Friday, July 14, 2017

On the Social Construction of Race and Gender

On the left today, we often hear about how race and gender are “social constructs”.  But what does this mean, and why do we on the left believe it is important?

There is a lot of confusion, even among academics, about what this means.

Experience can be categorized into the physical, the biological, and the mental. To say something is a “social construct” is simply to say that it exists on the mental level. (Marx referred to these levels as the “base and super-structure”).

Levels of existence
How do humans experience them?
The fact of our physical existence
How our organs, bones, and muscles works
Experience, thoughts, memories, emotions
What else has this existence?
Rocks, non-living molecules, water, fire, air
plants, amoeba
Social animals

Many academics argue against the primacy of social constructs in determining human behavior, claiming that “behaviour is a complex outcome of both biological and cultural influences.” (Wikpedia) This criticism is the same as arguing that “the laws of geometry are essential to understanding genetics.” Anyone who can comprehend a Punnett Square can tell you, “no, they are not!”  

Academia treats geometry and genetics as completely separate disciplines in separate departments, and yet some academics refuse to acknowledge that sociology and biology share just as big a gap.

Human social behaviors are best understood as socially constructed.

Claiming that genes determine behavior (the “resilience gene” or the “warrior gene”) is not very useful, because the process of how social behaviors is better analyzed from the social level.  Genetics is useful for analyzing biological features, such as handedness or eye-color. It is not useful to say genetics causes social behaviors, any more than it is to claim the laws of geometry “cause” biological evolution, or that Annie Oakley “caused” WWI (by not killing Kaiser Wilhelm decades before the war when he asked her to shoot the ash off of his cigar.) There is simply too large a gap between genetics and society for this type of analysis to be useful.

I like this blogger’s description of the social construction of gender:
“Gender is a construct of identity and language, as the ability to think and express a gender identity is essential to claiming one (rather than having one thrust upon you, as many do upon seeing a baby’s genitals). It’s not until children become verbal that they begin to process and sort out what they understand gender to be, as they try to map language to the world they see. Since our society so strongly prefers a binary understanding of gender that maps onto genitals, it simplifies things and collapses gender and sex into one thing.”
Capitalism is quite good at taking social constructs and manipulating them for its purposes. For example, capitalism relegated to women the unwaged work of social reproduction--socializing and preparing the next generation of workers.

Capitalism also, terribly, led white slave owners traders in the mid to late 17th century to create new legal categories of race in order to keep workers divided, and, later, to provide a moral justification for the funding of further imperialism through the rapid accumulation of capital on the backs of slave labor.

Race is an arbitrary legal categorization based on a superficial biological marker (skin color), which does not correspond closely to the genetic similarity of different individuals (i.e. a Chinese person will often have greater genetic similarity to an African than to many of the other Chinese from his or her hometown!).  

The following is some thoughts on religion, and my belief about its role in how social constructs were first formed.

The purpose of religion is to transform the biological into the mental. “Religion” comes from the Latin “religare” meaning “to bind.” As ominous as this sounds, I believe that religion is an innate human impulse, the whole point of which is to remember good experiences--to “bind” the memory of the experience to the mind through the creation of new descriptive language. Religion, thus, brought humans into a new type of existence--mental existence.

Originally, gender, I believe, is an example of this religious impulse to bring mental life into the biological experience of being human.

Today, though, through the process of cisgender normalization, gender sadly has come to play an opposite role. Rigid, bourgeois-prescribed gender norms take mental life out of our experiences. Free thinking is shut down by the ritualized shaming and assaulting of non-cisgender-conforming people.

1 comment :

  1. I believe overstated my position. There is some truth in the statement “behaviour is a complex outcome of both biological and cultural influences.” But even so, I would argue that human history points to the increasing influence of culture. Marx argued that our species-essence is that we as humans, to some extent, can shape our own nature. Yes, human behavior has some genetic causes, but the whole point of our species is freedom and self-determination through the overcoming of our biology (Nietzsche).