fractured community?

Fear gives us a shot at survival if we use it well, as a catalyst and an inspiration to act. Or it can leave us as deer in the headlights, frozen and fixated on the shiny bright while the 18-wheeler bears relentlessly down upon us. And it isn’t always easy to know the difference, to know when to run to live another day, and when to fiercely stand our ground. We won’t always agree, nor should we. But we can, and perhaps ought, ask ourselves whenever we come face to face with circumstances that threaten us or evoke fear: where lies the real danger? How can I leverage my fear, use it wisely, to create more good in this ravaged but glorious world?

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Elizabeth West lives, writes and strives to find beauty and joy less than half a mile from the Chevron refinery in Richmond CA. She can be reached at elizabethwest@sonic.net or via her website.  

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