Sunday, March 15, 2009

Does "Socially Constructed" Equal "Bad"?

Like so many other good ideas that went too far, our insatiable urge to "deconstruct" things began in the 1960's. With the help of postmodernist philosophy, The Western World began its infatuation with pointing out social constructions and deconstructing them - allegedly to show the truth behind the fictions.

But we seldom take the time to ask ourselves a simple but necessary questions: Just because it is socially constructed, does that mean it is wrong or bad? All it means for something to be socially constructed - as the label suggests - is that a thing is artificially constructed by individuals rather than naturally existing. While baseballs, bats, and gloves exist, the rules of baseball are socially constructed. While dinner plates and teacups exist, the etiquette of the tea party are socially constructed. Does that mean that the fomer "really" existing things are any more beneficial than the latter? Does the fact that the rules of baseball and tea parties are socially constructed mean automatically that they are arbitrary? (Unfortunately, postmodernism taught us not only how to spot social constructions, but to automatically associate them with arbitrariness.)

Consider the following quote from an interview in the book Generation Me:

"My generation is much more independent. I pride myself on being a free and independent thinker. My wish is to break down the walls that humans have socially constructed." (Generation Me, Kindle edition, loc. 457)

That which is socially constructed is synonymous with a wall that needs to be "broken down," while that which is not socially constructed - in this case, that which is individually constructed, is to be worn like a badge connoting "free[dom] and independence."

Just as one can argue that blind acceptance of social constructions is a symptom of not thinking, so, I think, is the above reaction that "social constructions" should be avoided. The question that both sides should be asking is whether the social construction has merit - whether it exists for a good reason or whether it is, in fact, arbitrary.

Many socially constructed rules I can think of are not only completely non-arbitrary, but exist for a definite and good purpose. One example that always comes up is (what used to be) the etiquette of walking in crowds. Like rules of traffic, people used to adhere to the rule that one walks on the right. This rule, while socially constructed, serves (actually, served) a definite purpose of reducing the amount of bumping and careening that would occur when walking in public. (Nothing maddens me more than walking in a mall where no one follows this rule, and as a result, one must watch in front of them every second to avoid careening into other walkers.)

The use of money (and especially credit), the idea of tipping wait staff, and the courtesy of sending thank you notes to those who do something nice for you are all social constructions. But I don't see how anyone could argue that these things are arbitrary.

To me, the measure of whether to follow a social construction or not is to evaluate whether the rule is one that, if followed by everyone, does some good and, if ignored by everyone, would make things less good. (Certainly this is why the rule of walking on the right side is worthy of being followed, because when no one follows it, walking in crowds becomes more haphazard.)

Inevitably, someone reading this will wonder if its author is a conservative prig that bemoans the good old days when we followed rules for the sake of following rules. I assure this reader that I am nothing of the kind, but only one who believes that there is something to be said for rules when those rules can be shown (by the above method) to be well-advised and practical.

In fact, my fiancee and I are getting married in about six weeks and have decided to dispense with many of the arbitrary but oft-followed socially constructed rules. Here are a few rules that we have decided not to follow (much to the dismay of the more conservative ones in our families):

(a) we are going to hyphenate both of our names. (We will both be "Currie-Knight." We decided that doing it any other way does an injustice to the 50/50 nature of our fusing of identities.

(b) my parents are paying for the wedding (her parents have opted to give us a down-payment on a future house)

(c) I will not be wearing a tuxedo, but a very nice suit

(d) We are not going on a honeymoon (as getting the time off of work is tedious, and we have already taken big vacations together. We'd rather use the money towards something more useful.)

All of the rules that are broken above (taking the man's last name, the bride's parents paying for the wedding, wearing a tuxedo, honeymoon) are examples of social constructions that have no utility and are etiquette for the sake of etiquette. These are the types of social constructions that I think many have in mind when they express disdain for social constructions. Traffic laws, an economy built on credit, and the US Constitution are examples of social constructions that nobody seriously argues are arbitrary.)

So, why do we have so much disdain for anything smacking of "social construction"? Like so many other good ideas, I think the idea of nonconformity and skepticism of tradition is an idea that was just pushed too far. It is certainly good to be independent, but being so to the point of abandoning the mores of the job interview can be positively deleterious. It is okay to question authority, but to do so to the point of developing a knee-jerk reaction to anything that smack's of instruction or the imparting of wisdom can bite one in the ass. It is okay to rebel against rules of etiquette when such rules can be smacked down as arbitrary, but we must be mindful that many socially constructed things were socially constructed for a reason: they serve a valid social purpose of creating order.

So next time you get bumped into while strolling the aisles of the mall, ask yourself: are all social constructions arbitrary and wrong and arbitrary?

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