As his remarks on unisex lavatories show, Lord Chief Justice Burnett has a wicked sense of humour. For surely he can’t be serious?
That Lord Burnett sees nothing wrong about unisex (‘gender-neutral’, in today’s perverse parlance) loos doesn’t by itself indicate flippancy. Many impeccably humourless people hold such subversive views.
However, defending that abomination, such people can usually come up with arguments that make sense within the intellectual system wherein they reside. The system itself is warped, but that’s a different matter.
Such unisexists proceed from the assumption that one’s sex is determined not by some set of chromosomes, but by social convention and personal choice. The social convention is to them ludicrously obsolete, while the personal choice is fluid.
Someone with a full bladder may usually identify as a woman, but, on seeing a long queue outside the women’s loo, she may choose to re-identify as a man, thereby finding instant relief in the adjacent facility. New identity or no, using the urinals may still be tricky, but the cubicles should pose no problem.
So far, so good. This argument makes sense on its own terms, whatever we may think of the terms, which one hopes is nothing complimentary.
But Lord Burnett’s defence of the proposition fails even such a skimpy test of sound reasoning. Unisex lavatories, he said, are perfectly acceptable because they have always been used in France.
In the process, His Lordship firmly established his credentials as a well-travelled man of the world: “Have you travelled much in Europe, for example? I mean, unisex loos in France have been my experience ever since I was a small boy, so I do not think there is any jumping of the gun.”
This is a version of argumentum ad populum, a widespread rhetorical fallacy. The way Lord Burnett wields it, he seems to be saying that because some things are done in some countries, they should cause no controversy in any others.
To answer his question, I have indeed travelled in Europe quite a bit, and have been spending half my time in France for years. And yes, when Lord Burnett was little, many French cafés did feature unisex cubicles encasing ubiquitous squatting holes in the ground.
However, Lord Burnett was little a long time ago, and the French have grown more lavatorially sophisticated since then. These day the only unisex loos there consist of one cubicle and one urinal, where no man’s shortcomings risk overexposure, and no woman’s virtue is in any imminent danger.
That’s not the sort of facility Lord Burnett had in mind. The matter came up over the plans to convert all lavatories in public buildings to unisex use. Hence one visualises a large room with, say, half a dozen men and as many women intermingling in the spirit of equality.
One can’t even begin to enumerate the offences such an arrangement would cause to elementary decency, decorum, tradition, taste – well, you can continue the list ad infinitum.
But do let’s extend Lord Burnett’s logic. For example, one can’t drive on French N- or D-roads without seeing men, their backs decorously turned towards the traffic, urinating by the roadside. No one seems to mind.
Would Lord Burnett regard such sights equally inoffensive in more puritan Britain? We need a ruling on that, M’lord – and let’s not forget the unisex aspect. Should we also look forward to the delectable visions of women squatting along the A40?
Perhaps we should extend not only Lord Burnett’s logic, but also his geographic horizons. For example, in some Asian countries both men and women relieve themselves (both ways) where they stand in city streets, using their long gowns to protect their dignity.
If they can do it, why can’t we? We live in an age of ideological uniformity, which has become synonymous with virtue. Hence we can’t discriminate against other people’s customs. We should give them as much headroom as it takes for all nations’ customs to converge – sooner rather than later.
I hope you can forgive my levity in commenting on Lord Burnett’s pronouncement. It’s either that or sheer dread at the thought of seeing the same logic applied to other, non-lavatorial, matters.
This is accompanied by the disgust at observing our top judge unable to avoid the kind of rhetorical fallacies that schoolchildren used to be marked down for in decent schools. O tempora o tsoris, as my Jewish friends would say.