Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The make-believe world of social construction


The trend for the future appears to be towards greater radicalism. [Alison] Jaggar, [currently Professor of Distinction, Philosophy and Women and Gender Studies, University of Colorado at Boulder.—TL], recently denounced the nuclear family as a “cornerstone of repression” and eagerly anticipated scientific advances to eliminate such biological functions as insemination, lactation, and gestation. “One woman could inseminate another … men and non-parturitive women could lactate … fertilized ova could be transferred into women’s or even men’s bodies.”[1]

This partial paragraph comes from Dinesh D’Souza’s controversial book Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Vintage Books [Random House], 1992). At the time I first read the book, I was studying sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha; Jaggar’s statement struck me as an example of how the rhetoric of social-conflict theory could carry someone beyond the bounds of reason and fact.

Alas, no. Since he was studying the success of radical activists in imposing feminist and Afrocentric agendas on college campuses, D’Souza didn’t see —and possibly didn’t know of — the influence of social constructionism, or its apotheosis in queer theory.

Broadly stated, social constructionism is a set of sociological theories that tries to explain how language as a social construct affects our perceptions of reality. Ideally, this set of theories should explain why Aleuts have twenty-seven different categories of snow and Europeans have only one, or why certain tribes may only have two or three words to express color while your local Sherwin-Williams needs a dozen or so just for shades of white.


Social constructionism can be roughly divided into two main lines. Weak SC concedes that, for many things, there are “brute facts” (ontologically real beings) behind them. For instance, it doesn’t really matter that snow is called Schnee in German, neige in French, sheleg in Hebrew and theluji in Swahili when you’re shoveling a foot of it off of your car.

Strong SC, on the other hand, “proposes that the notions of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ are themselves social constructs, so that the question of whether anything is ‘real’ is just a matter of social convention. … It reasons that all reality is thought, all thought is in a language, all language is a convention, and that all convention is socially acceptable, hence, it uses language to socially program.”

Though SC didn’t really start to gain any traction until the mid-1960’s, by the time D’Souza wrote Illiberal Education it was one of many schools of philosophical thought now lumped under the term “postmodernism”. As such, it became a feature of the New Left’s critique of both natural and social sciences and their claim to objectivity.

Shortly after I left college, biologist Paul R. Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt struck back with Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), charging that the postmodernist critics generally knew little about what they were criticizing and were engaging in poor scholarship. This book sparked what’s been called the “science wars”, the most notable events of which were physicist Alan Sokal’s phony submission to the postmodernist journal Social Text (“the Sokal affair”) and a series of highly-criticized theoretical physics papers written by French physicist Igor Bogdanov (yes, French) and his twin brother, mathematician Grichka Bogdanov (“the Bogdanov affair”).

In the end, neither the Sokal hoax nor the Bogdanov brothers’ papers proved anything other than that the modern scholarly process of publishing and peer review leaves a lot to be desired. Public interest waned, and the two sides settled down to occasional whimpers that “they don’t understand”. Both sides failed to learn from one another; while the scientists never took a good look at their meta-narrative of theoretical development, the proponents of strong SC never truly questioned their foundations in relativism or their enshacklement to social policy goals.

Moreover, because none of the academic disciplines undertook a revamping of review and submission standards to make them more rigorous and consistent, a chance was missed to (if you’ll pardon the expression) strangle strong SC in the cradle. “Real” and “unreal” aren’t concepts you can lay down and pick back up again when convenient. For instance, both psychiatry and psychology are baffled if the concept of real has no ontological reality itself; if the distinction between the voice of John Nash’s hallucinations and the voice of his wife are merely social conventions with no reference to brute facts, then his paranoid schizophrenia has no relation to brute fact, either … as inconvenient as it is to him.

So when we read, for instance, that the Australian Human Rights Commission wants the law to recognize twenty-three genders, or that a pre-school in Stockholm sedulously avoids any term that might recognize differences between boys and girls, or that couples in India are forcing one- to four-year-old girls to go through sex-change operations, we should be more than concerned. Ideas have consequences; these are the consequence of an ideology that has deliberately cast away its moorings to the real world and tethered itself to changing language and technology.

But more than that, in taking what would otherwise be a useful analytical concept to a silly — nay, insane — extreme, queer theory is poised to do the so-called transgendered even greater mischief. Queer theory doesn’t foster a true acceptance of oneself so long as it denies the range of effects the different genotypes impose. Rather, it goes beyond a fruitful dissection of the truly artificial to a claim that everything is artificial, that you can be whatever you want if you wish really, really hard, and as long as no one is so crass as to deny your claim.

But surgery doesn’t change chromosomes. Neither does language. If queer theorists stopped criticizing the scientists and listened to them, they might figure that out.


[1] Cited by Christina Hoff Summers, “Feminism and the College Curriculum,” Imprimis 19:6, 1990, p.2; full quotation from D’Souza (1992), pp. 213-214.