There has been a thought that my mind has been returning to in recent months.
The core of the idea derives from an idea that originates from my early education. Whether it was middle school, high school, or perhaps something I read outside of the school curriculum of that time period, I do not remember. Very basically, it is the following;
liberals and progressives tend to be more prone to describe and see the world in terms of nurture being the more important factor in understanding the world; we construct the world, and who we are has more to do with our life experience and construction. Conservatives are more essentialist or absolutist in their view of the world; there are definite facts, realities, and a nature to things, and what we are is dependent upon those realities. Who we are is based upon our nature. In short, the difference between liberals and conservatives is one of nurture versus nature.
This is an oversimplification, of course, but I think that there is something here worth thinking about, and some kernals of truth as well.
As an example of how this plays out, let’s take an issue which has been increasingly discussed in our culture, especially recently; gender issues. What is gender? What is sex? Are we essentially male, female, or some other gender or is this concept a social construction? And how do more progressive and liberal minds approach this issue compared to how conservative people think about it?
Take this article, for example, written by Crip Dyke at Pharyngula;
It’s an interesting article which clarified some concepts for me, in terms of what is meant by the phrase “gender is a social construction,” but also “sex is a social construction.”
We choose the meanings to take from words and we choose the words we wish to embody our meanings. This is not unique to sex or to gender: this is the nature of language. To say, then, that “gender is a social construct” is nothing more or less than stating “gender is a word in a human language”. Therefore to say that “gender is binary” (or, conversely, to say it isn’t) is a choice we make about how to communicate meaning. The truth of the statement, or not, depends on the definitions we give to “gender”, “is” and “binary”.
This is an inherently social process. We are interactively constructing the meanings of words (and thus concepts).
So: stars are real objects that really orbit each other, but binary is a social construct. Vulvae are real body-parts that really do communicate sensations to brains via neurons, but sex is a social construct. Thai food is made up of very real, nutritive substances, and a delicious subset of these are, objectively, the best foods a vegan can eat in southwest Canada, but cuisine is a social construct.
Just as “social construct” doesn’t mandate the lack of a physical referent, neither does it mandate that one’s definition is bad or ambiguous. AT&T has a definition that is specific, non-ambiguous, and quite good in the sense that very few people will interpret you to be talking about something other than AT&T when you say AT&T. And yet, it’s impossible that AT&T as a term with meaning was arrived at without social interaction constructing the meaning.
read the rest for full context. It’s worth the time, and it it a worth-while conversation.
And yet, I’ll admit that when I started to read this article I I felt a bunch of philosophical red flags starting to fly. My anti-postmodernist leanings started to make me feel like I was beeing bambozzled by language tricks, and a part of me agreed with something the first commenter said:
Where you attempt to use linguistic deconstruction, Hegelian postmodernist games with language to deny and “spin” underlying reality.
But to use Pierce’s language, signs are noises or glyphs, and denote abstract types which to enable communication we assert as referencing generalizations of particulars. I don’t care whether you use “sex” or “gender” or “abracadabra” to designate the real physical dimorphism that exists, but it is a real physical fact of the world – the very reality that killed postmodernism – and you cannot change that reality by doublespeak.
And, I’ll add, that I felt like what was happening was that the idea that gender/sex is a social construct was a deepity. In other words, it was trivially true on the surface (all concepts are social constructions), but that there was a conflation going on related to how the real physical world really exists, and that saying that a description, or a referent, to the real world was a social construction seemed to be claiming that how we think about something changes its reality.
And this was too much like The Secret to be comfortable for me.
We are all in tension
But then something occurred to me. And then I felt like writing. To be clear, I don’t want to deal with the above issue; I’ll leave that for people more qualified than myself to deal with (but by all means, check out the whole post, because it is well-written and explores some important concepts). But I wanted to use this discussion as an example of the thing that occurred to me.
As I understand it, this discussion exemplifies what happens when the part of us that wants to hold onto certainty, familiarity, and simplicity interacts with the part of us which is curious and is capable of nuance and complexity. And while it’s way too simple to say that liberals are curious and want to understand complexities while conservatives just want their traditional comfort zones (many liberals, after all, accept concepts like karma, are susceptible to bullshit “science” trends like the link between autism and vaccines, and any number of other simple but harmful ideas which fit within their own comfort zones), it is true that the way conservatives deal with issues related to gender (the recent rejection of equal rights in Houston, for example) is based upon socially constructed, essentialist notions of what it means to be a “man,” “woman,” etc.
They think they are pointing to an obvious, objective reality about the differences between men and women, when they are stuck within the mire of traditional, binary, and (indeed) socially constructed concepts of gender.
And it’s similarly true that many progressive discussions do lean towards a postmodernist, anti-realist, and semantic-heavy framing, one which looks like (especially to conservatives) a denial of “simple reality.” Thus, it appears to conservatives as if those liberal hipsters are trying to tell them that our physical bodies, the general physiological dimorphisms (physical differences between men and women, IOW), are not real. And it sounds like bullshit to them.
And in some extreme cases, the language that such progressives, social justice activists, etc use seems indistinguishable from the meaningless word salad of Lacan, Deepak Chopra, etc. (See the Sokal hoax, for some context on my, and other skeptics, view of how postmodernism often bleeds into nonsense).
Bottom line; we are all capable of this exact tension within ourselves between gripping the flawed familiar and being tantalized by the nuances of complexity. So long as that grip is loose and we don’t allow the poetry of words, like the Sirens they can be, to lure us away from reality, we will be fine.
And the boundaries of these tensions present, to us, the space for conversation. And both the desire for nuance and certainty can grip us, and we can become too attached to whatever we associate with. Let go, and escape the endless cycle of attachment and pain, and float into the nirvana of maybe, perhaps, and let’s see. Let’s test what might be true, possible, and not hold onto what is comfortable. Slave owners were comfortable. But at the same time, let us not be lured into slavish illusion presented by false hopes.
Dream, but do so with our feet on the ground.
Clarification of an old idea
There is a thing I used to say a lot, some years ago. I’m not sure how true it is, but I think it’s at least partially true; today’s liberals are tomorrow’s conservatives. In recent years I have come to think that this formulation is not the best way to articulate what I think I mean. Let’s try this:
Today’s cutting edge social movements will be the socially constructed, traditional, and normal concepts of tomorrow. And in a few of generations, those cutting edge, controversial, and new ideas will be defended by conservatives as traditional and obvious;they will become the new, solid ground. And the cutting edge, controversial, and new ideas that their descendants will espouse will seem to shatter their comfortable worldview, will be looked at with skepticism, will not be understood, and they will chafe against them the same way today’s conservatives do.
So, my thought is this; is it meaningful, at all, to say an issue itself is a progressive one? Right now, gender equality is a hot topic within social justice crowds (and I’m glad that it is!), but will there come a time when gender equality is as conservative a value as individual freedom is now? Was individual freedom once a social justice issue? And, if so, is the fact that individual freedom is held up as a strong conservative value a lesson for us all?
I don’t know.
What I’m increasingly aware of, however, is that the arguments, such as the one inherent in the Crip Dyke post from above, is that the conversation is less one between liberals and conservatives per se as it is a conversation between two aspects of the human mind, expressed socially as a divide between different types of people (whether feminist/anti-feminist, liberal/conservative, etc).
The question becomes whether that tension, that dichotomy, within the human mind is a real distinction or one we socially construct. And that, right there, is the meta-question. Because all of our concepts are based, ultimately, on a real physical reality. The question is whether our construction, our concepts expressed through language, are reliable representations or not. Also, whether that concept itself is meaningful. And on and on, through many meta-layers of potential analysis.
At bottom, many conversations about social justice boil down to metaphysics, epistemology, and linguistics. It’s all philosophy, long before it’s politics. I believe I can only comprehend a small piece of the surface of the problem, but I am fascinated that this philosophical conversations will probably continue so long as there are people to have them. And I’m glad that there are people out there who can express the conversation, and understand the problems, in ways that I do not, because that serves to feed my own cravings for nuance, complexity, and thwarts the conservative parts of me that will settle into comfort. It also stops me from gripping “reality” too tightly.