We’re told that our realities are constructed by, and constitutive in, our social interactions. Gender, sex, race, class, identities, the imaginations of ourselves in relation to the infinite others populating our existence. And through social rituals of performing our identities, we construct, imagine, and develop our attributes and characteristics within existing power frameworks.
A popular trend in the status quo seeks to posit that because some ‘x’ is a social construct, it does not matter—that the constructionist attribute of a concept renders it somehow less important, less potent, and less valuable. From the construction of the attribute comes the dismissal of its value—as if anything being constructed would diminish its authenticity, and hence the need to treat it as an important attribute and characteristic for individuals. Problematically, the logic does not follow.
The first observation is that everything is—to various extents—socially constructed. Some are more obvious than others: we construct gender through iterating and performing gendered norms that are inculcated in us from a young age by our parents, family, society, and education; we construct the value of money through repeated interactions with others in which money is employed as a storage of value and vehicle of financialised power. Some are less obvious, such as the fact that we view humans through ‘sexed lenses’ largely derives from our prior understanding of gender (Judith Butler), or that we understand the differences amongst races through a mixture of colonial frames installed initially to divide and conquer (Frantz Fanon), and historical tribalism that developed out of lineages. Some are yet even more implicit, such as the way in which our language games and interpretations of reality are shaped by the language in which we converse (cf. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), or that we could never really be certain that an external reality exists beyond the reality established by intersubjective consensus.
But I have no interest in spending this piece examining the intricacies of constructionist philosophy. To posit that some attribute is socially constructed is trivial and uninteresting. As Lukes points out—when power is everywhere (as per Foucault), the term ‘power’ becomes trivial and vacuous. Exactly because everything we know is mediated by social construction, I find the claim that ‘x’ is socially constructed definitively represents some valuable information absurd, and bizarre. What we really ought to ask is—so what?
The second observation I’ll make is that the metric of authenticity should be detached from the metric of constructionism. As a non-binary queer, I am deeply aware that my gender identification is socially constructed through the dichotomous labels of gender binaries, and my violent definition of my gender identity in antithesis to the bifurcation provided with me by society. But this does not render my identification any less authentic—for the determinant of authenticity should be the strength of feeling and emotional reaction. Similarly, trans individuals should not have their experiences denigrated merely because “both gender and sex are socially constructed anyway”. For trans individuals, their gender identities (different from the ones assigned at their birth) are phenomenally real—and manifest in deeply powerful emotions that are authentic. Whether or not their identities are ‘constructed’ by society is irrelevant, because the object of social justice is not a futile one of ‘expelling social construction’ (in and of itself a construction process), but of helping people achieve what they subjectively conceptualise as the authentic ideal for themselves. How you choose to define yourself in relation to your parents, loved ones, children, and friends may be socially constructed in their genesis, but what should play a role in determining how you treated should be how you currently experience these generated attributes.
Some critics of identity politics like to imagine that they’ve found the ‘ultimate’ trump card against Queer rights, when they go: “Ha! You acknowledge that sex and gender are socially constructed, so why should you not also concede that you are merely living under a false consciousness that has misled you to stray from the (cis-heteronormative) norm?” But this objection makes no sense. Firstly, to the extent that the false consciousness claim holds, tu quoque—the norm is just as constructed and just as a part of any false consciousness as the alleged ‘false consciousness’ that Queer individuals live under. Secondly, given that a vast majority of social discourse perpetuates a privileging of the cis- and the het-, it is more plausible that the false consciousness effect extends in the opposite direction—i.e. that it is perpetuating a cis-heteronormative hegemony, as opposed to a Queer hegemony. Thirdly, it appears very demeaning to posit that all Queer individuals cannot genuinely desire or fundamentally prefer their identities (i.e. hold second-order preferences that match onto their revealed preferences). But fourthly—and most importantly—to the extent that false consciousness and social construction exist on both sides, surely the best solution should be the one which allows individuals to live most comfortably with their identities within a society that seeks to repress their rights to self-identify. The metric of social justice is about the feelings and experiences of individuals, not what we’d subjectively vet to be most ideal for these people.
The third observation is that the means through which we establish our identities is inherently social. Brian Wong means nothing if it is a solitary speck in an empty universe. There is no way for me to acquire an understanding of the ‘Self’, in a land where my subjective consciousness is the only consciousness floating in an abstract, empty space. We relate our identities in relation and relativity to others, and that is why the social construction that goes into our identities is so essential. Through constant comparisons, contrasts, adaptations and imitations with others, we find our place within a complex and multi-dimensional social reality. To posit that because something is socially constructed, that said something ought to be neglected or ignored, is not only unrigorous: it also ignores the most basic processes by which humans integrate themselves into mass society.
Yes, the labels and categories we employ to understand ourselves are tools given to us by society. But the choice for the individual is perpetually conditional—it is not the question, “What would you aspire to be in a vacuum?”, but rather the question “Given that you are Brian Wong, born in October 1997, what would you aspire to be?” And whilst your answer may indeed be written in the language of your society, this does not render it any less worthy of respect or dignity. We must look beyond the allure of dismissing socially constructed items in order to appreciate a very simple fact. Yes, reality is socially constructed. But so what?