February 04, 2009
I’ve touched on some problems of social construct theory before, more than once, and noted that its implications could appeal to unsavoury motives:
If a person’s tastes and disposition are primarily socially constructed, that person can also, presumably, be remade to suit society and its representatives. Such high-minded Agents of Society might even become “engineers of the human soul,” to borrow Stalin’s phrase.
With the above in mind, let’s turn our attention to the feminist commentator Amanda Marcotte, whose book cover mishap entertained us so. In a recent outpouring, Ms Marcotte offered this:
The theory that women have a natural urge to have babies is one that’s got a long and ignoble sexist history, [...] None of that is to say that the urge to have children that some (but far from all) women experience isn’t real, and that’s my other giant problem with the ongoing preoccupation with [evolutionary psychology] theories to explain things that are cultural constructs…
Note that Ms Marcotte is quite insistent on this point. The inclination to reproduce simply is a cultural construct, and a dubious one at that. Why humans should apparently be unique in this regard, untouched by biology, isn’t entirely clear. Presumably, human beings - specifically human men - have constructed elaborate patterns of behaviour to mimic almost exactly biological inclinations that are felt as real, by men and women, but which don’t in fact exist.
That something is a cultural construct doesn’t make it less real, it just means that it’s more changeable. This seems like a small distinction, but it’s an important one. I am routinely accused by evo psych fans of denying that men and women are different. I do think there are major culturally constructed differences, and I think most of them exist to demean and oppress women and should be changed in the culture. That’s not to say that they aren’t real, but just that they’re changeable.
To which, Protein Wisdom’s Darleen Click not unreasonably replies:
Interestingly, nowhere would [Marcotte] state something so positively about homosexuality or transgenderism… no, those aren’t subject to change at all, no social construct there.
As a PW reader points out,
So, the urge/feeling/inclination/whatever to bear offspring - ultimately the fundamental biological goal of any species - is a social construct, while “gender identity”, sexual orientation, and other politicized issues are as unchanging and fixed as the heavens.
Another reader notes,
So a woman acting like a woman is a cultural construct, but a woman acting like a man is biologically preordained.
Jeff Goldstein adds the following:
Social construct theorists like Amanda are often trapped by inconsistencies in their own arguments, which… are often selectively applied, and based, conveniently, on the specific ethical frame of those who would deny biology or essentialism in favor of an explanation for human action that is always necessarily about power relations and the construction of perceptions that act as if they were biological imperatives.
Deconstructing - and so reconceptualizing - the “social construct” that Amanda suggests was built up by patriarchal forces to trick women into thinking the desire to procreate and “mother” is a biological imperative is, to her way of thinking, good. Reconceptualizing the “social construct” that tricks homosexuals or the transgendered into thinking that their behavior is biologically driven, on the other hand, is, conversely, reductive, evil, and Christianist. In short, she wants to have it both ways - and she wants this precisely because it puts her in charge of deciding for everyone else what is right and what is wrong, socially speaking.
Update, via the comments:
Undaunted by the concerns above, Ms Marcotte rumbles on:
The myth of the biological clock is, for instance, an attempt to preserve a cultural construct that makes motherhood an obligation instead of a choice, for no other reason than the fear that if some women choose not to have children, we’d have to redefine women away from their roles and closer to how we define men, which is as complete individuals.
Note the pile of assumptions in just that one sentence. An unspecified “cultural construct” somehow makes motherhood “an obligation instead of a choice.” Apparently this diabolical construct is “preserved” (by unspecified villains) solely to ensure that women without children aren’t recognised as “complete individuals.” The thought of women being recognised as “complete individuals” apparently makes some (unspecified) people very, very frightened.
I can of course think of some individuals and institutions, chiefly in non-Western cultures, which do seem threatened by the prospect of women as autonomous beings. Indeed I’ve written about some of them, unkindly and at length. But Marcotte’s repeated use of abstract generalities steers readers to the assumption that this is pretty much the position of menfolk everywhere. Now I know quite a few women and my estimation of their individuality and/or “completeness” isn’t based on whether or not they happen to have children or are capable of gestation. And I don’t think I’m particularly unusual in this regard. In fact, I don’t know anyone personally who does evaluate women on that basis. So who, exactly, is Ms Marcotte talking about? Given her adamance and slightly paranoid tendencies, she really ought to be clear about this.
And if the species’ inclination to reproduce (or become pregnant, or to parent or whatever) is real only as a malleable social construct, what, then, did we do earlier in our history before this construct was sufficiently widespread and developed? And how did such a thing arise at all, if not at least in part from actual, biological differences between men and women?
I’m reminded of another feminist pundit, Freethinker, who claims,
Gender as a male/female dichotomy is a social construct more than anything else… The only reason gender dichotomy seems like a fact is because of the way the society is organised.
Again, one notes how “social constructs” and “the way society is organised” are deemed to determine how people behave above and beyond all else, but are much less often entertained as the possible consequences of biological facts. There doesn’t seem to be much willingness to ask whether “the way society is organised” has at least a little to do with evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology and (gasp) human nature.
Freethinker goes on to say,
Men in our country also love to point to ‘strength,’ mental and physical, as a point of difference. And they need to be told that if women were not conditioned into gender-appropriate behaviour that renders their bones and muscles weak from disuse and their minds unassertive and submissive, they would have all the strength.
A bold claim, and again quite insistent. Though I suspect one or two weight lifters, male and female, would take a different view. One based on first hand experience, rather than bare ideology.