Explaining Academia: “Social Constructions”

I urge you all to peruse the comments on Morgan’s post.  First, because of this

sQzKNnAnd then because of this:

And this makes some people [i.e. liberals] just pig-biting mad. They want to see frumpy pear-shaped women in pant suits — or, no women at all — in any position that has visibility. Ultimately, what they want to do is eradicate gender, because gender is a definition.

They’re related, I promise.

All due respect to Morgan (who along with Philmon is my blog-godfather), but he’s wrong on this.  Gender’s not a definition, and they most definitely don’t want to eradicate it.

Let’s start with that magnificent piece of ass up there.  What, is that offensive?  The lady in question sure seems to think so — she’s on record as being against “objectification.”  And yet, there she is, bent over the hood of a car in a bikini and stripper heels.

Now, normally this is where I’d write “thus proving cognitive dissonance is bullshit” (sorry, Gary).  But that’s not the case here.  What Ms. Patrick is incoherently expressing when she talks about “objectification” is what these people have drilled down to a mantra — the “social construction” of gender.

IMG_1072Sorry about the image (and that’s the last time I’ll do that to you without warning, I promise), but the premise behind both pictures is the same, and it’s important.  These young ladies aren’t objectifying themselves by writing “slut” on their chests, for the same reason Danica Patrick isn’t objectifying herself by dry-humping a Porsche — you can’t objectify yourself.


Karl Marx wrote:

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

This is Leftism’s core concept.  Without it, Leftism is nothing but the loose, self-contradictory conglomeration of petty grievances that we all know and love.  With it, those grievances cohere into dogma.

Most Leftists don’t cite this dictum of Marx’s anymore (I doubt that most of them have ever actually heard it), because it’s so obviously a Gem — we can only know what our social position allows us to know, and therefore we don’t know things as they really are.  But if you change that bit about “social being” into “social construction,” it not only sounds less Gem-like, but it even seems true.  It comes out of the realm of philosophy and into the real world.

So many of our social norms and conventions are just that, and a great deal of our behavior — almost all of it, in fact — can be reduced to either conformity with social norms, or rebellion against them.  And it’s plain as day that these change over time — If you fell out of your cradle into a time machine, for instance, and got warped back to 10th-century Scandinavia, you’d grow up a Viking, right?

Your behavior — indeed, your very identity — back then would be “socially constructed” Viking-ness, just as your identity now is socially constructed American-ness.  Capisce?

Gender works the same way.  In India, for example, male friends hold hands, and the beauty salons you see on almost every street corner are presumed to be men-only (the ones that also serve women specify “unisex”).  American men generally find this weird, just as Indian men no doubt find it weird that American men consider this

1253293349to be macho behavior.

If you understand it in that sense –and that’s how it will be presented for the first five minutes of your freshman Humanities course — it’s interesting and useful.  It explains why your great-grandma can’t balance a checkbook, why your grandpa can’t cook, why your mom and dad looked at you funny when you busted all this out for them over your first Christmas break, why you’re an American and not a Viking.

The problem, of course, is that lots of folks don’t stop there.  If it’s all a social construction (which we’re taking as read), and if society can change (as experience shows), then the potential to change people themselves is theoretically limitless.

Let’s take another example from academia.  Here’s Frankfurt Schooler Erich Fromm, trying to duck the obvious historical fact that Marxist regimes are police states:

Marx saw that political force cannot produce anything for which there has been no preparation in the social and political process. Hence that force, if at all necessary, can give, so to speak, only the last push to a development which has virtually already taken place, but it can never produce anything truly new. “Force,” he said, “is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.”  It is exactly one of his great insights that Marx transcends the traditional middle-class concept — he did not believe in the creative power of force, in the idea that political force of itself could create a new social order. For this reason, force, for Marx, could have at most only a transitory significance, never the role of a permanent element in the transformation of society.

The last sentence, which I’ve highlighted, is the crucial one.  If force is “at all necessary,” Fromm assures us, it won’t be permanent force.  Which, after all, is embedded in the concept — once you’ve sufficiently changed men’s social being, then their consciousness will be permanently altered.  You don’t have to keep breaking eggs once the omelet is made.

Notice what’s missing from that sentence, though.  Indeed, it’s missing from the whole paragraph.  Who is the subject?  Who, in other words, is doing the forcing?  Who uses the force?

19a01zcazkzh1jpgThis is the key verbal slight-of-hand of the phrase “social construction.”  When you put it in terms of force, as Fromm does, the trick becomes obvious — his essay was clearly written as an apologia for the KGB.  Construction, on the other hand, is a positive word.  And yet it, too, is active, which is why “social” is always attached to it.  Society is doing the constructing… and society, as we’ve seen, is infinitely malleable.

This phrase does two useful things for the Left.  First, and most important, it maintains that sense of plausible deniability, that carefully crafted passivity, that keeps individual Leftists from taking responsibility for their actions.  “Society” is an abstract noun, and “construction” can mean almost anything.  It allows the Left to act without fear of consequences.  Something they don’t like is “constructed,” you see… but if the specific “solution” they go to the mattresses for ends up making the problem worse, then in comes “social” to bail them out.  It’s the emotional — and moral — equivalent of the old saw about selling populist policies to dumb voters: Privatize benefits, socialize costs.

The second benefit is related to the first.  Since we can’t define “society” (or, really, “construction”) this phrase allows the Left to be both victim and victimizer, subject and object, simultaneously.  Danica Patrick can cash the check for appearing nearly nude on a magazine cover, and whine about being “objectified” by the “patriarchy.”  Dan Rather can use the phrase “fake but accurate” without his head exploding.  Above all, you can call yourself a “Progressive” without ever defining a goal, even though the word “progress” is by definition teleological — in normal English, “to progress” always implies “toward something.”  Best of all, everything is always malleable, always in flux — it’s “constructed” — but since it’s social, you can change the “construction” by bossing people around.  Change their social being, after all, and you’ll change their consciousness.

This is why “gender” will always remain undefined, and always with us.  They don’t want it to go away, but they do want it to mean whatever they need it to mean, whenever they need it.  It’s a definition that’s subject to change without notice, and the changes will always have the force of law, even if today’s definition is 180 degrees away from yesterday’s.  Because it’s “socially constructed.”

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12 thoughts on “Explaining Academia: “Social Constructions”

  1. Morgan K Freeberg

    They don’t want it [gender as a definition] to go away, but they do want it to mean whatever they need it to mean, whenever they need it.

    I can see this life-long project of me figuring out lefties, is something like a life-long project of a barnyard pig figuring out days of the week, or a Terminator robot figuring out smiling. A definition is subject to change without notice?

    And I fear there will never be any reasoning with these people, until something very silly but necessary happens, like perhaps reaching an agreed definition of “definition.” Which, as necessities go, seems a bit…Clinton-ish.

    1. Severian

      They DO have a definition of “definition,” though — it’s what your Cuttlefish infestation are always going on about when they say “words are defined by common usage.” In academese, this is translated as: “social construction.”

      And that’s why it’s so useful. It’s “constructed,” which means it can change with the political winds, but “society” is doing it, which means you can’t assign motives (or blame!) to any specific person or institution for changing the definition.

      This is how homosexuals went from regarding “gay marriage” as an insult in the late 90s to a fundamental human right in the late Aughts. It’s how “global cooling” became “global warming” without even a hiccup sometime in the early 80s.

      If it helps, just think of it as the kinder, gentler, postmodern version of the Old Left’s contortions back in the 1930s (e.g. that stuff Erich Fromm was writing about). The Truth is whatever the Party needs it to be at the moment — we’ll fight fascism until the streets run red with blood, except we needed to cut a deal with Hitler to rape Poland, so now fascists are ok. Worst enemy yesterday, bosom buddy today, and the gulag for you if you disagree. Got it?

  2. Open other End

    To the left, not only is gender fluid but so are words. In argument, leftists misuse words and conflate connotations not rationally associated with definitions to “make their point.” I no longer dialogue with leftists save for the most basic communication needs and sociability. For a clear example see the Towson State Debate Team. They speak more eloquently on this issue than I.

    1. Severian

      That’s the tl;dr gist of it, yes. 🙂

      The reason I went into such detail is to highlight that weird active-yet-passive voice thing they do. “To construct” is an action verb. It implies both a doer and and end product. But the Left eliminates both of those when they talk about “social constructions.” And yet….they’re quite clear that something needs to change, stat, and that they’re the ones who will do it, by Tweeting and blog posting and holding the most radical and in-your-face signs the student union has ever seen.

      1. Severian

        This is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about.

        If gender is this fluid — and, sadly, this “pronoun” business dates back to at least the 1990s — then there’s nothing that isn’t somehow gendered. Which suits the ivory tower just fine, as one can now publish Very Serious Scholarly Articles on things like “Gendering Automobiles” and “The Transformative Heteronormativity of Cookware.”

        [I think I’m kidding with those titles, but not really — if papers like that haven’t been published already, they will be soon. Remember, only original “research” gets published, and only publications get tenure. One can carve out a comfortable career niche being super-extra-mega-radical about things like this. It’s shameless capitalism, really… but don’t tell them that!]

  3. Gary

    Let’s start with that magnificent piece of ass up there. What, is that offensive? The lady in question sure seems to think so–she’s on record as being against “objectification.” And yet, there she is, bent over the hood of a car in a bikini and stripper heels.

    Now, normally this is where I’d write “thus proving cognitive dissonance is bullshit” (sorry, Gary). But that’s not the case here.

    No need to apologize, Sev. I am honored to have been selected the official Rotten Chestnuts Cognitive Dissonance Czar and pledge to use my considerable Czar-like powers only for appropriately Rotten ends.

    Back to Danica’s delightful derriere and the apparent contradiction between her words–opposing “objectification”–and the flagrant display of her scantily-clothed body. IMHO, the explanation is quite simple. Danica doesn’t think any of this is “offensive”. She enjoys being a model and showing off her lovely assets but was pressured into paying lip service to the BS feminist worldview by PC commissars in the media, academia, pop culture and elsewhere the feminists have entrenched power.

    There is also, IMHO, a very simple explanation for the issue Morgan originally raised:

    I don’t know if it’s any more than that one dumb guy in Ms. Jenneke’s case, but the mindset is certainly out there that if a woman is highly accomplished in the looks department she can’t be highly accomplished anywhere else.

    I think you described socialism or Marxism as just one big rationalization for envy. Same thing with the part of feminism that is “pig-biting mad” about this sort of thing: nothin’ but pure envy.

    The feminists are so consumed with envy, they absolutely hate the sight of Michelle Jenneke, Anna Kournikova, Danica Patrick–and frankly any other woman who’s so hot they make the feminists look bad and feel insecure and inadequate and a whole complex of woeful neurotic emotions. So obviously they’d much prefer to see only “frumpy pear-shaped women in pant suits.”

    The fact that the aforementioned women are/were accomplished in their fields is just a tangential exacerbating factor: their abilities have made them famous and thus able to show off their stunning bodies to a mass audience. This makes them the target of the PC media, etc, who take revenge, in part, by impugning their accomplishments.

    Otherwise, the fact that these women are accomplished is not really the issue. The hottest woman in the neighborhood, who shows off her blistering body at the community pool in a skimpy bikini, will also be envied and hated and despised by most of the women around her, just like Danica et al, only on a smaller scale.

    1. Severian

      I see your point, and largely agree, but I want to emphasize that it’s not just envy. If it were, well, ok — envy is a petty, ugly emotion, but we all have it. If “gender theory” could be boiled down to

      “this is why Michelle Jenneke isn’t hot” or
      “this is why you shouldn’t ogle Anna Kournikova” or
      “here’s why Andrea Dworkin is just as attractive as Danica Patrick”

      then ok. This is weird, but not dys-civic. You’ll be asked to consider stranger ideas in a philosophy seminar.

      Problem is, though, all of this is explicitly tied to politics. Which to normal people means there’s an end goal buried in there somewhere — some ideal state where, say, we’ve all been trained to regard Andrea Dworkin and Danica Patrick as equally attractive (or to not feel anything when we see Anna Kournikova in a bikini, or whatever). I don’t think that’s really the case, however. The point isn’t to reach the goal; the point is to keep “advocating for social change.” It’s Trotsky’s “permanent revolution,” but in the physical sense — just spinning in place, whining about oppression, proposing ever-more ludicrous (and blatantly unenforcible) rules about “sexual harassment” and what have you, because that’s how you get your daily dose of Goodfeel (and, not coincidentally, tenure).

      Or, as either Kang or Kodos put in during their presidential debate: “We must move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!”

  4. Gary

    I see your point, and largely agree, but I want to emphasize that it’s not just envy.

    I don’t think we disagree. We’re just speaking at different levels. Your post took a high-level view, analyzing the left’s idea of “social construction” as used in academia to expound on gender and associated issues. My response was at a much lower level, simply trying to locate the proximate causes that explain Morgan’s original question about the odd “mindset” that insists good-looking women must not “be highly accomplished anywhere else” [besides being good-looking].

    I believe Morgan’s observation is correct since I’ve often heard and read similar things myself–and also the reverse, that accomplished women cannot or must not be too good-looking, and especially not sexy. But unless I’m missing something (entirely possible), I don’t see how your ideas about social construction and gender explain Morgan’s original question.

    1. Severian

      Ah, I see. You’re right — you and I don’t disagree; we’re just looking at it from different sides.

      As to Morgan’s original question, I should’ve made it clearer that “gender theory” doesn’t really answer it. My guess on that, for the record, is: she’s “not a real athlete” the same way Sarah Palin “isn’t a real woman.” She’s a member of a Designated Victim Group, but she’s also approved of by conservatives / men, and to Our Betters, such a thing is an intolerable paradox — cognitive dissonance, if you will 🙂

      They can’t say “as a sprinter, Michelle Jenneke ain’t all that,” because 1) that would entail knowing something about the world of competitive sprinting, and 2) more importantly, it would violate “you go girl!” So: Track “isn’t a real sport;” therefore, sprinters aren’t real athletes; therefore, men only like her because she’s pretty.

      My post was directed at Morgan’s followup comment, that “Ultimately, what they want to do is eradicate gender, because gender is a definition.” No offense to the Blog-Godfather, but that is 100% false. They don’t want gender to go away. Gender is, was, and will always be of prime importance to the academic left. They just want it to mean whatever they need it to mean, whenever they need it, because that’s one of the prime ways they justify bossing us around.

      Consider: I’m sure Michelle Jenneke knows she’s being talked about on blogs, and why. What if she were to come out and say “For the record, I’m an out-n-proud lesbian, and vote Hillary in 2016!” I promise you, in that instant, Michelle Jenneke would become not just a real athlete, but the world’s greatest athlete, and the only reason she’s not kicking Usain Bolt’s ass right now is Patriarchy.

      (That was Pornikova’s biggest mistake, btw — she quite clearly enjoyed being hot. Had she just made some Danica Patrick-type noises — “oh, how I hate getting paid millions to pose in bikinis!” — she’d have gotten so much more love from the Left).

      The saddest thing is, there’s a kernel of truth in the Left’s position. I don’t think “hey, check out this pretty sprinter” would’ve racked up a zillion YouTube hits. As I understand it (and I could be wrong), Michelle Jenneke only went viral because somebody explicitly pointed out that she’s hot in a decidedly feminist-disapproved way. That’s a textbook example of objectification. Nobody asked her if she wanted to be some kind of culture war proxy. But because the personal is the political to the Left, they can’t simply come back with “oh, you only say that because she’s hot.” They only know how to disqualify, disqualify, disqualify, so she can’t be a real athlete, and track’s not a real sport.

  5. Gary

    (That was Pornikova’s biggest mistake, btw–she quite clearly enjoyed being hot. Had she just made some Danica Patrick-type noises–“oh, how I hate getting paid millions to pose in bikinis!”–she’d have gotten so much more love from the Left).

    I’m glad you mentioned this. I remember her getting blasted by the left and thought she remained unrepentant about it, but wasn’t entirely sure. Evidently your recollection agrees with mine.

    Yes, she’d have gotten “so much more love from the Left” by kowtowing to PC pressure, but she seems to have done quite well for herself by simply ignoring the usual point-and-shriek tactics of the left–and I admire her for that. If I’m correct about this, more people should follow her example and just shrug when the point-and-shriek thing begins.

    My recollection is the left dissed Kournikova by carping that she’d never won a WTA singles title and was just a dumb blond. But according to Wikipedia:
    Despite her lack of a title, she reached No. 8 in the world in 2000. She achieved greater success playing doubles, where she was at times the World No. 1 player. With Martina Hingis as her partner, she won Grand Slam titles in Australia in 1999 and 2002.

    So clearly Kournikova was a respectable female tennis pro. And she was either very lucky or very smart because she cashed in on her fleeting tennis fame through modeling, endorsements and by making herself into a big celebrity. This turned out to be a very wise move indeed given that her tennis career would be cut short due to back/spinal problems.

    My guess is Kournikova enjoyed modeling (and the fame&fortune that accompanied it) and figured it was much easier and more fun than busting your hump for 80 hours a week trying to become the best female tennis player in the world.

    1. Severian

      I know, right? She clearly was a very, very good tennis player…. but she was better at being hot, so that’s how she made her coin. Is there any doubt that, even if she were the world’s greatest player, the Left *still* would have hated her? Because tennis isn’t a real sport or something. It’s always something.

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