Insidious Societal Contructs Dictate Our Lives
Social constructs shape our lives in a profound and little-addressed way. Race, class, gender, the state — these are all constructions. They exist because we, as a society, live by their tenets and allow them to shape our lives. Let us consider, for a first example, the state. While the state seems to many a crucial, fundamental part of our society, its legitimacy is drawn only from popular consent and an ability to provide social benefits to most members of society. As Locke would put it, the state exists because of a social contract between members of society. The state’s power isn’t based on anything tangible, but rather the consent of the people living under it and the sense of legitimacy they give to its actions. It is as constructed as a skyscraper, no more than an amalgamation of various parts. But as a social construction it exists only because we, as a society, believe it to be so.
I have used the state as an example to illustrate a further point that many of the rules that govern how our culture functions are not tangible or based in practicality, but on edifices that have slowly evolved in our society to become so accepted, so real, that one could hardly imagine the world without them. Let us look at gender as another example. Many believe their gender to be an immutable part of their identity. Others reject the gender society gave them and choose to identify as another. But gender itself exists only arbitrarily because humanity has created it. Taking a step back, one’s sex is no more important a physical distinction than height or hair color. Despite this, gender is an incredibly powerful force. It dictates the “normal” operation of social relationships, keeping women from achieving equal standing and forcing men to conform to abstract notions of masculinity. The conception of gender as a constructed identity began in the 1970s among historians, largely due to the emergence of the field of “Women’s History.” Since then it has become a major way that historians examine the past. All of this when looked at from a distance is groundless.
Race is the most absurd example of how social constructions dictate our lives. There is absolutely no evidence for the idea that one’s skin color could determine personality traits or intelligence. This fallacy was created by a set of historical circumstances in the past four centuries that brutally subjected millions to slavery. Howard Zinn would say that racism emerged in order to prevent poor whites from allying with their black contemporaries against the white planter class in Colonial America. His book, A People’s History of the United States was one of the first major works of history to propagate this conception of race. Since then it has firmly taken root among historians and political scientists. Whatever its true origin, and despite the end of formal segregation, race, as a social construction, still has profound implications for the world we live in. The color of one’s skin, ludicrously enough, determines a huge amount about how one is seen by others, how individual identity is formed and the course one’s life takes.
Societies have always lived under arbitrarily created rules and ways of thinking. Lordship, nobility and chivalry were all very real things in the Middle Ages and yet have totally disappeared from the modern world.
Let us all reflect on the way that we live in a world bound together not by tangible things but by constructed ideas that dictate social relationships.