The Lesson We’ve All Missed from the Target Bathroom Debate

As a man left the Target supermarket, he shouted over his shoulder at the employees and the establishment, “Repent! The judgment of God is coming on this nation and Target.”

In April of 2016, Target decided to allow transgender individuals to use whichever bathroom corresponds with their gender identity and not their genital anatomy. It caused quite a stir.

bible thumper

The arguments that followed drove this woman and her family to march through Target, Bible in hand, to protest against the policy.

She yelled, “Attention target customers, do not be deceived, Target would have you believe with their Mother’s Day displays that they love mothers and children. This is a deception. This is not love, and they’ve proven it by opening their bathrooms to perverted men. I am a mother of 12, and I’m very disgusted by this wicked practice.

She begins to shout more violently, demanding for the customers to heed her commands: “Mothers get your children out of this store! Mothers have enough decency to get out of this store!

Her anger swells, and she generalizes her feelings to the country as a whole: “America, when are you going to wake up? When are you going to stand up for the right things, America? Are you going to let the devil rape your children, America?

Christian extremists aren’t the only ones taking to offensive tactics. People who are “for” the policy have taken to online message boards and participate in character assassination and slandering as well. For example, one user writes a sarcastic post degrading the intelligence of those against the policy and “[hopes the post] helps [those against the policy] transition to life in the 19th and 20th centuries.” They add, “Baby steps!” as their sign off.

Anger lobs back and forth on both sides like a friendly game of badminton, substituting grenades for the shuttlecock.

Regardless of where you stand on the bathroom debacle, there’s something key we’re all missing here that’s driving us to dramatic outbursts and heated arguments. And it’s this very thing that we keep missing, in our relationships, in our jobs, and in our world that causes more fighting and conflict than the opposing views themselves.

grenade gif

The Source of Our Escalating Conflict: Not Listening to Understand

You just don’t GET it!
It’s like you aren’t even hearing what I’m saying!

At one point or another, we’ve all said or heard these words in the middle of an argument. And so at some level, we all get that when we’re fighting, we’re consciously or subconsciously focused on getting the other person to see why our way makes sense.

We do this because when the other person doesn’t acknowledge that our perspective is at least logical, it feels like they’re slighting our competence. They’re saying, “You are wrong. The way you see things is wrong. You don’t make sense.” It’s because we fear that everyone else sees something about us that we don’t see. And when we fear that’s the case, it makes us feel alienated, insecure, and exposed. It makes us feel like we don’t belong, like we don’t have a seat at the table. Feeling the need to be understood is almost as urgent as feeling the need to breathe. Without simple validation, we feel emotionally suffocated, and our entire focus tunnels inward. Our only concern becomes: how can I get them to validate me?

  • Some people resort to volume: if I shout louder, then they’ll hear me.
  • Some people resort to passive tactics: ignoring them until they want to hear us.
  • Others resort to physical force to re-assert their validity.

Whatever the tactic, not feeling understood forces people into a defensive state, where it becomes about proving to their contemporary that they make sense and that they belong. People do crazy things when they feel they aren’t being heard.

Now, imagine if both sides are doing this at the same time, and instead of validating their partner, they’re fighting past one another for validation that neither is aware the other needs. The arguments get louder and louder, more and more toxic. The people get more and more isolated, angrier and angrier–whether they express that through passivity or aggression. The conversations get less and less productive, and the overall communication deteriorates. It becomes a battle of insults because if I can discredit you, your invalidation of me will hurt less. Who can beat the other into submission and forcefully extract the validation they so sought from the very beginning?

You see, the conflict at hand, when neither side opts to listen and understand the other, has more to do with this battle for emotional validation than it does with the subject matter where the argument originated.

A Closer Look at Both Sides of the Target Bathroom Debate

Returning to our present context, let’s look at both sides:

  • Those who are FOR the Target bathroom policy believe it keeps transgender people safe from harassment of all types, it helps them feel more aligned with who they are when they’re able to identify appropriately, and it promotes more equal liberty for people who continue to be alienated in today’s society.
  • Those who are AGAINST the Target bathroom policy believe it will increase the risk of rape, voyeurism, and indecent exposure to women and children because men may use the policy as a loophole opportunity to fulfill their perversions.

Both sides are totally logical. And both sides are right in their own way. Those who are for the policy are right in wanting to promote the security and equality of an ostracized minority of the population. In today’s day and age, there’s so much momentum and widespread belief of human dignity that it’s relatively undisputed that we should work to freely distribute liberties to all people. And those who are against the policy are right in fearing the consequences of allowing genders to co-habit bathrooms. We should have the highest walls protecting innocent children from experiencing the life-altering trauma of rape or other sexual exploits. Even if this policy only increases the chances of that happening by .00001%, we should do everything within our power to prevent that and protect our loved ones from such atrocities.

But more importantly than the intellectual level of this conflict, do you think either side feels emotionally understood or validated by their counterparts? I believe this core question is what has incited more insults, rallied more protesters, and done more damage than any intellectual disagreement has ever caused.

The Benefits of Listening to Understand

Imagine if both sides took the time to intimately understand why the other thought the way they do. They don’t have to agree; they don’t have to nail down a resolution to the conflict; but they just have to get it…to truly see the way the other person sees it. The simple act of understanding validates the other person. It says to them, “You’re a competent individual. I might not agree with you; but I see where you’re coming from, and it makes sense.” That sensation of being seen, heard, and understood alone defuses the tension of the conflict. It makes the other person feel like they can breathe; they aren’t fighting the suffocating sensation of convincing someone else of their competence. In effect, they’ve been given a seat at the table. They belong. It nullifies the emotional war they would otherwise wage and frees them up to open their mind to other perspectives. It unleashes their creativity to explore alternative resolutions. Their arms uncross and brows un-furrow. The tension resolves. What a powerful statement of love listening can be.

Don’t let listening be misconstrued with “passive agreement”. Listening to someone and understanding their perspective doesn’t mean you’re promoting their side of the argument. Listening is “active love” of another human being; it’s validating their worth and their belonging. For Christians, listening to those we disagree with should be our first action in an argument because Jesus says,

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32).

We are called to a higher standard of love, not debate. Jesus validates the intrinsic worth and dignity of each person He interacted with–the naked prostitute in the street, the hated tax-collector in the tree, the convicted murderers crucified beside him. If Jesus can love and validate the very people who pierced him, certainly, we can listen to and validate those who disagree with us about a supermarket bathroom policy.

[clickToTweet tweet=”We are called to a higher standard of love, not debate.” quote=”We are called to a higher standard of love, not debate.”]

Additionally, it moves us from an EITHER OR mentality towards the possibility of the AND. What if instead of having equality and security for transgender people OR security for our women and children, we could have both? What if we could champion transgender rights AND sexual safety in our bathrooms? What if instead of wasting so much of our mental energy and creativity coming up with the next-best slam against our opponents on our validation crusade, we could channel it towards finding a way to both get what we want? Because the truth is, there’s a better option for everyone out there, and we’ve got enough mental capacity between all of us to find it.

But if we choose to close our minds and our ears, we miss out on that opportunity. We fight each other to try to convince one another we belong. We believe if you’re right, I’m wrong, and so it’s EITHER you OR me. And in the end, someone ends up losing. And if someone ends up losing, we all do. Because then they rampage through our stores, we both judge one another, and we cause distance and conflict and pain when there could be unity, love, and creativity.

It is more probable that two people are equally right in their own perspective, on opposite sides of the same argument, than it is that only one person is exclusively correct. But if we stay stuck in believing there is only one objective truth, we miss out on the greater possibilities we can collaborate to create.

talking-guys-oceanTruth is, we’re all guilty of not listening at times. It takes vulnerability and courage to allow someone else to be right too and work towards something better together. But the extra effort we put in on the front end is always worth the effort it saves us on the back-end when we have to pick up the pieces of all that we break in the process.

Today, when you engage in conflict with someone else, listen until you understand them and their perspective. Remember that by validating them, you change the entire course of the conversation from emotional warfare to creative collaboration. The person you’re in conflict with is a reasonable, capable human being, and their perspective deserves your understanding. When you do, the benefits will outweigh any temporary discomfort our egos might endure, and the world might just have safer bathrooms, more liberty for more people, AND happier people who feel like they belong. The possibilities will always be greater with open ears and open minds, and today we all have the opportunity to listen, understand, and expand together.


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