Friday, September 23, 2016

Quote and variations.

I recently ran across this quote that concisely explains what is meant by the phrase "social construction".

Here's the quote:
“We think we see ‘race’ when we encounter certain physical differences among people such as skin color, eye shape, and hair texture. What we actually ‘see’ (or more accurately ‘perceive’) are the social meanings that have been linked to those physical features by the ideology of race and the historical legacy it has left us.”

-- Smedley, Race in North America (xii)
I read it several times and realized that it could be tweaked a little and accurately reference other instances that we tend to think have some meaning outside of what we humans make up and apply to such ideas. For instance "gender":
We think we see ‘feminine’ or 'masculine' when we encounter certain physical or other differences among people such as size, voice timbre, clothing, behaviors and hair length and/or style. What we actually ‘see’ (or more accurately ‘perceive’) are the social meanings that have been linked to those various features by the ideology of gender and the historical legacy it has left us.”

-- Smedley, Race in North America (xii) (modified for “gender”)
It's instructive and enlightening to consider terms like "race" or  "gender" or other terms that are socially constructed...which means humans made them "explain" something and those explanations have been created via the interactions of power and culture and history and such and...they can change depending on any or all of those factors.

They aren't fixed...they morph and change to suit shifting times and circumstances...all the while upholding structures of oppression.

The problem of oppression isn't that there are differences among living beings...the problem is created by the fantasized (but purposive) meanings humans attach to those differences.

And...way way too often these human created meanings of differences (sometimes called "identities") are then used to mark which living beings are targets for oppression and policing and control and violence and which beings are considered to be "fully human" and "superior" and worthy of freedom.

For one powerful instance of human created 'meaning' go here and read about the difference between having white skin and the ideology of whiteness. Those are two different things, one is simply a description referencing skin color and the other is a human constructed system of comprehension and understanding (an ideology) designed to implement and maintain oppression. 

Having white skin is one thing...the ideology of whiteness (often attached to and conflated with having white skin) is something quite different.

For a further insightful bit of writing about these notions...go read Aph Ko's excellent article regarding the need for change in our conceptualizing about the way we understand "knowledge" and liberation.

Hmmm...when we forget history and context and relate to social constructions as if they are independent of human made meaning...well...that's when we enter the troublesome land of believing that fantasy is "true" and while that could theoretically be fun and interesting...the sad fact is that, way too often, it gets misleading and dangerous and harmful real fast.

Here's one last quote that tells us something very important:
The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world.

—James Baldwin
I have slowly and haltingly...oftentimes with dismay and sorrow...come to realize that things like liberation and social justice and freedom are simply out of reach without doing some arduous and frequently frightening and painful digging into my own ways of understanding the world and how I've been taught to comprehend the living beings in that world.

Think of it this way...most of the people I know seem to be good-hearted and well intentioned...I suspect most of the people you know are too. If that's the is it that we live in a social world where living beings are routinely subjected to horrendous instances of harm and oppression?

What the hell is going on?

I'm saying that maybe we're seduced and/or co-opted into...without intention or desire...being complicit in upholding and maintaining those systems of oppression.

And maybe...part of what's getting in our way of breaking out of these systems of harm has to do with our understandings. Maybe a big part of our job...if we are desirous of interrupting these to start digging into our own selves and into the understandings that were given to us by our culture and our society and figuring out which of those understandings have some actual non-harmful utility and those which primarily serve to uphold and keep the operations of oppression in place.

Maybe...if we want things to change...part of what we have to do is to engage in the work of changing ourselves by examining and revising our comprehension and our understanding.

Wallowing around with and wrestling with all this is absolutely the most difficult and painful thing I've ever undertaken in all my life. I fluctuate between astonishment and dismay and bewilderment and sorrow...sometimes...I even have moments of clarity. I must admit that clarity is rare...but it does happen on occasion. And's quite a treat when it does.

I'm dreadfully old to be engaged in something like this...most of you who read this are probably much younger than me. Don't wait, please...the longer you put off this quest the longer you (without meaning to) engage in oblivious complicity in upholding systems of harm.

I firmly believe we can do better than what we've done so far...but...we must do the work of taking apart these social constructions that we confuse with "reality" that our culture/society has presented to us. And...once we do that and gain a little more accurate understanding then we can better choose how to go about achieving social justice.

This is what I think so no way do I believe I don't have further to go. If you see obvious errors or distortions here...please...let me know what you think. Heck, it's even ok to let me know if you think this makes sense.  



Unknown said...

This is an insightful and revealing journey of an evolved and still evolving white male. The only addition I would make is this: the fear of change or loss which binds too many people in the same life constructs for too long during their lifetimes is also a powerful obstructive force. I feel that I am dragging people, including myself at times, into a different spcial perspective. It's not that they are evil or mean-spirited for the most part, but are so afraid of change that they prefer to live in the comfort of familiar pain rather than experience new or strange feelings and perspectives. Unfortunately, if you don't risk pain or discomfort, you never experience the epiphany that unburdening yourself of
systemic prejudices and blindness is freeing.

Have Gone Vegan said...

Thank you for the two links (I'd read the second one before, but it was worth rereading for sure), and the hopeful quote by James Baldwin.

Scary how identifying as white makes one almost completely oblivious to what whiteness actually means, although I suppose it may be a good illustration of how power aligns with ignorance as mentioned in the previous post's graphic.

Oh, received The Politics of Reality in the mail last week, and boy is it frightening to be reading the kind of stuff I read thirty years ago, and have it still be so relevant because things haven't changed enough. *shakes head*

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Sherry. Something I've noticed in myself is that I rarely (if ever) have entered into thinking/reading/doing that I knew ahead of time would result in change in my perspective or sense of myself. Mostly it just "happened" and there was anticipatory 'fear of change'. Things just got sort of spooky and disorienting before I knew what was coming.

Yet...I have heard other people say, when presented with new information that might challenge some way of thinking and/or perceiving they might have, "I don't want to know that"...and they meant it. I wonder if that is what fear of change looks like?

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. I just offered to bring a copy of an interview I ran across that focused on Marilyn Frye to a young woman who just finished her degree in philosophy. Apparently the male dominance in that field hasn't changed appreciably.

I don't "know" this as of yet but I'm beginning to suspect that the reason so many writings/thinkings about oppression seem sort of timeless is that the structures and operations of oppression haven't really been yet foundationally challenged in western Euro culture. Deep insights into its working are going to remain relevant as long as that's the case. Just the writing out of this thought increases my suspicion of its truth.

Also...that makes me wonder whether maybe that isn't about to change...mainly because the sudden salience of Trump on the scene could be thought of as a reaction to the perceived threat to those foundational operations of oppression? One thing that I suspect is often true is that when oppressive structures get resisted strongly...the pushback from those structures will move more and more toward violence and/or threats of violence. In other words...when the bad guys start getting scared...they tend to react with violence and/or threats of violence. There's little doubt that Trump is steeped in and enamored of all manner of violences. Hmmm...I hadn't thought of current doings in quite that way.

Trump isn't a "reaction" to Clinton...he's a reaction to a rising challenge to oppression? (Clinton isn't deviant from the status quo...Trump popped up because of other factors instead of Clinton?) Hmmm...more thinking needed here.