Monday, November 11, 2013

A word about social constructs

I want to caution people from talking too much about problems as they are sources from social constructs. It's alienating to those who disagree and it also takes conversations about humanity to a strictly philosophical level that does not address the nitty gritty real world concerns and oppression and suffering that people face from the enforcement of social constructs.

Yesterday I had a chat with a new friend about whether or not gender itself is a social construct. I used to believe that it was but now experience plenty of doubt about it. I recognize that a lot of the specifics of rigid gender roles certainly are socially constructed but gender itself  (as I am constantly realizing) is complex.

Gender and gender roles are markers used by systems of oppression and those that enforce those systems. Erasing those symbol of oppression (if possible) does nothing to directly combat oppressive behaviors

One of the things we also discussed was a world without gender. In all honestly, this sort of world is appealing to me. But it seems naive on some level. I don't want to slight my friend by saying so. I also find claims that race or class should be abolished naive.

I am skeptical of spending too much time thinking about a world without damaging social constructs. I don't think it's impossible to reach at all. But envisioning and working toward the goal of a world without certain social constructs is work I'm not practically or ethically interested in doing. I'm much more interested in doing work that more directly reduces the very real everyday harm caused by the enforcement of social constructs. The goal of abolishing supposed social constructs like gender roles is not a practical solution to the harm caused by gendered oppression. Especially if those "constructs" provide the scaffolding for people's identities.

Part of this has to do with what confronting ideologies and social constructs means. Changing social constructs requires that everyone change their minds and ways of thinking. I respect the individuality of people, which means I respect their allegiances to social constructs (even if they are not constructs I subscribe to, like say religion). This doesn't mean I condone any dehumanizing behavior people might ascribe to their constructs but I respect social constructs as the legitimate components of identity.

Saying we should work to abolish gender roles or religion or race essentially says to people who consider these things to be vital parts of their identity that they need to abandon and rebuild their identities. And maybe in the future people will, but you know what? Today, in my world, asking people to drastically change and reshape their identities to fit my utopia seems not just impractical but deeply insensitive and even supremacist.

Social change also takes time. And mistakes. Lots of both. If certain social constructs are in the end missteps it's not going to just take more than just an acknowledgement of them to remove their effects.

There's an additional danger in focusing too much on the absence of social constructs. It can often lead us to think that the removal of social constructs is as easy as acknowledging that such constructs exist.

Social constructs are deep seated in our subconscious, which our conscious minds hold little to no immediate power to change. Changing the subconscious, whether it's of the individual or of culture at large is a long difficult process of changing thousands of micro habits of thought and action. When I say "social change takes time" this is exactly that I mean.

I consider myself a normal human (despite my many abnormal attributes) and it's taken me months and years to reach minimal deconstruction of certain social constructs in my mind. The reasons oppression based on social constructs are not very easy to eradicate because social constructs are much firmer and deeply rooted on our brains than most of us realize. Our knowledge of a social constructs doesn't itself mitigate the way we internalize & project that construct. Knowing about social constructs doesn't stop those constructs from affecting us constantly.

For instance:
I am a generqueer/genderfuild person. I try to keep my or other people's genders out of the conversation if gender is irrelevant to our interaction/topic.When telling stories about strangers I use the pronouns "they/them" or say "that person". But my making the gender(s) in such stories neutral is something I do after the fact. Whether I disclose it or not I am constantly making split second assumptions about other people's genders. And my own.

I work at acknowledging these assumptions with language like "the person I perceived as fe/male or masculine/feminine." But I can't stop my, very human, subconscious survival tactic of making snap judgements about my surroundings and social environments.

What stops me from imagining a world without gender roles or race is the knowledge of my own inability to change they way my subconscious has learned to reflexively sort people into socially constructed categories.

I think the denial of these snap judgements is one of the most dangerous risks of putting too much faith in the abolition of social constructs. I've witnessed this denial in many supposedly progressive spaces. The denial of internalized subconsciously oppressive judgments run rampant in the white male dominated spaces. (like say groups of the tech savy, and those interested in science/atheism).

It's not uncommon in such spaces to be ridiculed for calling out sexism or racism with the defense: "if you're seeing it, you're the one being racist/sexist."

This comes from the assumption that conscious knowledge of a social construct absolves the knower of its effects. It puts too much stock in what we can control with our conscious minds (which science has repeatedly shown to be less than we think!). It allows those that have knowledge and education about social constructs to think that they are above its influence. Which is dead wrong. This is how we end up with purportedly progressive people saying that we're "post-racial" or that a code of conduct isn't necessary because a "culture of respect" is enough to prevent gendered violence and harassment at tech conferences.

Knowing about social constructs gives us some information about how harm is caused and can be used to build ways of being that cause less harm. But knowing about them, and even being in a community of other who know as well is only half of the work. Whether we know about them or not the harmful aspects of certain social constructs are still inside all of us. It takes more than just knowledge to reduce harm. It takes the constant work of self-interrogation, deconstruction, and the imagination and rigor needed to build new habits of thinking and doing.

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