On “Constructs” and Liberal Orthodoxy

One of the most annoying things about being an undergraduate was dealing with students who hadn’t been introduced to the idea that everything we deal with on a daily basis is a construct (gender identity, language, religion, take your pick).

One of the most annoying things about being a graduate student is dealing with students who have so embraced the idea of constructs that they use it to dismiss any point they don’t like. “Oh, ‘science.’ You know that ‘scientific facts’ are just a ‘construct,’ right?”

Of course it’s a construct, my dear. It’s constructs all the way down. (The picture of turtles all the way down, by the way, was pulled off of an NYTimes blog link that didn’t properly credit it, so I can’t properly credit it, either. If I find out who it belongs to, I promise to update this post with that information.)

Here are some of the constructs that never get called constructs because they conform to liberal orthodoxies:

1.) “Native American people are oppressed.” Well, yes. They are. But what exactly do you mean by “Native American people?” Are you talking about all peoples who were indigenous to the Americas, or just the peoples brutalized by the US government in particular? I’ve found that it’s usually the second of the two. Are you including people who were indigenous to Hawaii, which isn’t part of the Americas even though it’s part of the United States? Are you talking about people who have a stereotypical “Native American” appearance (whatever that might be in their part of the country) and are oppressed because of this, or are you talking about Native Americans who have so thoroughly assimilated that the oppression they face has more to do with how we specifically deny their connection to a cultural identity? How much of a lineage does a person need in order to claim Native American heritage, and why exactly is question offensive when an outsider asks it, even though tribal councils have set quotas?

Don’t get me wrong; I understand that, since I have white privilege, these questions, and the final question in particular, are not for me to ask of an indigenous person and never for me to answer. I’m presenting these elements to illustrate the failures of one of the constructs of liberal orthodoxy, not to attack or belittle a vast collection of peoples with whom I have had very little interaction.

I wouldn’t dare say any of this at school. I’d be eaten alive. This is one of the most beloved constructs out there.

2.) “The Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian Territories is wrong.” Well, yes. It is. But what do you mean by “Israeli?” What do you mean by “Occupation?” What do you mean by “Palestinian?” What do you mean by “wrong?”

Constructs, constructs, constructs, constructs. All the way down.

(Do you want to know why I say it is wrong? I have a very simple approach to Israel/Palestine, which I freely admit is my own construct: I’m on the side of whoever is dying. Not their nation’s side — their side. The people I feel solidarity for are the dead and the soon-to-be dead, because I absolutely do not want to die, and I have no reason to believe they feel otherwise.)

If I were to say this at school, I would almost certainly be assured that the Prince of Peace is on the side of the Palestinians, and I almost just as surely be eaten alive (once again) when I’d reply, “Who the [bleep] is the Prince of Peace?”

3.) “Science is a Western, Eurocentric paradigm. There are other ways of knowing.” Well, yes. Those things are both relatively true. A lot of science has been a project of Eurocentricism, and I know that I love my husband without needing the MRI to prove it.

But here’s the catch: “Western, Eurocentric” really just means exclusive. It doesn’t mean wrong. It doesn’t even mean bad. It means that other boundaries, outside of the project of science itself, have limited some people’s ability to access knowledge, resources, and positions of authority. It means that the image of a “scientist” is still almost exclusively male, because that’s what a “Western, Eurocentric” version of the human is gendered as. Those things are no good. The social structures around science totally suck…just like the social structures around religion, government, business, and every other aspect of the human project.

So what you are doing here, my well-meaning liberal friends, is to reify a vast and complex process known as “science” as a neat little “construct” which you are choosing to feel oppressed by, without considered that “ways of knowing” is equally constructed and equally exclusive.

They’re batty, all of them. Totally batty.