Social constructivism: the basics

One of the reasons that my colleague Jordan Peterson has become such a celebrity is that so many of his critics are so confused. On more than one occasion, he has come out of debates looking like the guy who brought a gun to a knife fight (if one can excuse the metaphor). One area in which this is particularly apparent is in his various discussions of social constructivism, some of which have a “shooting fish in a barrel” quality. This is largely because so many people – both academics and activists – are really confused about what it means to say that something is “socially constructed,” and what the political implications of this are.

As a philosopher and a critical theorist, I feel some responsibility for this, because those of us who trade in these concepts for a living have not done a good enough job at saying what we mean.… Continue reading

Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers

Those who pay attention to the “republic of letters” in Canada will have noticed that Tanya Talaga’s book, Seven Fallen Feathers, has been cleaning up the awards for literary non-fiction, having won the RBC Taylor Prize, and now the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing (announced yesterday at the Politics and the Pen gala in Ottawa). Since I was a member of the jury that awarded it the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize, I thought I might say a few words about why the book stands out among all others published this past year.

With the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there has been an enormous amount of discussion of the need for reconciliation (or even just normalization of the relationship) between Canada and its First Nations. A great deal of this discussion has been rather fruitless, in part because it has been confined almost entirely to the plane of symbolic politics.… Continue reading

Against the racialization of everything

Race, as I and many other academics never tire of reminding people, is a social construct. Many people who say this, however, do so in a perfunctory manner, before going on to treat it as though it were a natural kind, eternal and unchangeable. For me, the point of emphasizing the “constructedness” of race is to emphasize that is it not an inevitable social category. It is a particular way that many people have of framing certain aspects of individual identity and social interaction. It is, however, not the only, and not a necessary way, of framing things. Thus it always makes sense to ask, in any particular circumstance, whether race is the best way of framing an issue. The question is whether race, as a category, is really getting at what’s important in a given situation.

This question has particular salience at the moment, because many social justice advocates in Canada have been pushing fairly hard for a number of social problems that were traditionally framed in terms of immigration and ethnicity (and multiculturalism) to be reframed in terms of race (and anti-discrimination).… Continue reading

How our culture treats boys

My children are a bit older now, so I don’t shop at The Children’s Place as much as I used to. I happened to stop in the other day though, and I found myself worrying about the sort of messages that we are sending to boys in our culture. For those who don’t know, it’s a clothing store. The layout is always the same: they are split right down the middle, with girls’ clothing on one side and boys’ clothing on the other. This provides a particularly convenient opportunity to compare what is being sold to girls and boys, at any given moment, and to contemplate the various assumptions about gender that go along with it.

For instance, looking the “graphics tees” section, I noticed a very striking difference in the type of images and messages being marketed to girls and those being marketed to boys. Here is a selection of the girls’ T-shirts.… Continue reading

Redefining racism

There’s a little semantic game that’s being played a lot these days, which seems to me worthy of analysis. (And since philosophers are so often of accusing to getting hung up on “semantic questions,” who better to comment on it?) It has become quite standard in many quarters to condemn Canadian society, along with all of its institutions, as being thoroughly and systematically racist. There is however an important ambiguity in the way that the term “racist” is being used, with critics often shifting back and forth between two quite different meanings of the term, in a way that vitiates the force of their criticism.

When most people hear the word “racism,” the way that they understand it is in terms that would have been familiar to civil rights activists of the 1960s. This type of racism was interpreted first and foremost as a derogatory attitude certain individuals have, that leads them to engage in discriminatory behaviour – treating some people better than others based on their racial characteristics.… Continue reading

The problem with “critical” studies

When I was an undergraduate, I believed that the prevalence of positivism in the social sciences – the idea of studying social phenomena in an “objective” or “value-free” manner – was one of the great evils in the world. Not only was it an illusion, but it was a harmful one, because beneath the guise of objectivity there lay a hidden agenda, namely, an interest in domination. Treating people as objects of study, rather than as subjects, was not politically neutral, because it generated a type of knowledge that just happened to be precisely of the sort that one would need in order to manipulate and control them. “Objective” social science, in other words, was not value-free at all, but rather a tool of oppression.

The alternative to this, warmly recommended at the time, would be a new form of social science, one that was explicitly guided by the “emancipatory” interest of human reason.… Continue reading

Why “homophobia” must be tolerated in a way that racism need not

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms prohibits discrimination based on the following characteristics:

15 (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

The Canadian Human Rights Act (HRA) goes a bit further, specifying a longer list of prohibited grounds for discrimination:

3 (1) For all purposes of this Act, the prohibited grounds of discrimination are race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.

It goes on to specify what constitutes a “discriminatory practice” (e.g.… Continue reading

On Iain M. Banks

I found it very poignant when Iain Banks announced — 4 years ago now — just a few months before his untimely death, that he had inoperable cancer. I resolved then to sit down and write the piece about his Culture novels that I’d been meaning to write forever. I did that in relatively short order. Publishing such a piece, however, proved somewhat more difficult!. Now, however, thanks to Sci Phi Journal, it is in print (here).

This is, by the way, the first half of the piece. The second half should be coming out in the new year.… Continue reading

Affirmative action for conservative academics?

Back in 2016, some students at Emory University were so traumatized by the appearance of pro-Trump slogans, written in chalk on various sidewalks on campus, that they called upon the administration to investigate the incident as one of “hate speech.” The thought that an entire university campus should constitute a safe space, in which students might be insulated from any expression of support for one of the two major U.S. political parties, struck many as being in tension with the ideal of the university as a forum for the open exchange of ideas. At the same time, the fact that the existence of Trump supporters in their midst could have so alarmed these students shows how unusual or rare the expression of political disagreement has already become at certain U.S. colleges. The fact is, you can search far and wide in American academia, without finding a single Trump supporter, or even a political conservative.… Continue reading

Turbans, paternalism, and the death of liberty

This is a quick afterthought on the piece I posted the other day about religiously-based exemptions, and also a response to some of the comments made on that piece. My central objective in that argument was simply to point out that many rules in our society already have exemptions built into them, in order to handle circumstances in which there is significant heterogeneity in the underlying interests. In some cases, just averaging them all together, or taking the vector sum, is not the best way of responding. This is particularly true in cases where a small minority has an interest (or assigns weight to an interest) quite divergent from that of the majority. In that case, it may make more sense to have a rule that applies in most cases, but then to grant an exemption for those in the minority. The example I gave was of speed limits, which have selective exemptions for emergency vehicles.… Continue reading