‘Reality Is Socially Constructed’
A reader writes:
I don’t tend to agree with you about the threat that SJWs pose to society as a whole, but good Lord this Radiolab episode really got my goat. I believe that you posted about this a while back, but the story concerns a high school debate team from a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri. When they found themselves outmatched in national competitions by teams from more affluent communities, they pulled the race card. This began with a debate that was supposed to concern the importance of national service programs like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, etc. Instead of taking a position on the issue at hand, one of the debaters from this team launched into a quasi-slam poetry performance that framed the practice of competitive debate as yet another facet of structural racism.
I don’t disagree with many of the points that the debater made – the stereotype of the “angry black man” could in fact unconsciously prejudice debate judges, for instance – but it’s what came after that really infuriated me. The other team’s representative made all the points you would expect, saying that structural racism was not at issue here, but he also objected to the African-American debater’s style, saying that she should “get out” because “Poetry & Prose” (another debate category, apparently) was “down the hall.” So, of course, the next member of the African-American team gets up and takes umbrage, screams RACIST! at the top of his lungs and somehow they end up winning this “debate”, which, if you recall, was supposed to be about national service programs.
Now, one of the members of the debate team is in the studio with the hosts of Radiolab. He’s narrating the story. When we get to this point, one of the hosts, Robert Krulwich, says he’s going to play devil’s advocate for just a second. Hey, you could kind of see where this other team was coming from though, right? Nope. The member of the debate team literally shuts him down, interrupting him by saying “Stop stop stop”. At this point, I had to turn the damn thing off.
Now I think there’s a lot of merit to the “you don’t know what it’s like” critique, whether it’s on the basis of gender, religion, sexuality, or what have you. We all ought to consider that before we throw in our two cents. However, we absolutely cannot shut down rational debate – public discourse, I mean, not competitive debate – on that basis. We all have to live together in this world and the veto power of victimhood is an insufficient basis for getting socio-political buy-in from society as a whole. You can shut down a debate or get a speech canceled at a university, but you’re not going to change hearts and minds. In fact, you’re just going to piss off people like me, who are otherwise sympathetic to your concerns.
The thing that’s so maddening to me about this particular case is that if the kids on this debate team just did their best, used their participation in debate to sharpen their intellectual abilities, and got a college degree, they’d be doing much more to combat structural racism than they are by hi-jacking debate competitions. Every individual success story strengthens the black middle class and thereby, little by little, weakens the grip of white supremacy. I wouldn’t deny that there are racist cops out there, not in a million years, but if the proportion of violent criminals who are African-Americans goes down significantly, I can almost guarantee you that so will the likelihood of a law-abiding black citizen being pulled over for “driving while black”.
Some people just can’t seem to get over the idea that “respectable” is a synonym for “sell-out” and that playing by the rules makes you a rube. I get that, I really do, but I don’t see what will be gained if folks like this debate team continue to go down the SJW path.
Well, I listened to the entire Radiolab episode, and it’s worse than the reader thinks. The black teams learn that they can win debates by ignoring the topic and forcing the debate to be about how racist debates are. A black woman interviewed on the show — I believe she was the debate adviser for the team — says that any attempt at objectivity (i.e., debating the issue at hand, leaving the subjectivity of the debater out of it) is “anti-black.” In other words, the persuasiveness of your argument is inextricably linked to your race, your gender, and so forth. And any objection to this approach to debate is racist.
Eventually, a two-man team from Emporia, Kansas — both of them black and gay, according to the story — go to the national debate tournament, and get all the way to the finals with this approach. In their matches, they would approach debate as a performance, and would be profane and emotional, emphasizing their blackness and their queerness. Their entire strategy was to make every debate about themselves, about race, and about exclusion.
So they get to the finals, versus Northwestern. The topic was about alternative sources of energy. But of course the real topic is always Racism. Ryan and Elijah, the black team, immediately challenged the structure of the debate, saying it was unfair that to win at debate you have to have a research team, and that privileges rich white schools. One of the Northwestern debaters says if that’s true, then it disrespects the work that teams who follow the rules of debate and put in time researching the topic have done. The Northwestern guy is heard on the tape saying that the way to change the world is to master the rules of debate and take those skills out into the world and apply them in any number of situations.
It comes down to the very end. Ryan gathers himself, and delivers a profane, extremely angry rant. F-bombs all over. He construes what is supposed to be a debate about alternative energy into one that’s about judging his worth as a queer black kid from the inner city, and through him the worth of all the Marginalized. “This is all the f–k I got!” he shouts.
The room erupts in cheers when he finishes. Emporia won the debate on a 3-2 vote. One of the judges, a white guy named Scott Harris, wrote a long, rambling apologia explaining why he voted for Emporia. Excerpts:
This ballot recognizes that reality is socially constructed. The reality of my interpretation of the arguments in the debate can be disputed and disagreed with. When I judge debates on panels I sometimes agree more with the reasoning of the judges who vote against me than the judges who vote with me. Being in a 3-2 decision on this panel does not make me “right” and the judges who voted the other way “wrong.” This ballot could have been written to justify a win by the negative. There are many areas of the flow where the negative is clearly ahead and there are arguments the negative made that are not answered by the affirmative. This ballot is not more correct because it is part of a majority. The last time I judged the final round of the NDT I was part of the minority of a 3-2 decision and in my socially constructed reality the Emory team of Bailey/Ghali won the NDT on topicality. Rod Phares and I saw the debate in exactly the same way. It is why when ranking the greatest teams of all time I rank Bailey/Ghali higher than others do because I define them as an NDT winner. Some may dispute this ballots reading of what is and is not the nature of the arguments in this debate or the relative importance given to those arguments. Northwestern will think they made the arguments this ballot says they needed to have made to win this ballot. Reality is for each of us a product of our social constructions.
Oh lord. More:
To me one of the most important lessons that debate teaches is that there is a difference between our arguments and our personhood. One of the problems in out contemporary society is that people have trouble differentiating between arguments and the identity of the person making the argument. If you hate the argument you must hate the person making the argument because we have trouble differentiating people from their arguments. The reason many arguments end up in violent fights in society is the inability to separate people from their arguments. People outside of debate (or the law) are often confused by how debaters (or lawyers) can argue passionately with one another and then be friends after the argument. It is because we generally separate our disagreements over arguments from our opinions about each other as people. There are two concerns this ballot has about the implications of where this debate has positioned us as a community. First, the explosion of arguments centered in identity makes it difficult to separate arguments from people. If I argue that a vote for me is a vote for my ability to express my Quare identity it by definition constructs a reality that a vote against me is a rejection of my identity. The nature of arguments centered in identity puts the other team in a fairly precarious position in debates and places the judges in uncomfortable positions as well. While discomfort may not necessarily be a bad thing it has significant implications for what debating and deciding debates means or is perceived to mean in socially constructed realities. I hope we can get beyond a point where the only perceived route to victory for some minority debaters is to rail against exclusion in debate.
Well, he voted for a team that built its entire argument around racial identity. What you reward, you will have more of.
The whole episode of Radiolab is depressing, but instructive about our present moment. Social Justice Warriors believe that emotionally asserting identity is the same thing as argument, when in fact it makes genuine argument impossible. It’s not about argument at all, but about a naked, raw assertion of power.
It’s not just them, though. Here’s an essay by a woman named Jen Senko who has made a documentary about how the right-wing outrage machine ruined her father. She said her father was a normal guy until one day he started listening to conservative talk radio, and then went deeply into the world of conservative media obsessions:
Gradually, my Dad had become a completely different person. He was angry all the time, and you couldn’t discuss anything remotely political with him. At the same time, he tried to engage everyone he met to talk about politics, and always tried to find out what “team” they were on. If we didn’t agree with him, he got angry with us. And he wouldn’t stop sending these strange emails. My older brother blocked him first, then I did, and then my younger brother did. My mother was so unhappy with the change in him that she resolved to email him back, hoping beyond hope that he would question some of these newly held beliefs and return to being himself.
It was a nightmare for our family. It was our Invasion of the Body Snatchers. His body was the same, but what happened to the Dad we knew and loved?
Once I started chronicling this character change in my film The Brainwashing of My Dad, I discovered I was not alone. This was a phenomenon. People from all over wrote me asking for advice about what to do to restore their relationship with their sister, or their brother, or their mother. Their concerns were many, from “We can’t even talk about the weather because then global warming comes up” to “My Dad keeps buying guns and ammunition waiting for the new Civil War.”
She’s right. Over a decade ago, my conservative friends and I started talking about how impossible it was to discuss politics or current events with our folks because our folks had become dedicated Fox News watchers, and had become highly ideologized. The thing is, there are people who have broken relationships with family members and former friends who have embraced various Social Justice Warrior causes.
What has happened in America — and you see this in the Radiolab episode, as well as in the phenomenon Jen Senko describes — is the exaltation of emotivism, and the weaponization of grievance. How can we hope to have a peaceful, orderly society if the concept of truth is up for grabs? If an educated man says that “reality is socially constructed,” and acts accordingly, and teaches others to do the same. If even facts are taken to be opinions.
True story: I got into an argument some years back with a Fox News devotee at a social event. She refused to accept facts that contradicted the opinion she preferred. “Look, I’m a conservative too,” I said. “But this is not a matter of opinion. It’s about facts.”
“Well,” she said frostily, “you have your opinions and I have mine.”
“It’s not a matter of opinion!” I said. “We are talking about facts, not the interpretation of facts.”
“You have your opinions, and I have mine.”
There is no difference between that white conservative woman and the black liberal debaters in the Radiolab story. We literally could not have a discussion about the issue, that woman and I, because the very structure of normal debate (not forensics, but just ordinary give-and-take) she took to be entirely subjective. In the end, she took my disagreement with her as a rejection of her identity.
This is where we are in this country. It’s not a left or a right thing exclusively. If we get to the point where most people believe that reality is socially constructed, then the only reality that will make sense to anybody is the reality of force.