The Question of Social Constructs | Jake Scott
In the contemporary period, conservative defences of tradition have floundered against the post-modernist objection that, whatever those rules may be, they are “social constructs”. And this fact, de facto, supposedly de-legitimises them. It is the ultimate statement of irrelevance: is there something we do in society that is no longer “fit for purpose”? Then it must be a social construct.
But this observed fact – and there’s no point denying it, it is a fact – that social constructs exist, holds no true value judgement in itself; social constructs are neither inherently good, nor bad. In fact, the concept of a “social construct” is as circular as any concept can be.
The origin of the idea of identifying and doing away with social constructs emerged out of the critical theory subset of continental philosophy, most associated with the Frankfurt School. But the significant development came with Giles Deleuze’s idea of “imminence”, that a society can only be criticised properly by those inside it. In essence, it encouraged social intellectual dissidence, a rejection and repudiation of the mostly liberal cultures of the West that tolerated the existence of such dissidence in the first place. From there, the idea that society was unjust in its power relations legitimised the assault on all traditions and social institutions as constructs, artificial and therefore worthy of doing away with.
But there are two fundamental problems with the concept of attacking “social constructs” – the first is the circular logic of such concepts, and the second is that constructs are beneficial in teaching individuals how to interact with one another.
First, the circular logic. Social constructs, we are told, legitimise and uphold unjust social relations, that persist despite the liberal state’s aspiration to neutrality. But what created these constructs? Either they are part of society, or they are society. The distinction is minor, but important: if they are part of society, then they can be compartmentalised, and dismantled one by one; if they are society, no such compartmentalising can take place. Society must be wholly accepted, or rejected.
Any clear-headed person would see that the first case is the most realistic, but as assaults on western civilisation increase in ferocity and frequency, conservatives are forced to simplify their defence of the plurality of society into a single, monolithic one, forced into an pseudo-intellectual corner where we defend even that which we find uncomfortable.
But why is the concept of a social construct circular? Let us suppose, for simplicity’s sake, that all social constructs are compartments of society; who built those constructs? Was it society, or the people those constructs supposedly “socialise”? Either way, the answer is the same: the concept of a social construct originates out of the established practices and traditions of a cultural group, not the other way around. What might be seen to be a social construct now, is actually the foundation of that society in the first place. In which case, it is ridiculous to say that society “constructed” these things; instead, such practices built society.
Second, that constructs are beneficial. All things human beings build – both physically and socially – are to facilitate interaction. But in the social case, we have less control over what we construct. Take the example of grammar: almost all philosophy in the contemporary period is centred on our meanings of words, and how they interact with each other, and we with them. To understand this, we need to understand grammar, as grammar is the fundamental ruleset that determines how we speak.
Grammar dictates how sentences are constructed and, by extension, how they are received. But grammar was not constructed a priori: it is the product of the slow and perfectible evolution of language, constantly renegotiating itself even up to the modern day. We may now understand how grammar works by distinguishing between nouns, verbs, adverbs and so on, but our understanding followed our practice, it did not precede it. (For a more detailed discussion on this idea, I suggest reading Michael Oakeshott’s essay, Rationalism in Politics). But grammar is essential in understanding how we talk to one another, and consequently how we understand each other.
Taking grammar as our example, now think of established customs, practices and rules. These are, in essence, the social grammar. They dictate how we behave with each other without causing offence (unless of course, we want to), and how we understand one another by extension. If I speak to you with disrespect, you will understand that I do not respect you; it would be absurd to say that I respect you without acting in that way.
This is why social constructs are beneficial. They allow us to understand one another and relate to each other properly, as persons, not as mere objects colliding in space.
However, this is a very fine line to be trod on this issue, between respect for, and the ossification of, social constructs. I remember one description of fascism sticking with me, as the “elevation of society to the level of the state”, essentially taking the liberal pluralism of the mechanisms of state away in favour of a hardening of social relations. This, in real terms, meant the State could no longer act in the interest of everyone, but in the interest of some. More importantly, all the tools of the State became based on a prescriptive understanding of who this group of people were; for example, the law. Whereas the liberal rule of law has originally operated on the presumption that it is only illegal to do something, not to be or think something, fascist “legalism” would operate on the opposite presumption. Nazi Germany is the clearest example of this; it was illegal to be Jewish, or gay, or a gypsy, and so on. (This is not to pretend that Western states have historically been better on these issues – making it illegal to be a homosexual was a fundamentally illiberal practice).
Why does this matter? Well, the state is the hard power of politics – it tells us what we cannot do; and society is the soft power – it tells us what we should do. A significant difference marks out the two; the state is slow, cumbersome and universal, meaning it applies to everyone within its boundaries, though often takes an incredibly long time to animate itself. Consider the time it takes to push a bill through Parliament, for instance. But society is fast, reflexive and prejudicial, meaning it shifts and changes from place to place, even within the boundaries of a single state, based on the need of different people in different places.
The above discussion of social constructs matters for this; as constitutive elements of society, they are naturally constantly evolving, and should do. We interrogate social constructs every day in our lives, questioning the relevance of some and championing the flexibility of others, and this is how it should be, otherwise society will never move forward and evolve in the way our liberal society has.
The danger exists in attempting to edify these constructs, for two reasons: the first is that by fixing their meanings and considering them “finished”, we fall into illiberal practices and authoritarianism; the second is more strategic, as by doing the aforementioned, we make it easier for critical theorists to tear them down.
It would be foolish to believe that the social constructs we have inherited have always been the way they are. Marriage, for one, has evolved constantly, both in relevance and content, from its first iterations to the contemporary period, and is likely to continue to do so. This is the significance of a development such as gay marriage; it was not a rejection of the institution of marriage, but a development and deepening of it, making it more accessible and rescuing it from the declining relevance it has experienced since the Second World War.
By doing so, we continue the liberal and tolerant tradition that has emerged in the West, whilst protecting the value of institutions (or social constructs) even if we do not protect the substance. This, in turn, allows the strategic defence of these institutions from those critical theorists that seek to tear them down, even if they have nothing to put in their place.
If we harden social constructs into exclusive and insular practices, we risk making them into caricatures of themselves, which will inevitably possess inherent inconsistencies and flaws. These flaws that exist do so because of practices’ ad-hoc nature, natural relativism and irrational creators – human beings. Once flaws and problems become constitutive elements of a legally protected edifice, instead of minor defects of a liberal, reflexive social practice, it opens up not only that practice to criticism, but the legal system that protects it, and by extension the socio-political constitution that created them.
So, how do we respond to the question of social constructs? First, we must recognise that they are helpful tools in our day-to-day lives in understanding how we interact and in what ways; second, we must avoid cementing them and respecting their flexibility; and third, we must not reject them entirely, but respect their existence, critically assess them, and move them forward, as they always have been moved forward in the past.