Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Reply Time

“Reply time for responsible spokespersons for the opposing point of view will be provided.”  Local TV station editorial disclaimer, circa 1975

“What is Reality?”  Heckler to George Papoon, nutty presidential candidate from The Firesign Theater’s Not Insane or Anything You Want to!  Album (1972)

Walter Cronkite, iconic network anchor from the good old days.

Back in the 1970’s, before the practice of openly biased news casting was accepted as the marketing gold standard, local TV stations would allow their general managers, or duly appointed spokespersons, to make a brief editorial statement at the end of the local newscast.  They would espouse positions like garbage is bad, voting is good, and governmental efficiency should be improved.  They were never openly partisan in the way that talk radio has become today.  They never said “Democrats are better than Republicans” or vice verse, even when the station owner made campaign donations to one of the parties but not the other.  These editorials would always conclude with the offer quoted above:  if you disagree with us and we don’t think you are a crackpot, we will give you time for a similarly brief speech.

Local TV stations were complying with the Federal Communications Commission’s guidelines about political speech: the Fairness Doctrine.  The US government controlled the airwaves--electronic communication being fully capable of penetrating political boundaries, the courts had ruled this was a Federal responsibility. Congress decreed that direct political speeches by the TV station needed to serve the larger public interest, not the narrow values of a single party or partisan.  Local stations were not to be used as a bully pulpit by their owners to promote personal political views… unless opponents were given a chance to reply.  Low and behold, the occasional response was aired that promoted bond proposals that the stations had opposed, but no one ever spoke up in defense of garbage, governmental waste, or the joys of abusing small animals.  No responsible spokesperson would ever do that!  Anyone saying so would lack legitimacy.

This post describes the rebuttal of a group of sociologists who would not have sat still for John Godfrey Saxe’s version of the elephant parable which suggests that epistemological differences lead to heated but unproductive conflict.  As you can see from my above example of Americana, the idea that the public square is a crucible for conflict where political reality gets constructed is in our political DNA.  Its legitimate.  These sociologists went even further, all the way to claiming that social interaction and conflict creates social reality!  I will be discussing three seminal contributions, social constructionism, the work of Erving Goffman, and the work of Howard Becker.  They shall serve as our responsible spokespersons opposed to Saxe’s blind men!

Thomas Luckman (L) and Peter Berger (R)

Their opening manifesto in this discourse was The Social Construction of Reality, by Peter Bergman and Thomas Luckman, written in 1966, which claimed that social reality is mostly created and articulated through social interaction.  Even before we are born, our parents name us, decorate our bedrooms, start communication of what gender is and which one we will have.  They announce our impending arrival to family and friends, and begin choosing a name.  They have showers, schedule christenings and brises, and now we may be announced on Facebook.  Our opportunities for identity might well be framed by their expectations. 

That elephants are afraid of mice, have long memories, crowd the room unacknowledged, or can be experienced from myriad limited points of view are bequeathed to us by a culture that is the present summation of all those historical social interactions.  We only occasionally come to know elephants through direct observation in the wild, and if we elect mammalian zoology as our specialty and do the dirty work of direct scientific observation, how we know to do all those zoological things was socially constructed, too.

As everyone knows, elephants also fly!  Walt Disney's Dumbo (1941)

Berger and Luckman’s insight, which was revolutionary at the time, greatly expanded the realm of what social knowledge was considered to be.  Great early sociologists like Max Weber and Karl Marx tended to view ‘knowledge’ as the product of science, or large institutional actors like governments, universities, and formal organizations.  They would have had no problem understanding conflict in the public square and the Fairness Doctrine, or the Constitutional Convention.  But you and I did not learn all those notions about what an elephant symbolizes from teachers politicians and zoologists.  We learned from stories Mom read to us, or cartoons we saw on TV, or stories our friends told us they had heard from yet other friends.  Berger and Luckman greatly democratized the universe of social actors that contribute to the formation of social knowledge.   Parents, sibs, friends, media all reflected implicit messages about what the social world should be.  Stripped of the opportunity to be partisan, the station editorials in the media were affirming prosaic social realities about garbage and government while legitimating their rights to sermonize!  That was behavior Marx and Weber failed to predict, but Berger and Luckman saw clearly.

Berger and Luckman thought social knowledge of everyday life was immediate and personal, and richly articulated.  Social knowledge of one’s primary roles, such as work, parent, or first baseman, was also rich, and often defined by the traditional sources of social meaning like authorities, laws and institutions.  But the social reality of roles we did not take is hazy and ambiguous, phenomenologically sparse and relatively unimportant.  Social Construction of Reality articulated the importance of the epistemology of everyday life.  Furthermore, social reality was continually in the process of being built, amended and affirmed.  Much seemingly trivial conversation had as its primary effect the managing conventional social expectations.  Implicit in this analysis is that we do not all live in the same social reality, though we share parts of ours with others.  My social reality as a psychologist overlaps somewhat with my wife’s as a management consultant, but we share a great deal in our private lives.  I might scarcely share any sense of social reality with a tribal shaman.

The BDSM practice of Boot Blacking.  Because kink is an underground subculture, many of its aspects are not widely known or understood by outsiders.

It also facilitated changes in how we view the social discourse so that comedy groups like Firesign Theater and Monty Python could create humor that consistently challenged the notion of shared social consensus.  Firesign Theater dialogues were always in danger of careening off in crazy directions because of the intrusions of stream of consciousness and free associations.  They sound like everyone is conversing while high on marijuana, and that it explains their commercial appeal at the time: their listeners mostly were!  In Monty Python, comics obstinately refuse to share each others’ frames of reference, and plunge toward escalating conflict fighting over what the point of the conversation is about.  These satires highlight how smoothly most conventional social interactions usually proceed by showing comic alternatives disintegrating.  You take the dead parrot to the pet shop anxious there may be a dispute about whether the pet shop will give you your money back, not whether there will be an argument about whether the parrot is actually deceased or just resting!

Social constructionsism is also at the center of the politicization of personal life.  When Carol Hanisch’s editors published her 1969 essay “The Personal is Political”, they were combining Marxism, social constructionism and feminism in the service of attacking a competing social definition of feminism as a reflection of the personal psychopathology of dissatisfied women.  If any present reader sees a similarity between this and BDSM’s fight with psychiatry to avoid being marginalized, that’s what I see too!  Social reality is created by norms, mores, laws, psychiatric manuals and the division of household tasks, all the way down to Deborah Tannen’s observations about gender differences in patterns, interruptions, and choices of metaphor in men's and women’s speech.

Lessons from feminism that apply to BDSM:  A Feminist button from the 70's

Conflict isn’t always part of the crucible from which social understandings emerge, but it is a routine and predicable part of the social interaction on many occasions.  That question about allowing opposing spokespersons to use the broadcast facilities of your station creates fairness?  Who says?  Well, the Supreme Courts says so and many social participants are swayed.  The Supreme Court has social legitimacy to make that call.  It need not have been interpreted that way.  Two thousand years ago, Brutus and Casius would never have thought that greater fairness was served by allowing Marc Antony to deliver Caesar’s eulogy.  And well they shouldn’t have, they got a civil war for their error!  How did he do it?  By subtly attacking their legitimacy!

Fairness Doctrine?  "Friend's Romans, countryman, lend me your ears!"  Marlon Brando as Antony incites to civil war in Julius Caesar (1953)

Right now our AASECT Listserv is having another one of its wars about whether porn is inherently harmful.  Some clinicians who work with people who feel that porn is interfering with their sex life and see porn as a dangerous.  Their clients find porn emotionally safer and more intense than partner sex and use it to avoid the risks of emotional and sexual intimacy.  Other clinicians see self-defeating uses of porn as symptoms of other problems, unhealthy behaviors than porn is put to by a select few.  Others see ‘porn addiction’ as an excuse, where individual clients try to deny responsibility for decisions they make about porn use that they have mixed feelings about.  Yet others see an analogy to chemical addiction.  For these therapists, porn ‘addicts’ are in a neurobiological trap that reduces their freedom of choice, just as heroin addiction does.  Some expect that neuroscience will eventually resolve this dispute, but in the meantime, these discussants do argue like Saxe’s blind men.  Berger and Luckman would see this as an aberration, the consequence of the unhappy circumstance that no scientific data are available that are so clear that they do not admit to multiple interpretations, and the social discourse becomes mired in conflict.  So one of the implications of social constructionism is that conflict can take quite a long time to resolve, and notwithstanding the example of the Enlightenment, it takes real work to make a scientific explanation become the prevailing social explanation.  You may think we pretty much settled the dispute between the geocentric model of Ptolemy and the heliocentric solar system of Copernicus, didn’t we?  Well, mostly, just don’t tell me about the time you had your natal chart cast!  So there is no reason to believe that the sex addiction/hypersexuality/compulsive sexual behavior/problem sexual behavior will be entirely decided by science.

National Lampoon satirizes the porn debate in 1971.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  The debate outlasted the humor magazine, which ceased publication in 1998.

A natal chart.  Astrology resists the final triumph of the Copernican Revolution.

You can immediately see the appeal of social constructionism to Foucault, but he and it emerged on the scene just as the counter-culture movement was getting started.  The potential of this idea as the raw material for the construction of subcultures was not overlooked.  If you could construct your own culture with its own rules in opposition to mainstream thinking, what were the barriers to entry?  If you can't achieve widespread social legitimacy, you can create an enclave where your social reality is accepted. This will lead to future posts about kink as a subculture.  Interestingly Deborah Tannen regards men and women as participants in different sub-cultures, and explains their language differences that way. 

The implications of this for kink are multifold.  By now, no one is unaware that the world of organized BDSM is a subculture, but because of the ideas in The Social Construction of Reality, we can see some of the reasons it is regarded as deviant and makes traditionalists uncomfortable.  Kinksters are highly individualistic, and this threatens those seeking more conformity, communality and increased social control.  Kink trades in desires which are not able to openly discussed in the parent culture, like sex, power, submission, pain, and desire itself.  If large institutions have greater power if their assumptions remain unchallenged, kink challenges many things threatening to undermine their social constructions.  Also, larger social actors seek to control those social reinforcers, and limit the ability of individuals to seize satisfactions in ways they cannot control or influence.  Kink is underground, and this makes it safer, after all if its invisible, fewer will be influenced by bad examples of sexual variability.  But it also makes it mysterious and scarier.  How is it to be controlled if it is unclear how it works, or what it’s doing?

Perhaps scariest of all, kink challenges rationalist assumptions about the power of rationality itself.  Since the Enlightenment, an ultimate value has been rationality.  In the Enlightenment view, the most productive social constructions make logical sense to have legitimacy.  In kink, the ultimate value resides in passion.  In the kink subculture, the best passionate decisions feel ‘good’ in ways that may include pain; that do not appear to be rational at all.  Passion has legitimacy.


For more about the Firesign Theater 

The Social Construction of Reality

The Personal is Political

You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen 

© Copyright Russell J Stambaugh Ann Arbor, MI June 2013.  All rights reserved.

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