The Fascism Shell Game

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The school board in the town were I serve broadcasts its meetings on Zoom, records them, and posts them on its website. I can’t always make it to the live in-person school board meetings. So, when I can’t be there in person, I make a point of watching—or, at least, listening to—the recordings.

A month or so ago, the school board talked about its policy toward transgender students. Overall, it was a compassionate and caring conversation. And while I’m sure that its difficult for a school to navigate its responsibilities to students and its responsibilities to parents—and noting that both students and parents have a range of views on gender—I ended the recording feeling like the school was focused on providing a safe environment for all of its students, no matter who they are, and no matter where they are on life’s journey.

But there was one weird part of that conversation: a couple of times, board members brought up trans-speciesism: students who identify, in some sense, as non-human animals.

And a while later, someone at church brought up the same issue. They asked, “What about the kids who identify as cats?”

So I looked into it. It turns out that there are a few school districts across the country, including one in Iowa, that have had to quash rumors about there being litter boxes in bathrooms for students who self-identify as animals.

And that made me think about a rhetorical strategy that I call The Fascism Shell Game.

The Fascism Shell Game starts with a cruel policy agenda. For example, it might start with the goal of preventing schools from providing any affirmation of transgender or non-binary students. But that policy almost immediately runs into a problem: it’s hard to get people to root against marginalized children. If people start seeing, meeting, and listening to transgender and non-binary youth, they might start empathizing with transgender and non-binary youth. And then the people trying to further that agenda will look like the bad guys.

So the fascism shell game finds a boogeyman. In this case, it’s kids who identify as animals, which persuades people to think about the silliness of those kids. But it could just as easily be pedophilic groomers, or eight-year-olds receiving hormone replacement therapy, or anything else that makes people afraid of what could happen to children if the boogeyman problem goes unchecked.

Here’s where the shell game kicks in. While people are focused on the silliness of the kids who identify as animals—or the fear of parents ignoring the guidelines established by the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology for the treatment of transgender youth—the folks with the cruel policy agenda implement a policy that (1) does little or nothing about the problem that the people are focused on and (2) hurts the people who they intended to hurt in the first place.

For example, while people are focused on the litter boxes that are not in school bathrooms, anti-LGBTQ politicians pass laws that prevent schools from providing any affirmation for transgender and non-binary youth. And here’s the key piece: the people who were paying attention to the litter boxes believe that the laws now address that problem, and do not know that the laws hurt transgender and non-binary youth. And we slide one step closer to fascism without realizing it.

So what do we do about that? Two things.

First, while the truth can be stranger than fiction, it usually isn’t that much stranger. When something sounds too strange to be true—when someone says that there are litter boxes in school bathrooms, that a school administrator is part of a conspiracy to groom children, or that pre-pubescent kids are getting top surgery—be skeptical. Take the time to verify those claims. And, when they almost invariably turn out to be false, call people out on their lies.

Second, look at the laws that are being passed and the policies that are being enforced. Ask whether they actually do what their proponents claim. Ask whether they go beyond doing what their advocates advertised. And again, when they almost invariably end up doing something vastly different from what those folks said that they would do, call those people out.

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