You certainly know what an object is, yes?
An object is generally thought of as a concrete entity that can be conceptualized as separate and distinct from its surroundings. Think of a tree. You can picture in your mind’s eye an object that is a tree, separate and distinct from its environment. It has a trunk, a root system, bark, and branches that may or may not have leaves. But is this conception of a tree a true representation of trees as they exist in the world? Or is that mental model of a tree merely something that you’ve constructed and accepted as a “good enough” model to be mostly accurate for day-to-day purposes?
It is quite obviously the latter; a tree can be conceptualized as a separate and distinct object, but the full story of the tree, and any complete model of the tree, would need to include the ingredients necessary for the tree to exist in the first place. We exist as beings in both a place and a time, and our full story cannot generally be told by extracting us from our particular place and time. What this means in practice is that it is impossible to extract an object from the world and hold it out, abstract, as its own thing, independent of its environment. What is the tree without water? Could it live without the Earth’s soil? The tree would not be long for this world without the life-giving Sun available to it; indeed, we all would be up a creek without it! So not only is our mental model of trees wrong, but our mental model of nearly all objects are wrong. They tell only a limited portion of the story of that object’s Being, and only that portion which exists at a level that we can experience and interact with. To demonstrate, let’s consider something a little closer to home: ourselves.
Look at your wife. You see her as an entity, an object, a separate thing unto herself. Now, we know from the text above that this mental model doesn’t correlate to the reality of her existence, but it’s good enough to move on with. That’s not where I am going with this example. So you see your wife as a separate, concrete entity. You interact with her as such, based on your mental model of her, and this model serves you pretty well. But we only see her as a separate, concrete, distinct object because we experience her at the normal human level, through normal human sensory means (the senses). But let’s change our level of sensory experience downwards to the cellular level. Is she still a concrete, solid object? How about if we burrow further down to her atomic composition. Is she still a solid, concrete object? At the atomic level, she’s closer to empty space than anything resembling a solid. At the bacterial level, she consists of about the same number of bacteria as cells, making her more like an ocean of beings than a concrete entity. But at this tiny level of sensory experience, we see another truth, on the macro scale; is it the individual that is real, or the family? The community? The culture? The ethnicity? The race? The species? Taxonomy group? At what level of Being does the entity become “real?” We privilege the individual entity as a concrete object because intelligence and perspective is mostly limited to what our sensory tools – eyes, ears, etc – can provide us accurate readings on. But this level of sensory experience only provides us a partial picture of what is real, and we all accept it as true. Reality is in actuality all of those things and any of those things in isolation at the same time, limited by what you can perceive. Once we created the instruments to perceive more and more of reality (think microscopes, etc), we could perceive more of what is real. Some of us took that new perception and built up our own mental models of the world with the new information. Because reality appears to be, in actuality, this totality of Being, when I look at you, what am I supposed to truly see?
There is an answer to this question; we see what we’ve agreed upon to see and interact with, and this agreement has changed over time. Whereas in the past, a person might have seen an Amalekite or an Israelite, a Mohammedan or a Christian, a German or a Frenchman, we in the West have now mostly all agreed to see the individual, discarding these other qualities as “peripheral” to the merely “Human” experience. It is a very Newtonian perspective, with its scientific sterility & reduction of personhood to mere atomistic beings, but we all live in the shadow of the Enlightenment. Thus we see and interact with objects and entities by:
- What our senses can readily detect
- What we agree to see and interact as
We all have the same basic senses, so that really eliminates it from being something of interest to us. We are undifferentiated in that respect. But #2 is unique – we don’t all agree on what to interact as. I think that this is most pronounced in the arena of what Huntington called the “Clash of Civilizations”, in that what we consider to be the basis of interaction (the individual, stripped to its essence) and what others consider to be the basis of interaction do not always match. The reason for this is that our perception of reality and the individual is itself a social construct. Social constructs concern
the meaning, notion, or connotation placed on an object or event by a society, and adopted by the inhabitants of that society with respect to how they view or deal with the object or event. In that respect, a social construct as an idea would be widely accepted as natural by the society, but may or may not represent a reality shared by those outside the society, and would be an “invention or artifice of that society.”
Even something that is perceived by all humans as true could theoretically be a social construct if non-humans experience that thing differently, leading to different perceptions of the hypothetical thing in question between human society and non-human society.
When debating Leftists and Conservatives, you’ve no doubt come across someone who wants to dismiss your argument by claiming that “X is just a social construct! It isn’t even real.” This is, in fact, a claim by the other person that the entity you recognize as a legitimate expression of reality is one that the other person does not, for whatever reason. Unfortunately for them, the mere refusal to acknowledge another person’s views of an entity is not itself an argument, for no social construct is dependent upon a single person’s views of reality, but is itself a thing that requires the affirmation of a large number of other people to grant the entity legitimacy. Once a concept has wide enough support as a legitimate expression of reality, then the construct is built and should be debated on other grounds.
The most common way that this type of argument is brought forth is during discussions on race, most typically when someone is defending the concept of the White race. Most often when discussing the subject with a Leftist, they will suggest that there is no such thing as the White race. They usually do not make this same claim about other races or ethnicities. “White is just a social construct!” Well, yes, it is, but if you’re going to claim that because something is a social construct, it can’t be used, well…you’re going to have a really tough time with that approach.
First, many of the revolutionary things that the Left promotes are themselves social constructs (gender is one such example). Their status as social constructs have never stopped the Left from their perpetual revolution in these areas, and it shouldn’t stop you from pursuing your own interests when the topic is itself a social construct. They had no problem recognizing the validity of the White race when they were pursuing an agenda of eliminating what they deemed to be White privilege, and so I don’t believe for a second that they see Whites as an illegitimate category. Rather, they see it as an enemy category, one to be torn down, but they recognize the entity all the same. They are using what’s commonly called “tactical nihilism,” or rather, tactical ignorance.
Secondly, race and ethnicity are social constructs that are built on top of an underlying biological reality. Genetic clustering shows us that certain people are more genetically related than others. This correlates to what we generally recognize as “race” quite well, making it a useful social construct for categorizing the underlying groups of genetic clusters. This type of social construct is analogous to the color spectrum, in which we categorize how we perceive the electromagnetic waves that travel at different wavelengths as color categories. Like race, color is itself a social construct that is built upon an underlying physical reality, as not all people see colors the same and can dispute what different wavelengths look like (there are some people who can even see wavelengths that normal people cannot!) Would the person you are debating assert that colors themselves are an invalid concept? That it does not represent the real world? I sincerely doubt this would be the case.
Ultimately, whether they acknowledge the social construct in question isn’t a problem at all. Their dismissal of a concept as a mere social construct ignores the fact that reality as we experience and interact with it is a social construct. Being a social construct is not necessarily a bad thing. They’re the very basis of the meaning in our lives – we are social creatures and require a social existence. Social constructs are how we all agree to interpret and interact with the reality we have found ourselves thrown into. So don’t be worried that your particular interest is a social construct, thinking it diminishes the value of your interests – your entire conception of reality is one too!