Sebastian Zearing

how to be progressive without being a stupid liberal

Social Constructs and Social Wrappers

Gender is a social construct, they say. And race/ethnicity. And lots of other things that most people can stare at and say, “but but… these distinctions obviously exist and are real!” And they would be right, except that they’ve failed to understand what a construct is (though that may be the fault of either intentional or unintentional obfuscation on the part of the “social construct” advocates). I think the term “social construct” leads to these kinds of misunderstandings for two reasons. One, the word “construct” itself connotes “not real” even though it definitely doesn’t denote that (here’s where the obfuscation comes from). Two, the term doesn’t imply any kind of connection to something objectively real, even though there often may be an actual connection. The term as it’s most often used should be replaced with “social wrapper.” But what is being wrapped? Well here’s a list:

  • Gender is a social wrapper for biological sex.
  • Marriage is a social wrapper for human pair-bonding.
  • Gayness/lesbianism are social wrappers for homosexuality.
  • Race/ethnicity are social wrappers for human biological populations.
  • Parenthood is a social wrapper for human reproduction.
  • Manliness is a social wrapper for masculinity.

Note that the social wrapper is not the thing it is wrapping, and often flies in the face of it: step-parenthood is still parenthood, even though no reproduction is involved on the part of the step-relatives. Sometimes, social wrappers ignore part of what is being wrapped: a bald scalp makes you more masculine, but it might not make you more manly. Furthermore, social wrappers are often applied inappropriately: the social wrapper of “gayness” did not exist prior to WWII, yet it’s not hard to find a source that says Oscar Wilde was gay. Heterosexual he probably was not (my best guess is 4 ~ 5 on the Kinsey scale), but “straight”—the counterpart to “gay”—he definitely was not. Additionally, it’s almost impossible to intentionally orchestrate the creation of a novel social construct, and it’s basically pointless to orchestrate the creation of a novel social construct specifically opposed to one that already exists (e.g. civil unions can’t be made to substitute for marriage).

Social wrappers, in the context of objectivity/[inter]subjectivity, are intersubjective entities. They are the ghosts of the intersubjective cogitation about objective facts. Gender, pair bonding, ethnicity, etc., can each be associated with an objectively existing statistical invariance. However, the social wisdom about what they are and what they mean is imperfect, and sometimes moreso false than merely imperfect. Still, this shouldn’t necessitate a immediate suspension or abandonment of the social wrapper, because the existence of the social wrapper isn’t just for understanding the human condition—it is also for executing the human condition. The specific size, shape, extension, and intension of the social wrapper performs a function in society which in many cases is not remotely well-characterized, and abruptly altering it, even under the virtuous intent of aligning it closer with reality, may not lead to predictable consequences. This is not to say that social wrappers shouldn’t be altered, just that care, caution, and humility should be part of the process.

This way of thinking suggests, for example, contrary to gender constructivists à la Judith Butler, that the existence of gender necessarily follows from the existence of biological sex in the midst of a highly social and communicative species. The concept also suggests that the properties that attach to gender may not have any basis in the biological but are mere cultural trappings. In other words, one would highly expect gender stereotypes to both 1) exist in all cultures and 2) vary across cultures in both small and very large degrees -or rephrased- the existence of gender is not arbitrary, but what attaches to gender is. Incidentally, this is exactly what we find, so I think I’m more right than Butler is. (And in cultures with three or four genders, the additional genders are always something like “male with female essence” or “female with male essence.”)

Furthermore, essentialism treats the wrapped and the wrapper very differently. It may very well be that a society has exactly two notions of gender and thus those two social wrappers exist “essentially,” even while the spectral nature of sex and gender identity remains. Compare with cultures that have three social wrappers for gender, and essentialism withers into an unsalvageable artifact of human cognition.

The concept of intersectionality (in addition to being applicable to more things than just oppression)* can also be directed at social wrappers: the two social wrappers for homosexuality are gendered [note: not “sexed”], manliness and straightness are often conflated (probably because the latter has existed for less than a lifetime at least in the modern West), etc.

This concept leads to broader questions: to what degree is one’s perception of “reality” merely a bundling of social wrappers around reality? What realities exist purely on the platform provided by social wrappers? Can social wrappers wrap other social wrappers? What aspects of ordinary life are not wrapped when they could be, and why not? What does reality look like without social wrappers? Do some people see the world more “as it is” and less as it is wrapped? Indeed, plenty of stuff to write posts on…

*Also going to point out here that though it’s clear that the concept is nothing more than a reformulation of non-linearity, I often feel like many SJWs miss that completely. Maybe because they tend not to be good at math? At any rate, my use of the term here isn’t really in the non-linearity vein anyway.

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One response to “Social Constructs and Social Wrappers

  1. Pingback: The Intersubjective | Sebastian Zearing

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