Friday, March 13, 2015

Knowledge is constructed...

or produced or created...or whatever other word you want to use to signify being made up by humans. That doesn't mean that physical laws, like gravity (I'm using the word "law" in lieu a better term), are made up but rather that all human knowledge excepting those apparent physical laws is not "objective" and value free. Scientific research is human driven and that means there are instigators of it that have human driven agendas and there are users of the results of such research that have the same type of agendas. For instance, no ethical vegan would buy into the argument that scientific research that confines and tortures animals is "value free". 

Knowledge is not "discovered", it is created...and it has creators. And they are humans just like you...and me. And those humans that made up "knowledge" had/have a viewpoint and ideologies and motivations and desires just like you...and me.


Here's a quote from a paper I'm reading. When I first read this I had to put the paper down and walk away from it because is was so very unsettling to me and I think it was so unsettling because I dimly understood what the author was saying. The passage I'm reproducing has been paraphrased (and underlined) by me to fit in a little better into this bit of writing (don't worry, I'll link to the paper so you can read the original if you wish) but I won't mangle the core meaning of the passage.

If you are reading this essay, you are likely enrolled in a course that takes a critical stance. By critical stance we mean those academic fields (including social justice, critical pedagogy, multicultural education, anti-racist, postcolonial, and feminist approaches) that operate from the perspective that knowledge is socially constructed and that education is a political project embedded within a network of social institutions that reproduce inequality.
In your course, you will be studying key concepts such as socialization, oppression, privilege, and ideology and doing coursework that challenges your worldview by suggesting that you may not be as “open-minded” as you may have thought. You are encountering evidence that inequality not only exists, but is deeply structured into society in ways that secure its reproduction. You are also beginning to realize that, contrary to what you have always been taught, categories of difference (such as gender, race, and class) rather than merit alone, do matter and contribute significantly to people’s experiences and life opportunities.
This bit of information (that I paraphrased) came from a paper you can find here if you want to read the original. It's located on a website called that offers free registration (if you want) and downloadable pieces of writing from folks in all kinds of academic areas.

Knowledge is socially constructed and and education is politically driven and exists within a network of social institutions that reproduce inequality.

The passage above is saying that all these things you or I thought we "knew" (excepting some "laws" like gravity) were/are things that somebody else "constructed". They took some bits and pieces and put them together into sort of a "just so" story and then used that story to "explain" things...and that explanation was repeated and repeated and repeated for generations and morphed into "knowledge". Something we "know". Some people call this made up stuff "common sense". And...those people that made up "common sense" had ideologies and biases and viewpoints and those factors influenced that "common sense" that they constructed.

Here's one example, now, some of you may have already glommed onto this, I hadn't grasped it much beyond broad strokes until relatively recently, but some you might have pieced this together some time ago. Race. Race is "socially constructed", it's made up. There's no more biological difference between any of the various races of humans than there is between a calico cat and a tabby cat. Yes, some people look different than others, just like a calico cat looks different than a tabby, but they're still cats...with all the cat features and all the cat behaviors and likes and dislikes. And, various groups of humans look different from one another but they're still humans...with all the human features and all the human behaviors and likes and dislikes. That's not disregarding the fact that, while all cats are the same they are also each different, in that each of them have their own unique personality just as each human has their own unique personality. Ok? A thoughtful discussion about the persistence of the fantasy of a biological foundation for "race" can be read here.

Now, don't lose sight of the fact that the social consequences of our made up idea of "race" are real...because they are but...the foundation of the actual concept of "race" is simply a fairy tale that we've been told and have been telling ourselves for several hundred years. Obviously you're welcome to embark on your own journey of discovery or investigation and I would be glad to hear about what you the meantime when you hear "race", just think calico cat and tabby cat.

More entries here and here for reading related to the "race" thing.

Now...what does this have to do with anything? Well, in my last post I wrote a corollary to Audre Lorde's saying that you can't dismantle the master's house with the master's tools and that extension of her observation was that if you want to learn about the master...don't listen to the master or the master's sycophants. Who's the master? Well, essentially it's your culture. The master is essentially the same notion that Daniel Quinn wrote about in Ishmael. I wrote about Ishmael here and a little more here. tell ya the truth, I hadn't put together that Mr. Quinn and Audre Lorde were referencing the same thing until I started writing this blog post. None of this is new, I've just had a horribly hard time putting it together. It's slippery and hard to grasp and hard to hold in awareness. Interestingly, this was all being stirred up decades ago, way way back in the 1960s, except then it was called the "counterculture". And many many others have objected to and resisted and decried the hegemony and ideology of western european culture since its inception...that's something you can investigate further for yourself if you're so inclined.

It wasn't nearly as coherent then...mostly the ideas of the counterculture were those of opposition to the mainstream culture. There were no academic fields of study that had spent lots and lots of time in an effort trying to understand and comprehend counterculture or the elements of counterculture or where they came from and what they meant historically and operationally.

No, it mostly was just that a fair sized group of somewhat overprivileged (mostly young) people knew something stinky was going on and they wanted to get out of it. But, their attempt at leave taking was pretty disorganized and not well informed and it sort of flamed out, or subsided. The awareness that stinkiness was going on didn't disappear, nor did the impulse to get out of just sort of went off the radar of generally disseminated information. Knowledge that stinkiness is happening is a lot more widespread and well known than the master wants to let on. Many many different humans for many many years have tried to grapple with this but it's been really fragmented and incoherent and suppressed...who suppressed it? The master (western european culture).

Well, it's back...and it's been back for several decades...and it's called the critical stance. And it's been busy. And I apologize to myself and to anyone else who cares to hear it. I apologize for not putting this stuff together before now. It's still really really fuzzy to me but not as fuzzy as it was.

Look, think about this, isn't veganism just another way of saying that something stinky is going on? Veganism focuses that awareness of stinky onto how human animals treat other animals. Feminism focuses that awareness of stinky onto how one group of human animals treats another group of human animals. Environmentalism focuses that awareness of stinky onto how human animals treat mother Earth.

From what I can see, every social justice movement is about something stinky that is being done to one group of beings (or mother Earth) by another group of beings. Oh...and all the doing of the stinky stuff is always by human animals. We have met the enemy and he is Walt Kelly so wisely wrote over 40 years ago. And...the something stinky is invariably the same thing. It's taking things from the other or enslaving the other or harming the other or denigrating the force...or by threat of force or by "common sense". Isn't it? Doesn't that pretty much cover it? And, stinkiness is embedded into our culture and often masquerades as "common sense"...and that makes it really really hard to resist without recreating it.

I apologize if this seems weird to you. So many different things and ideas and knowings are starting to coalesce for me right now that it's sort of overwhelming. I regret not being more coherent. I sorta feel like people have described feeling when they were on an acid trip (which, by the way, many who took acid did so because they were trying to break out of the masters house and the master's version of didn't work too well but ya gotta appreciate the effort).

It's the weirdest thing, truly. This time of my life is developing (seemingly) into the most exciting and astonishing time I've ever experienced. At the same time it is, in some ways, the most awful and the most painful. Who was it...Dickens...that's was Charles Dickens who wrote: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...". Old Charley could turn a with staying power.

I realize this all might sound goofy to sort of sounds goofy to me...but it really isn't. In some ways I'm less goofy than I've ever been even though I might sound just the opposite. A long long time ago I did something that was spectacularly "crazy"...I mean really strange, dramatically strange (not harmful or destructive...just very weird). It took until many years later when I related this incident to a wise friend who helped me make sense of it (prior to that I simply felt horrified and scared and ashamed about what I had done). He pointed out that sometimes when we think we are at our "craziest" is when we are at our most sane...and his saying that suddenly made that "awful" thing I did pop into complete clarity. It made me see what I was trying to do and it wasn't "crazy" at was about as truthful and sane and real as it is possible to be. It was an amazing's still amazing. (crazy isn't being used derogatorily here, it's just a shorcut word for meaning not corresponding to what most think of as 'reality')

And these times right now resemble that, they feel like the most disconnected from "reality" ever and at the same time they feel like the most connected to "reality". Another way of understanding the word "reality" is that it is a short cut for the phrase "the just so stories that we tell ourselves to help us understand everything going on inside of and outside of ourselves". The reality created by western european culture is characterized accurately as being one that creates and reproduces inequalities wherein various groups of beings dominate and oppress other groups of beings. No wonder abdicating from stinkiness is so damn hard.

"A network of social institutions that reproduce inequality"...remember that phrase from above? What we think of as "reality", the ways in which we understand ourselves and the world we are in is mostly stuff made up by other humans...and the culture/reality that is home to me is one that is characterized by its devotion to reproducing inequality. When I try to think about not doing inequality, I use the tools of the 'master' and I often unwittingly and unknowingly simply reproduce inequality. But...I've changed the way it looks so...I probably don't recognize it as inequality anymore. Then I feel "good" because I made "progress". But...maybe I didn't...maybe I just rearranged the inequality to where I don't recognize it as such anymore and maybe, later, I will see that I just created another problem of inequality...or maybe not...maybe I'll never catch onto the fact that I didn't.

It's a toughie, isn't it? What a trip. Just wow. I'll stop for now with this...if I'm feeling like I do now and I ever meet the two women who wrote that paper I quoted from previously...I will hug them both while wearing a big big smile and thank them from the core of my being. What a wonderful and excellent thing they wrote. Jeez.


Sheria Reid said...

Thank you for visiting my blog, The Examined Life. Decided to return the favor and I'm happy that I did. I will return again and again.

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Sheria. I was extremely lucky to have blundered onto your writing and thank you for your efforts. You help others see that which is obvious but invisible to many and that's...well...awesome. Thanks for taking the time to visit and comment. I'm looking forward to learning more from you.

Have Gone Vegan said...

Ha ha, stinky's a great word. But you're right, vegans, feminists, environmentalists, etc., are all just trying to de-stink this world of ours. The root of the bad smell is the same, with the focus or lens slightly different.

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. Glad you liked it. :-)