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The Disturbing Cultural Attitude of "Tolerance"

03/26/2013 11:19 EDT | Updated 05/25/2013 05:12 EDT

The tragic death of a transsexual primary schoolteacher in the U.K. has not only sparked a national controversy online and in the British press, but it also unveils an implicit, disturbing cultural attitude concerning "tolerance" in Western society more broadly, gesturing towards this controversy's relevance beyond British borders. Specifically, this is not even an issue of condemning obviously prejudicial conservative attacks on LGBT communities; we should focus our attentions on the ideological culture that produces such attacks.

The body of Lucy Meadows, 32, who taught at St Mary Magdalen's School in the mid-sized town a few dozen kilometres north of Manchester, was discovered at her home by authorities on March 19.

Although police, awaiting coroner results, have not confirmed her death was a suicide, they did specify that her body was found "under no suspicious circumstances."

By the following two days the news had spread across the U.K. media, and by the Thursday, two online petitions appeared, one on SumofUs.org and the other on Change.org, demanding the dismissal of infamous Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn, garnering over 115,000 combined signatures at the time of this writing. Littlejohn, who is a previous recipient of the Columnist of the Year prize from the British Press Awards and was at one point the U.K.'s highest-paid newspaper columnist, is no stranger to controversy for his long-standing complaints about political correctness and, as the Guardian has implied, his closet homophobia.

Upon the news last December that schoolteacher Nathan Upton would be returning to work after the Christmas holidays as Lucy Meadows, Littlejohn wrote an ignorant and insulting column (which the Daily Mail has since removed from its website, but its link is archived) in which, after making it very clear that he has nothing against transsexuals, he nevertheless argued that "Upton," not Meadows, mind you, "is entitled to his gender reassignment surgery, but he isn't entitled to project his personal problems on to impressionable young children." Heck, I did not even realize there was a problem.

The crux of Littlejohn's thesis, more to the point, involved a hierarchizing of identity positions, impressionable and innocent youth versus transsexuals: "The school [where Meadows worked] shouldn't be allowed to elevate its 'commitment to diversity and equality' above its duty of care to its pupils and their parents." Littlejohn then cited the concerns of one of the parents of Meadows's students, Wayne Cowie, who had previously been quoted as saying that the children "are too young to be dealing with" the confusion.

Although there is as of yet no direct evidence that Littlejohn's article and the subsequent firestorm of media intensity against Lucy Meadows that it sparked led Meadows to suicide, we do know that the media did indeed hound her.

Meadows's tragic death brings to light the implicit, closet phobias of LGBT communities that are prevalent in our Western, liberal culture. This is not only an issue of criticizing Littlejohn and his defenders and sympathizers. This is not only an issue of attacking the media culture that subsequently harassed Meadows as part of a systematic tactic to sensationalize their stories (which itself also explains why the likes of Littlejohn failed to mention that parents such as Cowie were evidently in the minority with their views).

No, the biggest problem here is the liberal identity politics that pits identity positions against one another. Although in this case, as liberal-minded thinkers argue and not incorrectly in and of itself, the rights of Meadows trump the concerns of impressionable and innocent young children because the parents and school administrators of these children should instead assume the responsibility of quelling such concerns--this fact in itself is problematic because it is contingent on the circumstances. That we have to "trump" anything in the first place is troubling on its own.

The liberal mantra of tolerating others necessarily relies on the plurality of differences that, however inadvertently, feeds the conservative tactic to hierarchize identity positions that establishes such asinine questions as, "When are children too young for us to expose them to LGBT issues?"

We need to seize upon this tragic incident to critically reflect on how our Western, cultural attitudes may have sadly contributed to its outcome.

This blog originally appeared on the author's website.