Social constructs

One often hears people declare something to be “just a social construct” as a way of dismissing its reality or relevance. In reality, the fact that something is a social construct makes it infinitely more powerful and difficult to escape than if it were, for instance, a biological brute fact. We get around biological brute facts all the time. Social forces regulate our eating, drinking, defecation, urination, sexual pairings, etc., etc. Social forces can drive us to suicide — meaning they have overcome the most fundamental biological drive of survival. Biology isn’t infinitely pliable, of course, but it is hardly destiny.

If race or gender were mere biological facts, we could easily overcome them, just as we’ve managed to overcome the differences among the hugely varied genetic inheritance among people whom we group together as “white” or “black” or whatever other race. Even on the level of skin color (undeniably a biological factor), we tend to ignore the rich variety of skin tones in people we refer to as black and white. We’ve all met black people who could pass as white, and white people so swarthy as to defy easy categorization. All those concrete biological differences don’t matter for the sake of the social classification, however. I imagine a similar feat could be achieved if we regarded the possession of certain genital formations or fat deposits as completely indifferent, or sorted out body shapes into categories not governed by the ultimate categories of sex.

But race and gender are not biological facts — they are social constructs, and that means they have shaped us on a deeper level than we can normally become consciously aware of. They have provided a grid of intelligibility that informs our most intimate sense of identity. They are what we do every day. We don’t just get to “opt out” of that. We can’t wake up one fine day and decide we don’t believe in those social constructs. That’s not how it works. The fact that one can even think of opting out of a social construct is itself a reflection of the social forces that produce an individualist blindness that increases the more one is on the “positive side” of a social construct (white, male, straight, etc.).

To put it differently, if you’re on the privileged side of the social construct, you’ve been bought off — and then blinded to that fact. By contrast, if you’re on the denigrated side of the social construct, the strategies are varied and not as effective. Blinding is rarely an option, because only with difficulty can you stay ignorant of a social force when you’re on the receiving end. The social construct might try to buy you off (or let you “buy in”), if you have something the structure wants or needs. But mostly, the social construct will just force the denigrated groups into complicity and compromise in order to survive.

This is why those on the receiving end of a social force are our only hope — most of the time, they can’t blind themselves. They are forced to understand what is going on, while the privileged mostly wander about in blissful ignorance. And along the same lines, the only hope for the privileged is to actually listen to what the denigrated have to say. The blindness of privilege can only be broken from the outside, only be challenged by some initial empathy with the denigrated. Even this process is fraught with danger. The privileged are accustomed to being in charge, so they might turn the denigrated into helpless objects of charity. The privileged are accustomed to thinking they deserve what they have, so the encounter with the denigrated may produce nothing but rationalization — or even a defensiveness that can shade into pre-emptive violence.

When everything you’ve done every day for your entire life presumes that your privilege is natural and right, calling that privilege into question feels like an attack. It’s as though someone were threatening to take away the air you breathe. People who feel like they’re in danger act erratically. There’s no right way to break through that bubble. No amount of politeness can guarantee a positive response, nor is there any direct way to account for the varying degrees of privilege that are always at play — a multi-millionaire could prove to be more open to change than someone barely clinging to respectability.

In short, it’s going to be awkward. For human beings to interact as equals when social constructs have done everything in their power to convince them they’re not equals — that’s awkward. That is by definition a situation not accounted for in social norms. It’s hard to deal with, and one can perhaps understand why a certain type of well-meaning white liberal wants nothing more than to figure out a set of rules that can guarantee that no one is allowed to be offended at what they say, or why everyone is in such a hurry to clarify that they aren’t “personally” racist so as to cloak their statements with a kind of force-field. Perhaps eventually we’ll come up with newer, better rules that respond to the fact of equality rather than trying to disguise and distort it, but that time is not yet — as shown by the very desire for a set of rules that gives white people a free pass. The kinds of norms that would respond to equality can only arise out of the experience of equality, and as things stand now, the experience of equality is an awkward one for all concerned.

25 thoughts on “Social constructs

  1. Wish I could get students to understand this. In a literary context, they hear that meaning is conventional and historical and suddenly that poem is about Nazi Space Dragons!!!! because Ben said that meaning is not natural nor inherent to the text.

    It did seem that “postmodernism” freed us to be whatever we wanted to be because social constructions could be changed whereas natural facts could not (or so the story went), but then the political right in the US went full Monty relativist and suddenly I feel like the conservative for saying “Hey, words and things have MEANINGS people!!!”

  2. I try to get around the interpretative problem by suggesting that while there isn’t an absolute or final meaning, some interpretations are more interesting (meaning in practice, more productive of discussion directly about the text instead of about pointless speculations). This helps because while my students don’t always find the texts interesting in absolute terms, they do find them more interesting than their peers’ pointless speculations (and in the Shimer “discussion-only” setting, they don’t have the option of just having me expound for an hour).

  3. No. My understanding is that the conventional understanding of “races” corresponds to no specific biological indicator. And I was careful throughout to follow the convention of using “sex” to refer to the socially-constructed aspect and “gender” for the biological side (or at least I believe I was…).

  4. Race has always been a pseudo-science, to the extent that it has been scientific at all. It is the social construct justifying itself through rationalization of coincident facts. However, I had understood the sex/gender divide the other way ’round, namely that sex characteristics are the facts used to rationalize the system of gender.

  5. One of the questions I’ve always had with this thesis is how we as a society enter into that awkwardness. What is the method of immersion? It seems that, especially when the privileged group attempts to enter into that awkward space, people fall into the trap that you mentioned – that of “turning the denigrated into objects of helpless charity.” Even in the act of listening the privileged is ever aware of their position in relation to the oppressed and receives, perhaps, even a sense of smugness or pride in their “moral act” of listening.

    On the other hand, trying to just let this process of awkwardness develop “naturally” turns out to be even worse. Without intentional effort by either side (the denigrated or privileged) no change in our social constructs is possible (except maybe the implementation of this idea that “organic” progress is possible and preferable).

    I know that even looking for a “solution” is a large component of privileged identity, but what is the alternative? To remain silent? If so – even something like this blog post is just a subtle manifestation of the privileged messiah-complex (something I don’t believe). Coming to a fuller understanding of our respective class/race/gender/ positions in relation to each other is the first crucial step towards social change (and as you mentioned, this entails awkwardness) – but what happens afterwards?

  6. We all know the old, worn-out joke about a madman who thought he was a grain of corn; after being finally cured and sent home, he immediately returned to the mental institution, explaining to the doctor his panic: “On the road, I encountered a hen, and I was afraid it would eat me!” To the doctor’s surprised exclamation, “But what’s the problem now? You know you’re not a grain but a man who cannot be swallowed by a hen!”, the madman answered “Yes, I know I am no longer a grain, but does the hen know it?”.

  7. I’ve been fiddling with this for a while now, and “awkwardness” is a decent word for the answer I’ve been coming up with. To the extent that I have any ideas, they center around the fact that lately white people have stopped being white. Whiteness has disappeared into the pretense of universal humanity. If the system is going to be changed, it will only be by forcing “good whites” to be white in the same way we force black people to be black. Letting liberals “pass” as human lets us off the hook of our awkwardness over the social construct. Beyond that, I have nothing.

  8. I wonder whether “awkwardness” is the right word to describe this encounter. What came to my mind was anxiety. I think that the encounter will necessarily involve aggression and anger which will make the privileged individuals’ anxious. People often act in awkward and stilted ways so as to avoid arousing the Other’s anger.

  9. @Jeremy – I had a professor who talked about this encounter as “the space in between”. I think these terms – awkwardness, anxiety, the space in between etc. are all ways to describe, in a particular fashion, something all of us know and dread as “discomfort”. However this discomfort presents itself (which varies in degree depending on a persons understanding of their own social position in relation to others), it is certainly an unpleasant experience (which makes me wonder if there are some – akin to sadists – who take pleasure in enounters that produce awkwardness or anxiety, but that’s a different conversation).

  10. I just wonder if anxiety is the experience of the privileged. I can’t speak for the marginalized but I do think anxiety or awkwardness is the anticipation/fear of the other’s aggression.

  11. Regarding the distinction between anxiety/awkwardness I regard the former as an immediate intuition and the latter as mediated experience. Awkwardness gives shape to anxiety.

    If I have a disagreement with Aric’s comments regarding ‘how we as a society enter into that awkwardness’ it would be that society is already, in it’s own terms directly, awkwardness. Then the question becomes a question of strategy, given this awkwardness, now what? Social norms is our saviour from this awkwardness, conducting ourselves in line with a social norm promises to free us from awkwardness. Only for awkwardness to rear its head again when the social norm that can be followed can not be identified, or when several can be identified, which one to follow?

    A question to Adam Kotsko – ” Blinding is rarely an option, because only with difficulty can you stay ignorant of a social force when you’re on the receiving end”

    I find this line of argument i.e. ‘the deceived masters and informed slaves’ troubling in respect to exonerating the masters from the consequences of their decisions. Also what role ideology?

  12. “Blinding is rarely an option, because only with difficulty can you stay ignorant of a social force when you’re on the receiving end.”

    On the level of individual psychology its very easy and quite common to blind ONESELF to the fact that one is on the receiving end of aggressive forces (blacking out memories of childhood sexual abuse, for example). So why would a group be any less likely to be blind to social forces, particularly if in addition to its own need for denial, there’s also an ideology working to the same blinding ends? The fact that such a large number of America’s poor believe themselves to be middle class would seem to support this, no?

  13. Will, The whole point of this post is that it’s not “about” personal intentions. The actions of the privileged are destructive whether they realize it or not. Their Father who sees in secret will not reward them for their good intentions. And as for ideology: it seems to me that this post is actually mostly about ideology.

    ImmaFaque, I think this falls under the “degrees of privilege” issue. Most of these deluded self-styled “middle-class” people are likely to be white — and in the South, it was a staple of ideological management to make the poor whites feel they had the symbolic privilege of whiteness so that they wouldn’t recognize all they had in common with blacks. And in the present setting, I’m sure there’s some smidgen of symbolic privilege simply in being American.

  14. I take your point Adam about the impertinence of intentions to your argument, however, there’s a weirdly intentionalist language at work in your characterization of social constructs. Can ‘social constructs’ be assimilated to ideologies? Does the ‘solution’ to blindedness present itself principally at the level of ideation? This seems fairly problematic to the Foucauldian I fancy myself as. :)

  15. I think the solution to blindedness does occur initially at the level of ideation — changing the situation is another thing entirely, though. I probably share Zizek’s more pessimistic view according to which all actual-existing social orders are “ideologies” in the pejorative sense.

  16. Kotsko, fair cop vis-a-vis personal intention. Being more specific about my comments regarding ideology, I suppose what I object to is the sense in which those who are at the receiving end of the social force immediately know that they are on the receiving end. Is it not possible to be both denigrated and deceived?

  17. Adam: Surely if the “ideological management” of poor southern whites is strong enough a force to blind that group, which is unquestionably on the “negative side” of certain social and economic constructs, to its own exploitation, other forms of ideological management would easily enough be applied to other groups. So I’m not sure I can agree that ideological management is used for certain types of whites that nuisance the system, while other groups are brutally “forced” into “complicity.” At least if we are talking about the United States. The argument seems to arbitrarily disqualify poor whites from feeling they are being played by the system. And ironically, the point seems to function similarly to the racist tactic of convincing poor white they have more in common with wealthy whites than their poor black neighbors. Its no accident that poor whites are difficult to bring over to the liberal camp. Even liberals – though with quite different aims – are looking to point out the poor whites’ differences from people of color, rather than highlight the similarities in their experiences. And maybe I am wrong on this point (because I’m so personally close to it), but the police presence felt in the white working-class/poor community I grew up in is a world away from the virtually non-policed upper-middle class neighborhood I live in today. I’m not saying black neighborhoods aren’t even more militantly policed. But I challenge anyone group of whites to hold an event that looks anything like a SantaCon anywhere near the street I grew up on without ending up with a police baton around their throat. Again, maybe I am overstating this point. But its really disheartening when discussions of privilege somehow disqualify or at least bracket class from the already woefully inadequate descriptive trinity of race/gender/class. I know I am only pointing out the obvious limitations of identity politics here, but such limited and broadly defined categories of privilege/ non- privilege have the undesired effect of creating resistance in certain disadvantaged or exploited groups that should be easily brought over into the camp of allies fighting for equality.

    But back to the original point – let me use other examples: If a blindness to social constructs decreases the deeper a group or individual finds itself on the “negative side” of a social construct, why are homophobia and antisemitism so deeply rooted in black communities? And how come Jews in Israel and even in the United States are so susceptible to racism against Palestinians? I’m not aware of anything that suggests being part of an underprivileged group increases a group’s ability to see beyond social constructs generally. Rather it seems to merely allow insight into the fact that the group one belongs to is disadvantaged by a particular set of constructs. From the perspective of a privileged liberal, it may appear that members of a disadvantaged group have the ability to see through social constructs in themselves, but maybe that’s because the privileged liberal vantage point is sort of lumping all of these groups in with one another. Or maybe I am completely misinterpreting your point?

    I am definitely mistrustful of discussions of privilege in which the parameters are set by the privileged. But even when a person of privileged says something like “those on the receiving end of a social force are our only hope,” the parameters of the discussion are still being set by the privileged. And the conclusion has been reached from the confines of a privileged mind.

  18. Thanks for this post, Adam. I think you are pretty right on… I think the tricky thing that Imma is perhaps pointing out (if I am understanding correctly, which I may not be cause I just woke up) has to do with the way the language of social constructs function to deny experience, and the particularities of shared experiences based on those social constructs…. And I think that that is a fair critique in some respects, but I think that, if anything, it simply speaks to the way the ontological/epistemological regimes, to use Butler’s language, creates the constructs in the first place… I think where it gets tricky is not in the diagnosis of the problem, per say, but in the envisioning of strategies of resistance–I mean, on the one hand, to operate within or in support of said regimes is to justify and reify their power, but on the other hand, to ignore those realities of shared experiences, especially shared experiences of oppression–which is not, I dont think, what calling them social constructs does, though I do think it can feel or seem that way sometimes, and moreover, power tends to be a tricky thing, and perhaps sometimes we don’t even fully realize the way it functions in our own discourses….

  19. Brandy, I did perhaps lean too hard on the “denial of experience” — given that my position of privilege made me more intent on diagnosing the obfuscating structure of privileged experience, etc. I think that can be helpful when dealing with privileged people (i.e., it doesn’t matter that you don’t believe yourself to be personally racist or whatever — though I just performed the privileged defensiveness that makes it all about my clean intentions…).

    And I should say that I have no idea what to do in terms of creating change, indeed I seem to have less and less idea what to do as the years go by….

  20. The social construct argument is easily co-opted by conserves because it is usually coupled with a larger belief that orders a truth underneath the surface–many times biological these days, but a cohesive order nonetheless. For example, race as “just a social construct” is the curtain that hides a set of concrete human attributes–IQ, athletic ability, skin tone etc. However, the material force of racism persists without anyone believing race as natural. One acts with proper malevolence when arguing she can’t serve in combat, have this job, etc. because she is a woman, black, or gay but what happens after we consciously and dogmatically refuse to accept these as natural? The anxiety returns with the arguments sorrounding affirmative action–be whoever you want, but follow everyone’s rules! The irony in this case is that affirmative action, understood formally, has been a program that largely favors men, who demonstrate an “achievement gap” as compared to women, due to a school’s desire to balance gender ratios. I do worry, however, that even the belief that “the rules themselves are rigged!” is sometimes still not enough, because it in turn can lead to the perverse “charity case” anxiety that both reinforces the current rules and offers no real alternative to fixing them. Here, the more radical move may be to over-identify: yes, of course we want these to be everyone’s rules, so let us quit having this debate so it can actually happen!

    As for the sex/gender confusion, the following paper is a wonderful exhibit:

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