See part 1 for the first half of this entry.
I’ve already mentioned institutions reproducing social constructs a few times already, so I figure I should get into how social constructs are reproduced, controlled and enforced.
The first major way in which social constructs are reproduced is socialization. Socialization is the process by which we are indoctrinated to follow cultural norms (a large part of which have to do with expressing various social constructs), and this takes place mostly during childhood.
Parenting is the most important socializing institution, mainly because it falls upon the parents to inculcate to the child the basics of living in society, all the way from the basics of language to the subtle sense of belonging to a country, political ideology, religion, and so on. Parenting is the first and most crucial way in which social constructs are reproduced generation after generation.
Now, one thing I’ve said about parenting is that parenting is primarily motivated by fear. Parents live in fear of their children not conforming to cultural norms and being marginalized, so they go overboard on enforcing those norms on their children, even if they themselves only weakly adhere to those same norms.
Parenting is not, by far, the only institution involved in socialization: we also have to count school, the media that children are exposed to, other family members and adults, and peer reinforcement of all of these as well. These influences are very powerful, to the point that it’s widely acknowledged that parents cannot raise their children genderless or raceless, no matter how hard they try. We have to look at them as part of socialization too.
So take gender, for example. Parents desperately indoctrinate their children with gender roles so they don’t come out “wrong.” But beyond gentle encouragements, admonitions and punishments, they also populate the child’s life with gender-coded colors, clothes, toys, friends, activities, sports. Furthermore, it’s been shown that everyone, including parents, treat babies and toddlers radically differently depending on what they think “the gender of the child” is (I put this expression in quote because young children don’t have gender).
Now if you consider that babies start very rapidly to observe and integrate differences they observe between people, just as they are busy observing how the world works around them. Babies recognize race after 6 months and understand the concept of “things for boys” and “things for girls” after 18 months. By that time, it’s already over.
Children are exposed to the Internet younger and younger, let’s not quibble about that. They are exposed to pornography at earlier ages as well (the average age of first exposure is 11 years old). They are exposed to children’s cartoons (which are usually well-intentioned but problematic) and adult television shows (which are endemically sexist). They are taught what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl through the stories we tell each other.
Now magnify the influence of all these factors due to the pressures exerted by other family members, other adults, peer pressure at school and harassment. If some patriarchal religion is involved (like most denominations of Christianity), then the pressure to conform with gender expectations, and the punishments to gender rebelling children, is strong and constant from all these people.
In short, that’s gender socialization. None of us have escaped it. Even if we wish to change gender later in life, we were still socialized “man” or “woman,” and that’s something that can’t be changed no matter how hard you try.
Society encompasses not only individual human beings, but all the structure and apparatus of society. The conservative view that society is merely a bunch of individuals that happen to stick together is a laughable conceit. Individuals living in a social vacuum don’t have families, don’t form governments, don’t propagate culture. All those things are institutions which exist independently of any given individual.
I have already defined and attempted to describe the concept of institution. Individuals are only one part of the nature of an institution, and probably the least important part. The most important part of an institution, I think, is its aura of necessity and inevitability, especially as connected to what we believe is “natural” (another social construct). Religion is increasingly seen as unnecessary, and therefore loses power.
As I explain in the entry, institutions have a theoretical purpose (what we’re indoctrinated to believe the role of the institution is) and an actual purpose (the actual end product of the institution as observed and measured). Institutions depend on the reproduction and enforcement of various social constructs in order to fulfill their actual purpose.
To use an easy example, we’ve seen how pre-capitalist Western economies depended on slavery or feudalism, which are profoundly dependent on race, gender, status and marriage (and of course all governments depend on the nation construct). Therefore it’s always been in the interest of Western governments to enforce race, gender, status and marriage constructs. Now that we live in capitalist economic systems, and slavery is inefficient, governments can give lip service to race equality while maintaining immigration restrictions and letting corporations use minorities as unemployment buffer.
It’s not hard to understand how governments enforce race, gender, status and marriage (and call it “the public interest”): they use the power they have (condign, compensatory, conditioned). Likewise, organized religions, corporations in general, the mass media and the entertainment industry, schools and school systems, all have power they can use to enforce a specific view of the world and specific views on human relations.
But how does an institution that is not an organization enforce constructs? Well, I discussed previously how the family structure furthers the aims of indoctrination. Why do parents, by and large, do this if they are not being ordered to do so?
The obvious answer is that they all have some class interests in common. Parents share control over the life of another human being, and it’s in their interest to use that control in order to help that child to “be successful,” which means to conform. The Patriarchy pits men as a class against women as a class. Pseudo-science (such as that concerned with “proving” that race and gender are natural) exists because it fulfills the need of the organizations who pay for its continuation.
In order to understand the mechanics, the categories of power are a useful classification, because it is precisely power that we’re talking about here.
* Condign power- the use of force or the threat of force. In this category would be included the usual suspects: genocide, war (including the “war on terror” and its implied racism), torture, and other police or military forms of murder and rape. It also includes all forms of gynocide throughout history (witch-hunts, foot-binding, gender-selective abortions, etc), slavery, prostitution and pornography, rape, the assault and harassment of women for being women (including acid attacks), capitalist inequality (esp. in the rationing of health care, food and water, land), the use of neuroatypicality to justify the imprisonment and “treatment” of innocents, and so on. This list is obviously not meant to be exhaustive!
* Compensatory power- here we are talking, not about the power of the stick, but the power of the carrot. Think of all the things people are ready to do to obtain money or status, all the way from getting a job (which usually implies schooling and conformity) to being a “good parent,” a “good child,” “saved,” and so on.
So there are two elements here: one is the need for conformity and the fear of losing one’s source of money or status, and another is that these two elements lead people to become the executors of mental or physical violence, even against their class interests. The police and the military attack and kill against their own class interests, mostly because they are “doing their job.”
* Conditioned power- the power of being able to indoctrinate people. I’ve already delved into that when talking about socialization.
It is fair to posit that we’re re-creating our own oppression every day, and it’s easy to say that we should simply stop participating in our own oppression. Certainly there is a part of personal responsibility, especially for the privileged. But it’s equally important to remember that there are centuries and millennia of social evolution behind this oppression, that there are entire institutions built around it, and that it won’t go away simply because some people refuse to feed it. There is a tremendous amount of power behind every single prejudice we fight against. It is important to fight, but it’s equally important not to be delusional. Social problems can only be solved by collective action.
The constructionist view is not that there is a shadowy government somewhere pushing sexism, racism, nationalism or ableism on an unsuspecting world population. Rather, what we observe is the result of society being molded, over large periods of time, by these institutions which depend on sexism, racism, nationalism, ableism, and so on. When a vegetable is grown into a shape by a container, we don’t think there’s an atomic conspiracy to bring about that shape.
Social constructs are of vital importance to any discussion regarding human societies, human actions, social roles. They are, without exaggeration, the substance of our mental life (starting from the first words we learn, all the way to our sexuality and sexual orientation). They condition how we position ourselves in society, who we think we are, whether through our acceptance or rejection of their influence. So it’s crucially important for us to question this influence and to measure its justifications up with logic and the observed evidence.
So what is the aim of social constructionism? To me, the most basic aim of talking about constructionism and constructionist issues (especially gender, in my case) is to get people to realize that the social constructs they think are “natural” and “necessary” are neither, and that, like any other belief supposed to pertain to objective reality, they must be questioned before we blindly accept their influence.
But there is a larger goal here. As I’ve stated many times, the only way out is through collective action, but collective action starts with individual awareness, especially awareness of class. The realization that gender, race, heteronormativity, capitalism and inequality, the nation-state, and other constructs, can and should be questioned hopefully leads the individual to become aware of their place in the hierarchies resulting from those constructs, whether that position is one of privilege or of subordination.
The end goal is for people to just be able to conceive of a better world. As long as people believe that the way things are is fixed and immutable, they will refuse to construct something new in their own heads. If social constructs are unquestionable, then there’s no point in fighting for anything. But because social constructs can be opposed and we can formulate alternatives, we can work towards a more egalitarian society.
Slavish allegiance to the status quo, visceral hatred of anyone who opposes authority, blaming the victim, are all control mechanisms I’ve written about on this blog. But I don’t think they are natural or inevitable either. The truth cannot be badgered into silence or intimidated, and there will always be people ready to take up the truth.