(7 min read, but promise it will save you reading a bunch of other stuff, and might even dish some inside scoops you won't hear anyplace else)
And TRIGGER WARNING: hopscotching through all the landmines of the culture wars here. This is hopefully a safe space to have unsafe conversations, and we hope to provoke all sides equally! Before penning righteous email replies, please read the whole thing, and see if we can’t all meet on higher ground on the other side?
Ready? Let’s jump right in.
Just got back from Atlanta and the NCAA national championships for swimming and diving, where our daughter and her team were competing.
🏊 As many non-swimming folks may have learned, University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer Lia Thomas created a bit of a stir with her bid to win a national title. There was even talk of her possibly breaking some of Katie Ledecky's historic records.
(For folks not familiar with swimming, Katie Ledecky is the women's equivalent of Michael Phelps. For folks not familiar with Michael Phelps, he's the Michael Jordan of swimming). So by the transitive property, Katie is the Michel Jordan of swimming.
But here's the thing:
Lia Thomas is not.
Not even close. What she is, is a 6'4" athlete of moderate talent with no hips and no breasts and an Adam's apple (relevant, becuz hydrodynamics).
–who was just crowned national champion in the 500yd free, beating women who've spent their lives excelling in that event on national and world stages.
As it happens, Lia (neé Will)* swam on our kids' high school team in Austin. It was a stacked team, winning the 6A state championships and sending four kids to Olympic trials (while they were all still in high school). Will came in 6th in the state. Not bad, but on that team, nowhere near first string.
When he went on to Penn, he swam solid mid-pack performances for three seasons on the men's team before transitioning.
This year, her first and only season competing as a woman, Lia stood on the podium as national champion.
And the entire stadium erupted in a standing ovation...
for the second place finisher from UVA.
Only a smattering of golf claps for Lia when her name was announced.
It was awkward.
You could feel the tension murmuring through the stands, as hundreds of parents and families who'd spent decades helping their kids chase their collegiate and Olympic dreams, watched their daughters getting bumped one spot down by a newcomer to the field.
Outside the stadium, the discomfort was even more explicit.
On one side of the street Georgia Tech students huddled with hand drawn signs saying "We support trans athletes" and "trans women are women."
But on the other side, a larger group with bullhorns, posters, and printed literature accosted ticket holders on their way in, chanting "we support the women and girls," and "women's sports are for women!"
First couple of times running that gauntlet, we just kept our heads down, avoided eye contact and made our way inside.
But something about the composition of the group caught my eye.
I was expecting a straight Evangelical/FOX News/Laura Ingram-y kind of vibe. But some of the women, short cropped hair, sleeve tats, and body-piercings, seemed more like a Seattle barista/single speed cyclist kinda vibe.
So during the only-interesting-if-you-love-someone-who's-diving, diving contest, I slipped out of the bleachers and went back outside to chat these protestors up.
"So what's your political position, underneath this protest," I asked?
Turns out, these weren't Fox News folks at all.
They were disgruntled former Democrats, and in the flesh TERFs!!!
Before this moment the only exposure I'd had to TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) was a Hannah Gadsby Netflix special that prompted me to Google the term, and JK Rowling's recent fall from grace.
(and JK's not really a TERF, she just cos-plays one on Twitter).
But these women at the protest were legit Second Wave Andrea Dworkin Feminists who insist that "all gender is a tool of patriarchy" and that biological sex is the only true definer of identity.
Seeking some common ground, I offered what I thought would be a softball "so you object to Lia's right to compete but support her right to transition, right?"
Actually, that was a hard no.
"We are not figments of a man's imagination! We exist! We are real!!!" they shouted with their bullhorns. (Putting the Exclusionary, and Radical bits of their TERF acronym firmly in perspective)
Then I went across the street to the college students hosting their modest counterprotest. For them, the situation was exactly backwards.
Biological sex, for these critical-gender theorists, is the real construct. (despite millions of years of undeniable x/y reproduction to the contrary)
For them, only gender, any gender, all genders is the real truth of the matter. Sex is imaginary, but gender, apparently is in the eye of the beholder.
And here's the thing––both groups of protestors, pro and con, were emphatically left of center! No one in the Against Camp was shouting fundamentalist nuggets like "it's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!"
This was a pitched battle between polarizing and polar opposite ideologies that once upon a time would've sat on the same side of the political aisle.
In the same way that anti-vaxx sentiment united hard right John Bircher preppers with New Age hippies, the gender wars are making for some incredibly strange bedfellows. (just picture a militant lesbian finding common cause with a Phyllis Schlafly paleo conservative!)
It's enough to make you long for the quaint, sentimental days of Bush v. Gore, hanging chads, and good ol' fashioned bread and circus political theater.
And as with our raging debates about vaccinations and quarantines, Black (and Blue) Lives Mattering, and dozens of other topics, we seem to be screaming past each other, without ever slowing down to learn which arguments we're even trying to have.
I went back into the stadium to catch the final relays of the night, but that convo with the protestors had got me thinking about Jonathan Haidt's Foundations of Moral Theory.
For Haidt (NYU professor and author of The Righteous Mind) there are a handful of core moral frames that we use to interpret almost every real world dilemma. We can't really understand our stands if we don't know what they're based upon.
As I was looking them up on my phone, I assumed that one group outside the stadium would be locking onto one of those moral values, while the other would favor its opposite.
But as I looked down Haidt's list, I realized they were all in play!
Here's Haidt's Top 5:
1. Care (vs. Harm)
2. Fairness (vs. Cheating)
3. Loyalty (vs. Betrayal)
4. Authority (vs. Subversion)
5. Sanctity (vs. Degradation)
For the trans-gender supporters, which also included a strong majority of the GenZ female swimmers at the meet, supporting Lia in her transition was a stand for Care and against Harm. (as the history of violence against trans people underscores).
For the "Women's sports for women" protestors, many parents, and even those same athletes, (but now as competitors, not as GenZ generational cohorts) Fairness in athletic competition was pitted against Cheating, or Unfair advantage by an athlete who'd experienced puberty as a male.
Loyalty (to gender norms), Authority (NCAA, Olympic Committee, USA Swimming figuring this out instead of punting), and Sanctity (to the spirit of elite competition, and legacy records like Katie Ledecky's) all showed up as well, for different people, and in heated comments sections across swimming websites.
Then, a couple of nights after Lia won her national title, she raced in another event that flipped the script again. Because what you might not have heard, is that Lia wasn't the only trans athlete at the NCAAs this year.
Yale’s Iszac Henig, who is transitioning from female to male, but hasn't yet undergone testosterone therapy, was still eligible to compete as a woman. He beat Lia and came in 5th overall in the 100yd Freestyle!
Yet most of you have probably never heard of Iszac, and the crowd greeted his time on the podium much more warmly.
Because Iszac Henig didn't violate popular conceptions of Fairness the crowd was able to orient much more towards Care. Born biologically assigned at birth female, he competed as a woman, and turned in some ripping fast times (both before and after initiating his transition).
But then Trump got in on the action and it got even weirder (neither first nor last time that sentence works as a lede).
And all it took was an innocent selfie at the medal ceremony of that 500 Free final. Turns out the women who'd come in 2nd, 3rd and 4th had all been teammates on the Olympic Team in Tokyo, so to commemorate the moment, they huddled together on the podium to take a quick pic on one of their phones.
But a journalist in the crowd took a picture of them taking that picture, expanding the frame to include Lia Thomas, standing in the first place spot, but visibly isolated from the fun.
Trump retweeted that pic as proof of the women athletes taking a stand for their rights, and against trans women getting to compete.
Messages flooded in from MAGAstan to the women's social media accounts, praising them for their courage (i.e. taking a stand against Unfairness).
But only a few weeks earlier, when one of those three swimmers had posted messages of support for Lia's transition (i.e. anchoring from Care), they had been roundly condemned by those same Twitter trolls.
Some commenters had even wished physical harm on that athlete for being Disloyal and betraying the Sanctity of women's athletics, saying "I hope you have a career ending physical injury!" and other cheery bits of keyboard warrioring.
Which brings us back to Haidt's first moral foundation, Care vs Harm.
If an able-bodied, cis-gendered female athlete can experience that kind of schizophrenic hostility for one minute "betraying her gender" by supporting Lia and the next minute "defending" it with an accidental selfie, all while trying to do her best in her own chosen sport...
What in the hell must it feel like for Lia, Iszac and thousands of others young people navigating their non-conforming gender identities?
The amount of fearful, hateful vitriol spewed their way, backed too often by very real threats of violence is enough to consider dispensing with all the other moral foundations and simply back them all the way, no matter what.
Except it's not that easy.
Ignoring what many others feel are core (and often deeply held unconscious) foundations of their moral universe can backfire badly.
The end result can make things less safe, and more harmful for the very populations we might agree desperately need more Care.
But there is a way from stalemate to checkmate in three moves. But we have to be willing to sacrifice a few queens to get there. (wait, did he just???...nope, re-read it)
✋ Move One: Tease apart Care and Fairness as two distinct but incompatible moral foundations and evaluate each separately.
🌎 Move Two: Acknowledge that Care for trans people is deserved as an essential human right, not as a women's right.
(The woke rallying cry of "trans women are women!" is massively unhelpful here, stoking the fires of TERFs and fundamentalists alike. a) Until we advance our surgical skills, trans women can't lactate or gestate. If they can't do those two things, they wouldn't pass a basic biology identification key for sexing mammals. b) It's not women's rights' they are needing. It's human rights. And that's way easier to persuade a bunch more people across the political spectrum to sign off on because it now taps the Fairness foundation––after all, all humans are entitled to universal human rights, right?)
⚖️ Move Three: Apply the lens of Effective Altruism to weigh the impact of athletic Fairness for 50% of the population (i.e. women) vs. .05% of the population (i.e. trans people).
What that might look like in reality is Lia (but possibly not Iszac due to him heading into more competitive conditions as a male athlete), should be encouraged to keep swimming "for the love of the sport" intramurally, in masters swim programs, and possibly up to some level of competition shy of elite national and international racing. And 100% supported in her transition as her sovereign choice.
But Lia would not be able to stand on that NCAA podium again, while competing as a trans woman.
Is it Fair?
Not for Lia.
But it racks up an impressive 1000X ROI on the "greatest good for the greatest number" calculation of the Effective Altruists.
What would Lia (and all advocates for trans rights) get in exchange?
They'd have to trade Fair (for a few trans athletes) for Care (from many cis-gendered people).
What would conservative and feminist protestors get in exchange?
They'd have to trade Care (for only cis-gendered people) for Fair (for all women athletes).
How hard should that be?
Because even if we aren't all brushed up on Jonathan Haidt's research, Rupert Murdoch (and Tucker Carlson) sure are. They've built Fox into a media empire banging the gong of Unfairness, of Degradation, of Subversion, and Betrayal of the American Way, while turning many of our parents and grandparents into raving lunatics, yelling at their TV sets, while stockpiling gold coins and ivermectin.
And alt-Left social justice flame throwers get it too––whipping up followers by emphasizing trigger warnings, safe spaces and microaggressions as inconceivable Harms, the Unfairness of structural racism, the Betrayal of the ideals of the American Experiment, and the Degradation of late-stage Capitalism.
But as I wrote about in Recapture the Rapture (I promise I wouldn't keep mentioning it, if it didn't keep coming true), the most extreme voices amongst us keep hijacking the mic and blowing up our collective conversations. The rest of us are left to sift through the rubble to find common ground.
Our moral foundations aren't going to stop mattering on the road ahead. In fact, they're only going to matter more.
These values form the bedrock of how we view the world, each other and what is to be done.
But we may need to give up our search for common ground, to meet each other on higher ground.
🌎 This planet (no abandoning our home for space colonies)
🧍These bodies (no uploading ourselves into computers)
⏳ This lifetime (no life extension for a fortunate few)
All of us, or none of us.
It won't be pretty. Everyone will feel that they gave up something precious in the exchange. But it just might get us to a working consensus for the road ahead.
That feels like a foundation worth standing on, together.
*(and if you’re of a Woke Left persuasion and are gearing up to roast me for “deadnaming” Lia, here’s my take. Refusing to call a trans person by their new name to their face, or when speaking of them post-transition is dickish. Referring back to public accomplishments when they went by a different name, but pretending that name didn’t exist, is like Stalinist Memory Holing. Bruce Jenner won Olympic gold and got on the Wheaties box. Kaitlyn didn’t. Look it up. That’s the kind of mind numbingly dumb shit the Woke Left does all the time, and it undercuts their position.)
We share what's happening on the leading edge of peak performance and culture. Connect with us and stay in the know.