Friday, November 18, 2022

Virtue signaling, at the Kennedy School and elsewhere

The imperative to show our commitment to redress social injustices, even if it means overshooting the mark, takes Harvard to positions that are, if not literally indefensible, far beyond what most of the community would be willing to defend. Extreme positions may even offend and injure the very people they are voiced to advance. To declare such a position is "virtue signaling"--broadcasting to some audience our own good intentions, regardless of antipathy such declarations may excite in the general public or the resentment that may result in the affected population.

Some years ago, for example, I was in a faculty meeting where faculty candidates were to be chosen to receive offers. Someone said he would support any set of candidates, as long as at least one was a woman. This way of putting it simultaneously signaled flexibility, virtue, and determination to right a historical injustice. I cringed, and not just because such a stipulation would be, as I understood it, illegal if adopted broadly and not at all what Harvard means when it favors "affirmative action." That would have been enough, but I instinctively glanced around the room, wondering whether the women faculty present for the discussion were pleased to think their male colleagues were devoutly committed to gender diversity on the faculty--or were asking themselves if they had been deemed second-tier intellectually when they themselves were hired and were still thought of that way.

Something of the same strikes me about this scene, captured a couple of weeks ago in the men's room on the second floor of Wexner Hall at the Harvard Kennedy School. (No, I had not made a mistake about where I was; I left and double-checked that I was in the MEN's room, before re-entering to use the urinal.)

As the availability of menstrual products in men's rooms is a new thing, it's fair to assume that the new stocking protocol responds to concerns of the kind voiced in the People Have Periods campaign, showing transgender men menstruating.

Now I don't doubt that some trans men have periods and haven't carried supplies with them, but I doubt it's a common occurrence. Trans men usually stop menstruating within a year of within a year of the time they start on testosterone. (Weiselberg, E., 2022. Menstrual considerations for transgender male and gender diverse adolescents who were assigned female at birth. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care, p.101239.) So this accommodation is for a minority of a minority of a minority--trans men, in the first year of their transition, who have forgotten to carry supplies with them. It would not swell the number much to add a few forgetful nonbinary menstruating individuals who use the men's room when they have to make a choice.

Whatever the number might be, it is surely smaller than the number of people who might benefit from stocking public bathrooms with other items. For example, it must be less than the number who have nicked themselves and just need a bandaid--and have to walk around the corner to CVS to buy a box rather than bleeding in public, bathrooms not having been stocked with free bandaids. Or the number of people who, like me, wish there were sharps receptacles in more bathrooms, because we use syringes, lancets, and subcutaneous needles for medical therapies. (Most such sharps now come with plastic sheaths, but it is still improper to toss them in the paper towel bin, where they are hazardous to custodians. And implanting some devices, such as the Silhouette infusion set, leaves the user with a nastily evil unsheathed needle to get rid of.) 

So the sanitary product display seems to me the essence of virtue signaling--doing something not for what it actually accomplishes but for what it says about the way others feel about the affected group. Now one might counter that yes, it is exactly because trans men are a socially marginalized group, while shavers and diabetics are not, that it is important to make small gestures--such as stocking men's rooms with sanitary products--to show them and everyone else that they are welcome and included.

But there's a problem, and it's the same worry I have about hire-a-woman declarations in faculty meetings. Trans men who have planned ahead may not want to be reminded, and to have others reminded, that they have periods. The publication cited above on this subject says, " [M]enstruation for transgender males, and other gender diverse individuals assigned female at birth, may be anything but celebratory. … Menstruation or the anticipation of menarche for many transgender males is often met with worsening of dysphoria, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Therefore, to meet the physiologic and psychologic needs of transgender males, one needs to be aware of issues that may be present in relation to menstruation and be knowledgeable on how to medically proceed with sensitivity and respect toward one's gender identity."

In any case, it seems likely to this old-fashioned integrationist that that trans men may generally wish to be treated as men, not as trans men, in the same way I expect that most women faculty wish to be treated by their peers as faculty first and women faculty secondarily. It also seems to me that the most likely result of putting those supplies in the men's room is not that they will be used, but that some bozo will throw them on the floor or into the trash, someone else will discover that and complain to university officials, who will express their outrage and solidarity and promulgate a re-education program on the Harvard community such as we already receive on other social issues affecting the workplace and classroom.

Those who have made the difficult decision to change their gender deserve our support, just as efforts to diversify the faculty are worthy when they do not conflict with deeper principles. Showy public gestures, in the place of more substantive help, are acts of politics more than of kindness. They are ways to get Harvard to stake out its position in American culture wars. I do hope the University can become less political in the future and refocused on academic issues instead.

Of course, it is also possible this was all just a mistake made by a sleepless janitor!

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