Or, What’s Wrong with Social Constructionism
The theory of social constructionism appears in two primary forms: weak and strong. Weak theories include both nominalist, anti-normative theories–those that are more or less in continuity with David Hume–as well as many varieties of emergentism, in which social realities are founded upon but can develop independently of cognition-independent realities. Nominalist weak constructionism denies any natural organization possible between the cognition-independent (and essentially unknowable) realities and the cognition-dependent constructs formed through cognitive acts, especially those agreed upon socially. Emergentist theories recognize a possible continuity between the cognition-dependent and cognition-independent. Strong forms, in contrast, propose societies or social interactions themselves constitute the behaviors, identities, and traits that belong to individuals; whatever is considered reality depends entirely on the society.
Each form of social constructionism places the onus of reality on the communal psychological subjectivity of individual persons. This places it in contrast to so-called “realist” theories, which do the inverse.
Many arguments of social constructionists stand in opposition what has been purportedly constructed. Frequently, the claims militate against traditional norms concerning gender and sexuality. Thus, both a trait or property (gender) and a behavior or disposition (sexual desires and action) are both considered, to varying degrees by varying theories, to be the products of a social construction, rather than an ordinance grounded by action or states of being independent of human cognition or consideration.
It follows from adopting or acquiescing to such a viewpoint that the conceptual products of social construction bear, when opposed to personal, individualized lived experience, a mark of inauthenticity and therefore relative invalidity. The socially-constructed, so the argument goes, forms an edifice merely arbitrary and artificial, albeit deeply-ingrained in our behaviors and ways of thinking, and therefore constitutes a framework inapplicable to the authentic, real, and “natural” feelings of the individual when found to be in opposition. Normative categories therefore operate as engines of oppression. A struggle ensues to develop non-normative terminological designations for majority genders and sexual orientations.
Historically, social constructionism fits within the broader category of ultramodernism (or post-structuralism)–that is, what today often goes about falsely guised in a self-professed postmodern cloak, but which really does no more than carry a hidden modernism (as a philosophical identity) to further conclusions. Derrida and Deleuze, Foucault and Fromm, Lacan and Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas, Marcuse and Badiou: each influences, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, the present-day social constructionism; further back, they themselves are rooted in Sartre, in (a bad reading of) Heidegger and Husserl. To truly understand the development of social constructionism requires understanding each of these thinkers–a claim few of us can really make in earnest (certainly not myself).
Social influence and natural entities weave a complex web in human experience. Attaining a genuine comprehensive perspective on the whole of our lives requires intelligently and coherently accounting for both–the task of a true postmodernism (a topic for another day). Many traditional naturalist theories are justly criticized for invalidating human experiences irreducible to natural, cognition-independent principles. The traditionalist ought to read, study, and attempt to understand Lacan and Adorno and Habermas, Heidegger, and Husserl, among others, for they possess valuable insight.
Conversely, social constructionism, especially of the strong variety, is to be faulted for attempting to invalidate human experiences dependent upon, developed from, or grounded in those cognition-independent principles. The ultramodernists ought to read, study, and attempt to understand Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas, Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, among others, for they too possess real truths about human nature and action.
However, both sides continue to minimize, ignore, or outright deny an element essential to the wholeness of every human person. This mutual deprecation serves ideological advancement, rather than the pursuit of truth. If I am being honest, of the two, I find social constructionism the less-excusable. Often, it devolves into outright contradictory nonsense.
Gender, Feeling, and Reason
To demonstrate this, let us pretend we have a young individual experiencing body dysphoria, whom we will call Marktha. Marktha is born into a biologically-male body, having an XY chromosome pairing and male genitalia. Reaching adolescence, Marktha’s body will undergo a dramatic increase in testosterone production. Yet Marktha does not “feel” like a boy, like a male. Marktha’s personal, internal, subjective sense is that Marktha is a girl, a female. Therefore, Marktha is designed transgender: born with male biology, but possessing a female identity.
Contrariwise, we have Mary: born with female biology and possessing female identity. She is designated cisgender. Mary will further be labelled “advantaged”, because she has this coherence of biology and identity. Poor Marktha, on the other hand, who really does suffer, has an incoherence which renders her life one of confusion and angst.
Marktha and Mary end up going to the same university, where they take a class in gender studies. Their professor, Dr. Amorfia, tells them that gender is a purely social construct, developed along gender roles, wherein male-bodied individuals perform certain tasks, including the oppression of both female-bodied and female-identifying but non-bodied individuals (broadly, effeminate male-bodied individuals). Because of this oppression, gender remains entrenched in its socially-determined categorizations for millennia. But now we know better: there is no such thing as “gender”, there are only “gender-identities”. Marktha feels a sense of relief. Mary feels nothing, partially because she’s a cold bitch, but also because she has no distinct sense of “gender identity” in opposition to biological gender. She nods in agreement nonetheless, because everyone else is nodding in agreement.
Marktha now identifies openly as female, despite continued male biology. Surgical options and hormone treatments are explored; hope is held out that, one day, Marktha and others will be able to have full transformation possibilities, so as to experience every biological aspect of being female.
Mary, meanwhile, takes a class in philosophy where she learns about Rene Descartes and the idea of body-spirit dualism, wherein the person is split into a body, less properly identifiable with the self, and a spirit or mind, which is the person proper. She does not see the connection, and the professor, Dr. Krampus, spends his evenings sighing for humanity into a large glass of good Irish whiskey.
One day, Mary and Marktha are walking together towards a lecture to be given by Dr. Amorfia. Marktha has started transformation, started “presenting as female.” So far this entails wearing make-up and more feminine-styled clothing, along with a more feminine hair-style. Marktha is nervous about some of the looks received, but nevertheless happy to be living outwardly, bodily, in accord with a felt female identity, and expresses this to Mary. Mary takes a long, silent pause, and says, “I’m glad you feel that way… but isn’t everything you’re doing just a conformity to socially-constructed standards of femininity?”
“I guess so,” Marktha replies after an equally long silence, “but soon I’ll start physically transitioning. I can’t imagine anything making me happier.”
Mary smiled at her friend and changed the topic. What she was really thinking, though, was “I thought the body didn’t matter for gender. I thought ‘feeling’ like a woman made someone a woman. Maybe I should have paid more attention in class.” By a curious coincidence, Dr. Krampus, walking about twenty feet behind, was thinking just the same thing about Mary. What grade did he give her again? A begrudging, pity C+?
All three entered the lecture. Dr. Amorfia was at her very sharpest. She eviscerated the patriarchy and its continued oppression of all non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual persons. Normativity was metaphorically bashed with every blunt object she could find. Her audience was rapt by her passion, her articulate attacks, needling every weak point of traditions and conservatism she could identify. She cited studies. She discussed the variety of presentations in secondary biological sex characteristics as evidence of emerging biological gender fluidity. She pointed to no one in the crowd, she told them that their identities could not be defined by social convention or biological impositions. She didn’t even use visual aids. She didn’t need to. PowerPoint is a phallogocentric symbol of supposed male-superiority anyway.
Marktha’s face exuded joy, listening to Dr. Amorfia’s verbal Blitzkrieg on the norms of oppression. Every feeling that had nestled deep in Marktha’s heart, for years and years, was affirmed. Mary’s face, meanwhile, was contorted with the strain of listening while simultaneously trying to figure something out, to figure out, perhaps, what she had missed in class. Dr. Krampus face was a mix of bored amusement and cynicism, but he usually looks like that.
The lecture ended. A crowd gathered around Dr. Amorfia, congratulating her. Marktha fawned. Mary stood by, a tortured look on her face. Seeing this, Dr. Amorfia, passing by on her way to a dinner given on the university’s dime, and who remembered Mary’s final paper as exemplary, asked if her former student had a question.
“Yeah… well, I guess… I mean… if gender is just a social construct, then what does it really mean to be a woman?”
Dr. Amorfia took a quick breath and unleashed her prepared response: “No one can tell you what it ‘means’ to be anything, to have any identity, but you yourself. You are what you feel yourself to be. What it means to be a ‘woman’ for you is not necessarily what it means for me to be a ‘woman’, or Marktha, or anyone. We each define our own ‘womanhood’. See chapter four in my latest book.” Smiling benevolently, she twinkled her fingers in a difficult-to-decipher show of something or other (solidarity? condescension? Parkinson’s?) and continued on to her accolades. Marktha followed. Mary stood still, her face contorted even further.
Slowly, she walked back towards her dorm, confused. Did she “feel” like a woman? What does it mean to feel like a woman? Had she ever felt like a man? Had she ever defined her own ‘womanhood’? She liked to be thought of as pretty, and to wear things that made her feel pretty. She liked it when guys would flirt with her, and act protective over her. But those all fell within the aspects of a gender role Dr. Amorfia had identified as socially constructed. They were arbitrary, and, moreover, results of the patriarchical, oppressive norms. What is an identity? What constitutes an identity? What does it mean to “feel” one’s identity?
Continuing her slow walk, deep in thought, she suddenly noticed voices coming from around the corner. Dr. Krampus was talking with a couple male students. “Boy’s club”, she thought, instinctively. Then she listened more closely.
“No, I can’t tell you what it feels like to be a woman,” Dr. Krampus said, half laughing. “But that doesn’t restrict me from telling you what I think it means. If you want to find the poisonous seed of intellectual rot, there it is: thinking that meaning is wholly dependent upon lived experience, upon feeling. If that’s the case, we can’t talk about anything with anyone, at all, because every lived experience, every feeling, is irreducibly subjective, personal. ‘Meaning’ has to be public; it has to be something that we can articulate, or else it isn’t what we mean by ‘meaning’.”
“But,” one of the students interjected, “how can you tell me what something means to me?”
“I can’t,” Dr. Krampus replied. “But I can tell you that what something means to you is not what something means in itself. That’s what we call ‘being wrong.’ You could say that ‘being a man’ means, to you, ‘nothing other than feeling like a man’. That feeling might be a real part of what it means to be a man, though the intelligible articulation of what belongs to that feeling is a much harder statement to make. I would argue, however, that simply feeling like a man no more makes you a man than feeling like a rhinoceros gives you a horn. Defining identities in terms of feelings is the absolute worst kind of unintelligent dualism. Feelings are a subrational category, while definition is a rational process.”
Mary scowled as words from Dr. Amorfia’s class reverberated in her mind: “Reason, reason, reason! That’s all the patriarchy wants to reduce everything to. It is a tyranny of reason. The patriarchy’s reasons will tell you that you have to have their children, cook their meals, clean their homes; that you have to look pretty while they go out and do the real work. Do not listen to their reason; listen to your feelings!”
“What do you mean, professor?” another student asked, “I mean, by a ‘rational process.'”
“There’s no short and simple answer to that question,” Krampus answered. “But the easiest way to describe reason is through language. Think about the moments of most intense feeling, as a way of contrast. Someone in intense agony does not say, ‘By Jove, I have lost a limb and the pain is really quite intense, like having every nerve ending dipped into the fires of hell.’ He screams, inarticulate, animal, wordless pain. Similarly, when a guy has an orgasm, he doesn’t say, ‘Wow, this bodily sensation is most pleasurable; I sure am enjoying this sexual activity.’ He goes, ‘Uuuuuunnnnnggggghhhhaaaaaahhhhh.’ Later on, when the feelings are not so intense, rational articulation enters back into the picture, and he can describe his sensations–but not in the moment. Reason is the means by which we provide an intelligible, public, accessible account of our experiences; the means by which we transcend our subjectivity. Which entails that the things about which we reason have a meaning which is not purely and irreducibly subjective, but which can be shared, talked about, understood by others. Meaning encompasses feeling; but it doesn’t work the other way around.”
Mary was torn: she hadn’t enjoyed Dr. Krampus’ class, certainly not like she had Dr. Amorfia’s. Also the jerk gave her a C. But she found herself thinking, days afterward, about what she had overheard. Dr. Krampus had made sense.
Marktha, incidentally, had been arrested for violently assaulting a teenage boy who disparaged Marktha’s appearance. The teenage boy should have been more attentive to the fact that, despite the skirt, Marktha was 6’3″ and quite muscular.
Treating gender and sexuality as purely social constructs produces incoherent nonsense. There are undoubtedly, inevitably, unarguably aspects which arise through social constitution. Much of what belongs to traditional gender roles does indeed have a degree of arbitrariness; but much, while dependent upon social agreement (conscious or not), nevertheless has a basis in biology, in what exists independently of society. The biologically male are stronger, faster, and larger. This makes them superior at many physical tasks. Watch American Ninja Warrior, or its Japanese originator, Sasuke, if you doubt me.
Can we acknowledge physical, bodily realities, through a system of reasoning, while abdicating the psychological, the subjective, the personal, to a tyrannical congeries of feeling? Can we really claim true logical coherence when we speak in such tortured, contradictory tones?