Friday, May 6, 2011

Socially Constructed Reality

The phrase has almost descended to the rank of slogan. College students and people who should know better repeat it as though it were a mantra: reality is socially constructed.

It is not a fact. It’s a theory. It purports to explain, not facts, but the way social groups construct belief systems. And how these same groups force everyone to accept their beliefs as facts.

To be brief, it’s a complex and thorny issue.

Stanley Fish has presented some of the basic ideas in two columns in the New York Times.I find them both puzzling and intriguing. Links here and here.

I have been pondering the questions for several days now, and, the more I think about them, the stranger they become.

At first, it feels like yet another mind-over-matter problem. Fish begins by explaining that some people believe that we only know reality because our minds process sensory and perceptual stimuli, and then identify objects. This theory assumes that, as a consequence, if we learn to think differently we can change the world.

Fish insists, correctly, that this is an exercise in epistemology, the philosophy of how we gain and acquire knowledge.

He asserts that you cannot get from epistemology to political action. Epistemology is descriptive; political action is prescriptive. The former pretends to show how our minds gain knowledge; the latter involves what we should do to change that reality.

I find his distinction to be germane, salient, and correct.

Just as hard science does not have a moral dimension, neither does epistemology.

Of course, using our minds to know reality is not the same as using our minds to construct reality.

Being involved in an exchange with real objects is not the same as creating or constructing those objects out of a blur of stimuli.

Normally, we develop ideas of reality and test them against real objects in the world. Therefore, we affirm or deny the validity or our ideas.

The theory of mentally constructed reality makes us all artists. It says that when reality does not correspond to our ideas then we need to work harder to ply it into an aesthetically pleasing form.

Saying that reality is mentally constructed is not the same as saying that it is socially constructed. The latter, more prevalent theory, says that we create reality by the way we talk about things.

It’s one thing to say that if we learn to think differently we can change the world. It’s quite another to say that if everyone speaks differently the world will be changed. In some circles the way we speak about things is called discourse.

The theorists who concocted this witch’s brew would not be contented with changing the way we think, They want us to change the way we speak about things. And this cannot happen without indoctrination and thought reform. You cannot achieve this goal without policing speech.

Obviously, the theorists who are doing this work are not very worried about your ability to distinguish a plum from a peach, or a rock from a tree.They are more worried about how you group objects, how you place them in categories. Which is the next step beyond identifying them.

And they are not even very interested in whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. They are more concerned with how people organize in society, how they belong to this group and not that one.

Fish states it quite succinctly: they are aiming to modify the structure of society itself, and especially of social groups. In principle, groups include some people and exclude others. In other words, groups discriminate. They organize the world into friends and foes.

And they have different reasons for including or excluding people.

Some groups value blood ties. These tribal groups confer membership by birth. You cannot become part of the group by work, by conforming to the group‘s values, or by practicing the group’s rituals and ceremonies.

If a group values blood ties, you are generally obliged to support those with whom you are linked by blood, regardless of what they do or how they do it.

Group organization by blood ties generally have more tolerance for the behavior of those who belong and more intolerance for the behavior of those who do not.

Tribal groups are not just limited to those who are linked by blood. People who join cults, which are pseudo-tribes, often feel obliged to excuse the bad behavior of fellow cult members and to denounce the bad behavior of anyone who does not belong.

Other groups value good conduct. They offer membership to those who affirm their values through the way they conduct their lives.

Following codes of good conduct sustains your membership in such a group. You are not obliged to defend the bad behavior of fellow group members; you are obliged to marginalize them.

So, groups include some and exclude others. That is the reality of group membership. If groups do not include some and exclude others there is no real value to membership.

Those who are excluded most often belong to different groups. Occasionally, someone will be ostracized, thus excluded from all groups.

By this concept groups are inherently discriminatory. Some exclude those who do not have the right blood lines. Others exclude those who do not share their values and practice their rituals.

Of course, critical theorists are opposed to discrimination in all forms. So they seem to want to alter the nature of groups to make it that everyone is included.

It doesn’t much matter how you got to America. You need to be offered citizenship. It doesn’t matter how you behave yourself; you must be included in the group. If you are not, then society has suffered the effects of an incorrect way of speaking about outsiders.

The theory holds that people are outsiders because we say that they are outsiders, not because of their behavior, their own ability to respect the laws of the nation and to adopt the cultural norms.

In some cases outsiders are persecuted; in others they are allowed to practice local customs as long as they share the nation's values.

Of course, if everyone must be welcomed into a group, then it is not really a group any more. To say that humankind should be a big group that includes everyone is to sabotage group values and to foster anarchy.

Anyway, according to Stanley Fish, those who theorize that reality is socially constructed tend to embrace a liberationist ideology. We might even say that it leads to liberation theology.

Since Fish does not believe that epistemology can lead to a political program, he disputes this liberationist ideology. Yet, he points out how important it is on the political and academic left.

In his words: “And I say this even though each movement on the intellectual left — feminism, postmodernism, critical race theory, critical legal studies — believes that the thesis generates a politics of liberation. It doesn’t; it doesn’t generate anything. Consciousness-raising has always been a false lure, although changes in consciousness are always possible. It is just that you can’t design them or will them into being; there is no method that will free us from the conceptual limitations within which we make invidious distinctions and perform acts of blindness. The best we can do is wait for a tree to talk to us.”

Of course, there’s liberation and there’s liberation.

When theorists posit that reality is socially constructed they are saying that they do not need to submit their theories to the judgment of reality.

You are free to prattle on, to spin theoretical webs, to apply them willy-nilly, without having to care about whether or not they work.

Saying that reality is socially constructed allows you to do as you please and to explain away the bad consequences by insisting that reality does not matter.

If your policies do not work, that can only mean that you need to work harder to force people to think and to speak differently.

In itself this is not a new idea. It is an old idea revived and dressed up to look like something else.

All of the revolutionary and liberationist theories of the past century have done everything in their power to explain why their theories should never be judged according to whether or not they worked in reality.

In fact, critical theorists have an even clearer goal in mind. Fish identifies it, and he seems to sympathize with it. That goal is ridding the world of the ideological sins that accompany discrimination.

Those are racism, sexism, homophobia, lookism, ageism, and the like.

Once these are identified as sins, and once the people of America are told that it is a crime against a higher power to use language or to institute practices that discriminate on the basis of race, gender, and the like, we have entered a world that resembles a religion.

One that holds as an article of faith that America is a corrupt country that needs nothing more than to cleanse its sins.

As it happens, America has the distinction of being one of the few countries in the world, and certainly the most prominent nation, where you can enjoy the full rights of citizenship and gain national identity regardless of race, creed, or national origin.

America has rules for acquiring citizenship, but they do not involve race, gender, sexual preference, age, or appearance.

Making America the whipping boy for one’s ideological obsessions requires a willful ignorance of the reality of the politics of national identity.

Deciding that America ought to accept anyone who enters the country, legally or illegally, as worthy of citizenship undermines the effort to play fair and by the rules.

America has succeeded because it has insisted that everyone play by the same rules. When the playing field has been tilted in one or another direction, America has done everything possible to make it fair and level.

One might say that the effort has been flawed and imperfect, but its considerable success has flowed from a spirit of fair play and good sportsmanship.

It has not come about because we undertook cathartic mental exercises to rid our minds and hearts of negative emotions toward a group.

When you set about to solve problems by exercising imperious control over hearts, minds, and discourse, you are running a risk. You have made the mistake of thinking that reality is socially constructed, that what matters is not whether the game is being played fairly but what the outcome is. At that point, you will undoubtedly run up against the realities of the marketplace.

Those who believe that reality is socially constructed have no real use for the marketplace. They do not care for fair competition and free enterprise. Theirs is a world that ignores reality in order to impose an ideology on the world.


The Ghost said...

when you hate the hard work of dealing with reality and adjusting your behavior to get ahead it sure sounds nice to be able to claim that there is no "reality" ...

losers always find an excuse for why they lost ...

Life Coach Critic said...

It is not surprising that you find the ideas in Stanley Fish's article "puzzling" as you've managed to confuse and misrepresent various aspects of social constructivism.

After attacking the solipsistic argument which Fish was clearly not arguing, you eventually consider the argument that social relationships can form our perception of reality. This argument, put simply, is that we only conceive of things according to how it has been constructed by the society of which we are a part. A chair is only allocated the term "chair" and given the function of "something you sit on" because of social norms we discover as a child. What would just be an assembly of various atoms is given meaning socially. Hence it is socially constructed.

But instead of engaging with an interesting argument, you develop a conspiracy theory.

This so-called "witch's brew" is suddenly something created so "they" can control our thoughts by using "indoctrination", because you think there no way of changing people's minds without "policing speech".

To assert that force is the only means of changing people's perceptions is absurd given your statement at the end that America gives citizenship rights "regardless of race, creed, or national origin". It was the civil rights movement that changed people's perceptions on race and led to political change. It did not come from thought-police and it did not just come from a "spirit of fair play and good sportsmanship"

You also argue it is a means of forcing an open-border immigration policy for the USA, something completely irrelevant to the philosophical debate and entirely down to your own prejudices.

"Saying that reality is socially constructed allows you to do as you please and to explain away the bad consequences by insisting that reality does not matter". Social constructivism in no way asserts that reality does not matter, but simply provides an explanation for how we perceive reality.

Apparently I have "no real use for the marketplace". There are so many things wrong with that statement, namely with how an epistemological position can affect my employability. But above all, I do not measure my worth according to what the market wants or to the opinions of a so-called "life coach".