Sunday, August 12, 2012

conversations with my sister

When I got home from meeting my big sister and taking her to the airport, I put the kids to bed then poured myself  glass of wine and did research. I had to do research because what my sister was talking to me about was so far over my head that I had no choice. She is smarter than me (along with being faster-that bitch.) And time has not closed that gap. So here I now sit with a smidge of wine left in my glass, (I might just have to refill...) and three pages of notes on a subject called "Social Constructivism".  She was in Boston presenting a paper on this matter as part of her PHD and when I picked her up at the hotel and asked what she was up to, I got enough esoteric mind gum to keep me chewing for years. We talked about the a whole rang of things through the filter of social constructs,and I just had to try to share our conversation.

My sister has always been a giant pain in my ass. When we were growing up, she was this bossy, popular, smart jock with glossy curls and impossibly high waterfall bangs.She knew everything before I did. She was an intolerable know-it-all.  She used to talk me into her wearing my new school clothes first. She was good. she was smart, and I was...not so much. As we matured, or I should say, as she matured and I got older, Our differences became even more of an issue. She went to university, I dropped out. She dated an Olympic luge guy, I dated epic stoners. I went to art college and experimented in undocumented performance art and puppetry, she became a consultant. She took on marathons, I took on drugs. She made seemingly reasoned decisions about her future, I followed a seemingly random desire to build wooden boats in Downeast Maine. She left relationships that were doomed to failure, I married into them then divorce out of them. You get the picture.

So as we look at this sibling relationship through the lens of social constructivism, the rivalry my older sister and I have negotiated is through a complex combination of decisions based on reacting to each other throughout our whole lives. (R. Edwards -Who wrote a book about social constructs as seen in siblings)  She, being the first born was placed into a position of power over me, aided by the preconceptions of culture and negotiated by our every action; reinforced by our parents.  Which I take to mean: If she had never been born, my life would have been easy-peasy and trouble free and also it is all my parents fault.

Is how we behave produced by culture or biology and nature? Social constructs are either a by-product of countless human choices building upon each other or laws resulting from nature.
Perception is so dependent upon prior experiences that what people observe cannot be uncompromisable. How you view the world -what your truth is, is directly related to your experiences up to that point: There is no such thing as a fair and balanced opinion.

So our categories of what we perceive as right or wrong are entirely subjective to our experiences. What is "normal" for us can be "wrong" to someone else. Take an untravelled person from United States and switch them with an untravelled person from China and both people will be shocked by the differences of social construct. Their personal representation of the world can be totally undermined by looking through the filter of someone else's culture.

Homosexuality is another good example: It took until the 19c for the concept of homosexuality to be expressed in Western culture. Up until that point, people just fucked. But now, we have categorized and sub-categorized sexuality and in doing so have created cultures and sub-cultures and what a fine mess we have made. People have linked sexual behavior with morality. Now people have to suppress their sexual natures for fear of stigma, which drives human behavior underground and into toilet stalls (looking at you Larry Craig) while at the same time, these very humans are staunchly opposed to the "Immoral choice" of homosexuality. Sexuality is nature, to categorize it and stigmatize it is the choice.  And because we humans are so concerned with belonging to the dominant tribe, which keeps narrowing the definition of itself, we are left with no alternative but to lie about our very human natures. Which is very weird.

How about maps. Before we had satellite imagery, we sent geographers and cartographers into unknown places to draw up maps. They went out, tested, observed measured, then gathered together to agree on what a location looked like. These maps were then peer reviewed, discussed and declared official. They were presented to the population who accepted it. Even when the maps turned out to be inaccurate. But once something had been accepted as truth, it is very difficult to change that perception.

 Another,sobering example is Rwanda. When the Dutch decided to move in to Rwanda, they categorized the population as "Hutu" and "Tutsi" based on their appearances and characteristics, then they favored one over the other. These definitions were repeated and accepted enough and decisions were made based on these physical characteristics until one day things get ugly and: Genocide. The reality of social constructivism.

And the core of  all of this, how we see people, how we organize ourselves into class, professions, culture, sub-culture, how we educate, what we educate, what we accept, what we reject, our lives, our society, how we view emotions, roles, gender, race, sexuality, mental illness, facts, reality, this: We make it up.
It is like the bloody Matrix.
So I am going to keep my notes handy and remember when I am worried about a social faux pas I might have made, or concerned that I might not be doing things "right",  that all of this has been constructed  by decisions that the masses have made over time, and I know that the masses are not very smart because I have history to look at to confirm that we do an awful lot of very stupid things. And also I can just look around me. Also I can just look at my own life. There are plenty of examples everywhere.

 My sister told me this:
"You can do whatever you want. Anything. Just know that humanity has created rules. Use them. Play by them, but do what YOU want to do within it."
She also said, as we were saying goodbye, "It has been great to talk with you now that you are no longer a colossal idiot. I can say these things, because I don't care about social pretenses anymore."
To which I reply, "It is great to talk to you too, now that you are finally cool."


Helen Moussa,
  1. Canadian citizens' idea of "the woman refugee" is not inevitable, but historically contingent. (Thus the idea or category "the woman refugee" can be said to be "socially constructed".)
  2. Women coming to Canada to seek asylum are profoundly affected by the category of "the woman refugee". Among other things, if a woman does not "count" as a "woman refugee" according to the law, she may be deported, and forced to return to very difficult conditions in her homeland.
  3. Such women may modify their behavior, and perhaps even their attitudes towards themselves, in order to gain the benefits of being classified as a "woman refugee".
  4. If such a woman does not modify her behavior, she should be considered un-Canadian and as such should not be admitted to citizenship.

1 comment:

  1. Nice work! I like how you connected our conversation on Rwanda and map making to siblings and homosexuality. The next question is: if much of what we 'know' is socially constructed and taken for granted, then what about change? How does it happen and under what conditions? That is what I'm really interested in ... keep reading!