Razib Khan recently wrote a good post about how retarded the whole tirade on “social constructs” can be. Gender is a social construct! Sports should be integrated! Come on. As a scientist it’s natural he gets pissed at the whole thing.
I commented there a while ago about how, you know, leftists are actually right. Race is a social construct. Gender is a social construct. They got that exactly right. It’s a rather profound point, and I’ve been thinking on exposing my argument a bit better. It’s a linguistic argument, but that’s what I do.
Let’s put it more precisely. Race is, obviously, not a social construct. But “race” is a social construct. As “gender” is a social construct. The same way “car”, or “moon”, or “democratic republic” is a social construct. Words are social constructs. That’s how language works. Word meanings are social conventions. There’s nothing else to it. If you raise a child in a community where the word “car” is used to refer to a certain subset of vehicles, then that’s what a “car” is. If you raise a child in a community where “fascists” is used to mean a certain subset of low-status people, that’s “fascists” are.
Of course there’s a lot of details about how children adopt the usage of words. Sure, language, as so much else, is a social convention. Most human behavior, indeed the behavior of most social animals is conventional. People from different places walk in different ways. Samurais pre-1860s famously had to be trained by French officers to run properly, as samurai practice was to lower your back and run in small steps like a 6 year old kid after shoplifting. Language works the same way. A sensitive person can tell accents and little quirks of speech at the village, even the family level.
But why would people adopt those conventions? That’s the real question. Why do people in villages adopt every tiny little intonation quirk? Part of it is just human instinct: people are mimetic creatures, as the late René Girard liked to say. But instinct evolved for a reason. To put it simple, adopting conventions is useful. It helps you get by. It gets you more status than you would get by not adopting the convention. Humans adopt behavior which is useful to them. Humans are pragmatic.
And so language use depends on its pragmatic nature. Race is, certainly, not a clear cut category. Humans can mix. There are continuums of genetic clusters. But humans, at least since the modern era, have classified humans in different races; often according to very crude markers such as skin color. Andaman Islanders aren’t at all African; no genetic test will cluster them with Nigerians. But if you found one at your local grocery store you would most likely call him black. Why? Because it’s useful. If Andaman Islanders were all incredible geniuses who gave you 10 bucks every time you met them, soon enough people would find a way of telling them apart from other dark skinned, kinda African-looking people who don’t give 10 dollar bills at first sight. But in real life, dark skinned, kinda African-looking people tend to behave in similar ways; so there’s no particular necessity to notice their little differences and tell them apart. Nigerians, Jamaicans, Kenyans and Somalis are interchangeable for most purposes. The same way people don’t care to tell apart Irish from Italians from Swedes in America. They do in Europe! Because it’s useful to do so. Not in the US: so they’re all white.
Wittgenstein made himself famous by basically destroying the whole academy of philosophy by pointing out the, on hindsight, obvious point that Philosophy is based in a misunderstanding of how language works. How people use language in daily life. Words don’t have definitions, they don’t have essences. Writing books about single words is completely pointless. Words are things we use in particular contexts; the use changes all the time. It’s all convention, and conventions are dynamic, pragmatic affairs.
Everything is a social construct; because society is very important for human life. Many people, in particular the sort of person who would read this blog, often can’t understand why most people believe common progressive ideas. Surely humans aren’t all equal! Surely open borders doesn’t make sense! Surely spending millions on transexual toilet rights is pointless! Why does anyone take all this seriously? Well, because it’s useful. Because not doing so brings very concrete social consequences.
If you put your finger in a fire, it burns. It hurts a lot. If somebody comes later and tells that you that fire doesn’t burn, to put your finger in the fire; you are likely to protest. Of course it burns. It hurts like crazy. But most things in life aren’t like that. Nobody has ever got burnt due to global warming. Most ideas don’t have immediate consequences. If somebody tells you that “Muslims belong in Germany”, unless you have been stabbed by a Muslim recently, the proposition doesn’t have real consequences for you. It’s just a set of words. Your reaction to that proposition doesn’t depend on your memory of getting your finger burnt. The only real consequences to that conversation is the opinion that your peers will have about you. So if your memory about talking on Muslims belonging in Germany is that any contrary opinion gets your peers mad, and results in you having lower status; well your reaction will be “sure, Muslims belong in Germany. Merkel is awesome”.
The vast majority of ideas don’t have physical consequences; all they have is social consequences. They are status markers. Whether Muslims belong in Germany or not won’t get your finger burnt immediately. It may over the long term, but human brains don’t work like that. You learn behaviors to avoid danger and earn pleasure. And social disapproval by uttering non-progressive opinions are as harsh and immediate as a burnt finger in a fire.
So the reaction of most people to any abstract proposition like that will rely on their calculation of the social consequences of their particular reaction to that proposition. As it happens, being a good progressive gets you status and approval; not being a good progressive gets you low status and disapproval. So of course most people will do whatever gets them status and approval. The few contrarians like us who disagree, do so because of different experiences, because they don’t see the point in earning that sort of status, or, in many cases, because they are like the philosophers who Wittgenstein made fun of, and are just not getting the point. Taking stuff literally when you’re not supposed to. That’s not how language works.
You could make a meta point about “social construct”. It of course means that definitions are social conventions, which is a completely accurate point. But how is the string “social construct” used in actual language usage? A mere frequency analysis would tell you that “social construct” is a string that leftists use in order to crack down on bad people. You could perfectly define “social construct” as “a word whose definition is set by the Cathedral, and which denying it would get you in real trouble so shut up already”. When people come out of their way to state that “race is a social construct”, that’s not a scientific point. All they mean is “race is what I and my friends say it is and shut up you fascist”.
Note that they don’t really need to be aware of the difference. Surely some people understand that “social construct” is supposed to mean a concept deriving its meaning from social convention. But plenty of people just have picked up “social construct” being used in leftist agitation, got what’s used for, and imitated that usage themselves. You don’t need to be aware of the origin of words; only how they’re used. That’s the etymological fallacy at the micro level.
I’ve had hour long conversations about how to define “racist”. But “racist” in common usage means “bad person who I can easily accuse of disliking black people in order to ostracize him”. That’s how the language game is played. You can contest that kind of usage, and word usage indeed changes a lot all the time. But changing social conventions requires power. Political power. Because, of course, everything is politics. That’s a point the left understood a very long time ago. Even if they won’t say so.