Leftists, and (((high verbal IQ))) types, love to create semantic traps whereby they can control,Â or â€˜frameâ€™, the conversation. A favorite is The Social Construct Trap, which works by giving us realists nearly irresistible bait–the claim that â€˜X is a social constructâ€™. (Where X is almost always race). Let us imagine a typical scenario, one which Iâ€™m sure many of us have lived: A couple of university students are discussing the role of poverty in life outcomes. One of them dares to venture that race has a role to play. The other student, recoiling in horror, invokes that talismanic phrase, â€œRace is just a social construct.â€ Our friend denies this. From there the conversation devolves into mere argument. Where did our friend go wrong? He forgot the rhetoric-dialectic distinction and he took the bait.
What, you may ask, is the problem with arguing against that stance, that race is a socialÂ construct? There are two subtle problems. The first is that this claim is simply a non sequitur. The example conversation is about the correlation of some phenomena â€˜life outcomes/povertyâ€™ and â€˜raceâ€™. It is not about the ontological status of race, no more than it is about the ontological status of poverty. Our friend is as justified in saying, and perhaps more so, that poverty is â€œjust a social constructâ€. He may respond like this: â€œYou say race doesnâ€™t exist because it is a social construct. Well, I think poverty doesnâ€™t exist because it too is a social construct. You say humans have clinal variation, hence race is socially and arbitrarily constructed. Well, wealth and income show continual variation, so it too is socially and arbitrarily constructed.â€ This may be a fun rhetorical gotcha, but it hardly advances the conversation, given that some progtards would probably accept the non-existence of poverty, the non-existence of anything, just so long as they donâ€™t have to accept race. Never mind that you are leaving some good arguments unused.
In many cases like this, our opponent is likely to let that word â€˜justâ€™ do most of the argumentative heavy lifting. â€œRace is just a social construct.â€ But what could it possibly mean to be just a social construct? Iâ€™m not sure we could say even unicorns are just a social construct. Horses exist, as do horns. This word â€˜justâ€™ or sometimes â€˜merelyâ€™ is a major weak point, for all the work it does, like the reactor core on the Death Star. They probably mean to imply that what we call â€˜raceâ€™ has no basis whatsoever in reality. Assuming they have any reason left, they should accept that skin color does exist, and that this has something to do with what we call race. If they accept this, then they must see that race isnâ€™t just a social construct.
Race might, one must now admit, be considered, along with many other things like colors orÂ money, in some sense a social construct. That is, human needs and capacities modulated through the medium of language give some shape to our world. The colors we perceive have, most assuredly, physical and biological foundations, but there are cultural variations in the number of color words. There is, supposedly a rainforest group that has many common words that pick out a wide number of shades of green. This should not come as a surprise considering their environment. Though English has phrases such as â€˜forest greenâ€™ or â€˜spearmintâ€™ etc. these are more the talk of paint companies than of everyday life. My point being that many of our concepts have some aspect that might fairly be called social construction to them. (For more on this sort of thing, Google around for John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality; Berlin and Kay, Basic Color Terms; and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.)
Lucky for us the social construction of race is not the significant part of their argument. EitherÂ they think social constructs arenâ€™t real (whatever the hell that means), in which case ask them for all their money or they think racial divisions are arbitrary, in which case ask them to take a step. The first part we dealt with, letâ€™s look at the second. They argue that because there is no distinct or objective boundary between races there are no such things as races. As an analogy, blue and green do not exist because there is no set point at which blue becomes green. This some may recognize as the sorites or continuum fallacy. To use the famous example, I start with a heap of sand and slowly remove grains of sand one at a time. No single grain removal causes the heap to go from heap to non-heap; therefore, no matter how many grains I take away I always have a heap. This is obviously ridiculous, and yet this fallacy is one of the most common of our public discourse. As for asking them to take a step, we all know that that is impossible under our Zenoian physics, an analogous problem applied to distance (see theÂ famous example of the tortoise and Achilles). (That was sarcasm, folks.)
The fundamental problem with people who argue like this is their childish selectivity. If theyÂ were acting as a modern-day Parmenides, fine. But they are not, they are engaging in selective and self- serving skepticism. They arenâ€™t acting as disinterested philosophers, but as motivated perpetuators of foolish ideas. The say race doesnâ€™t exist, but happily endorse the notion of color, or of distance, or of time. The philosopher David Hume wrote, â€œPhilosophy would render us entirely Pyrrhonian, were not nature too strong for it.â€ That is, we would be completely skeptical of absolutely everything, but the demands of life prevent it except as philosophical exercise. But when one hates nature and is always in revolt against it, what is left but as much madness as the unkind intrusions of reality allow? What to do with these people? Hume provides, more or less, the answer: â€œCommit them then to the ovens: for they can contain nothing but sophistry and delusion.â€