Back in the glory days of American Idol, when Simon Cowell would make fun of bad singers after their auditions, the occasional bad singer would reply with a tart and emotional “That’s just your opinion!” It was in these moments that America’s top reality show became a seminar on philosophy. For when that bad singer says Simon’s music criticism is “just an opinion,” the bad singer is playing the part of a postmodernist. He’s not saying that Simon’s criticism is wrong (and he’s definitely not facing reality and saying that Simon is right). He’s saying that Simon’s criticism, right or wrong, is not an objective statement of fact, but a subjective statement rooted in a particular belief system. Simon’s beliefs about music (or black v-neck t-shirts, or Paula, or Randy, or anything) do not come down from God on high (the classical or traditional religious dream). Simon’s beliefs also do not come from nature or the power of reason (the modernist or Enlightenment dream). Simon’s beliefs are rooted in the customs and traditions of the culture he was born into and raised in. In other words, the bad singer is saying that Simon’s music criticism is a social construction.
Postmodernism, and in particular the everything-is-socially-constructed theory (a phrase used by Stanley Fish in two of his New York Times Opinionator columns) that often flows from it, is popular not only among the bad singers of reality television. It’s the cause célèbre of many leftist college faculty members. The idea is that if people would realize that their beliefs (about God or politics or society) are not objective or universally true, then they would hold less stringently to those beliefs and be more open minded and tolerant and accepting of other belief systems. For example, gay rights advocates are aware that their opponents will often pull out the “God said so” argument. So in response, they will say traditional marriage doesn’t come from God, but is something created by society (and therefore, the implication goes, it is something that can and should be changed).* If only people would stop thinking their beliefs come from God and recognize they are socially constructed, leftists dream, then movement can be made for progressive causes. And if postmodernism isn’t stopped, right wingers worry, the liberals will win and society will fall apart.
*For the record, I support gay rights. But I also believe telling anti-marriage equality folks that their beliefs are socially constructed will in no way convince them to change their minds.
So do our beliefs come from God? Or are they socially constructed? Or is it some combination? That debate has been going on for a long time. But it doesn’t really matter. Even if everything (whatever that means) is socially constructed, or even if postmodern philosophers can convince most people that everything is socially constructed (which is pretty much the same thing), there will be no real world implications, despite the hopes of liberals and fears of conservatives. And that’s because both lovers and critics of postmodernism wrongly believe that if something is socially constructed it’s not really real and it’s automatically (because of social construction) worthy of being torn down.
Baseball is my favorite sport. And guess what? Baseball is socially constructed. It developed from previous ball and stick games. Its rules have changed over time and may continue to change. But my love for the game doesn’t change because I now know it came from man and not God. Baseball is still real! Yes, it’s socially constructed but still really real (shocking!). It takes real talent and dedication to play the game. It takes real (and copious amounts of) money to go to a stadium and watch the game. Though baseball’s rules have changed, the rules in place must still be followed (if you wish to play the game or watch it, that is). And though it could change, there is no moral imperative to change baseball (and, likewise, there is no moral imperative to not change baseball, either). That baseball—or anything!—is socially constructed is a fun, quirky, fact. But it tells us nothing about its reality or how it should be played or what should be done with it. For that you will need, yes, beliefs. You will need beliefs and opinions about proper pitching, fielding and hitting strategies, beliefs about proper behavior and attitude toward opponents and umpires and fans, beliefs that may (or may not) be socially constructed, but that nevertheless will be the deciding factor about the future of baseball with no regard or input from the unrelated (but potentially interesting) truth about the social construction of those beliefs.
When, for example, supporters of feminism speak out against patriarchy, they should not just say that patriarchy is socially constructed and leave it at that (as if the argument makes itself). They should pull out those rhetorical skills and argue! They should flat out say that patriarchy is wrong by giving examples of the sexism and violence and rape culture it fosters. And not just because it makes for a more compelling argument than veering off onto tangential points about the socially constructed roots of patriarchy, but because playing the social construction game opens up a line of argument for their conservative enemies.
Yes, conservatives have access to the everything-is-socially-constructed thesis too. When creationists yell out “teach the controversy” and say that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in the biology classroom, they are using postmodern arguments. Just say “all knowledge is socially constructed,” and you can slide mythology in the door and sit it right next to, well, real science.
A liberal postmodernist would rightly point out that the creationists who say “teach the controversy” are fakers. Those creationists don’t really believe in social construction. They cynically use postmodern arguments to fight their liberal opponents, but deep down they think their own beliefs are objective and real. True. But liberals are no different. Liberals, who support equal rights for women and minorities and gays (as they, and I believe all people, should!), believe deep down (as all people do) that their own beliefs are true, not just in a subjective, but in a real world way. And they believe (as we all do, despite what some might say) that those other beliefs, the beliefs of their enemies, are wrongy-wrong wrong! In other words, “your beliefs are socially constructed, but mine are true!” And I’m not mocking this attitude. I am saying it’s an attitude we all have.
People have been talking about social construction for a long time, even before postmodern philosophy declared it a thing to be studied and promoted. In fact, talk of social construction goes back at least to St. Augustine, who argued in The City of God that there are two cities, or societies, the city of God and the city of Man. The city of God, the good and the true and the beautiful, includes all of God’s angels in Heaven, all the people in Heaven, and all the people on Earth who follow and love God. The city of Man, in contrast, includes the fallen angels, people in Hell, and people on Earth who have rejected God’s way. The city of God is true objective reality, and the city of man, while still real, is what is (socially) constructed by fallen men and fallen angels. The question is not whether something is socially constructed (a fun discussion in the philosophy or anthropology classroom but ultimately beside the point). It’s whether that socially constructed institution, be it a church or city or social club, is in accordance with the tenets of God’s city or Man’s city.
Martin Luther King, a hero to progressives everywhere, echoed St. Augustine in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. The white protestant ministers to whom the letter was addressed did not believe Dr. King should be breaking the law with sit-ins and protests, even for a good cause. To this, King powerfully exclaims, “I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’” And why? “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” Of course some things are socially constructed, King says. But who cares!? King wants to know if those socially constructed laws accord with the laws of God. And, for King, Jim Crow laws don’t accord.
There are some for whom God is a non-starter, even if they place Dr. King in their pantheon of progressive heroes. That’s okay. King uses more than just Christian morality in this splendid letter. Right before he invokes Augustine, King answers another white protestant minister criticism, namely that he’s moving civil rights along too quickly; that he should wait for society to catch up before fighting segregation. In one of the most masterful passages in the history of English literature, King says:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…when your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
King does not give a direct rational explanation analyzing why segregation is wrong, as a modernist would love to hear. He does not try to say segregation is bad by simply calling it a social construction, as a postmodernist would like. He uses rhetoric and appeals to the emotions with a put-yourself-in-my-shoes appeal. And when he later does make an official argument against segregation, he warms a pre-modern person’s heart by appealing to the law of God (sorry, folks, but there’s no separating MLK’s progressive politics from his faith in God).
Martin Luther King’s writing style is instructive. When it’s time to argue for equal rights or faithfulness to God or even something far less important like singing talent, social construction can neither help nor hurt you. You should leave social construction in the rarefied air of the university lecture hall (its rightful place) and then argue from whatever authority you can (or you believe in), pulling out those rhetorical skills to tug on your listener’s heartstrings. Simon Cowell did this wonderfully on American Idol. When a bad singer would throw that “it’s just your opinion” whine at Simon, Mr. Cowell leaned on his authority as a professional critic and often brilliantly replied, “Yes, but my opinion matters.”