In my last post, I used Kenneth Gergen’s social constructionist theory to try to weave out what I see as being a crucial error so prevalent that even progressive psychologists repeatedly make it. Tom Pepper’s comments on that piece were enormously helpful in clarifying some things for me, and I’m grateful for those comments because I often notice myself missing my own point. The reason is that the error that was being discussed in that post is very subtle, yet fundamental to understanding where we go wrong in understanding how ideology construction works. So this has been a process for me of continually forgetting and grasping the same point, in what seems like a never-ending cycle of temporary understanding, and what Pepper aptly calls “epistemological despair.”
Now, I want to follow up with another example of this error that helped make it even clearer to me, in the hopes that it will do the same to others. I’m hoping that readers will provide feedback as to whether what I am saying makes sense.
I attended a full-day “social justice summit” at my university this weekend. I went there hoping to engage in discussions around resisting capitalism, but instead found that the discussions were centered around getting more people to participate in capitalism, rather than about creating alternative social practices to capitalism. This has made clear to me the limitations of mainstream social justice movements to effectively create any actual resistance.
There was one session there, run by two clinical psychology graduate students, entitled “Reframing Self-Care as an Act of Resiliency: A Workshop for Social Justice Advocates.” I found this workshop extremely disturbing for several reasons. You can imagine the kinds of people who were attending this summit: liberal progressive activists who understand that our social system is unjust and wish to dedicate their life to resisting it. And herein lies the crux of the problem I had with this workshop. Instead of attempting to clarify to the audience how the self is socially constructed through social practices, the presenters merely reinforced the illusion of the transcendent subject under the guise of helping such a subject more effectively resist injustices. The idea behind the workshop was that in order to be a more effective activist, one must learned “self-care.”
In one part of the workshop, participants were given a list of some 50 “values” and asked to write down their top five. The point of this exercise, we were told, was that it was important to understand and commit to our own values, and not the values imposed on us by our parents, or society. We needed to choose the five values that best represented our “inner selves” and not the values that we are told to hold by others. The irony of being given a list of values to choose from notwithstanding, there are some more seriously deeper issues here.
I want to dig into an example or two to illustrate the problem here, which is that not a single person at the workshop—much less the leaders—were able to see that our “inner values” do not reside deep within the core of our souls but are actually precisely that which construct our self, in the ideologies of our social formations. Some of these values given as options were “authenticity”, “industry”, “trust”, “mindfulness”, “self-development”, etc. I will work from the ones I took notes on during the session, since these are the ones most fresh in my mind. But I would insist that readers apply this kind of critique to all generic “values” found in the psychological literature.
To start, it will be useful to keep this basic question in the back of our minds, which refers to the phrase “self-care” found in the title of the workshop. In a truly Buddhist manner, let us ask: Who is this “self” that needs to be cared for?
So let us now take the first value which is ridden with implicit claims about what it means to be a human being.
This was, unsurprisingly, the first “value” that stood out to me. Here is the definition given for self-development:
Self-development: to keep growing, advancing or improving in knowledge, skills, character, or life experience
This seems innocent enough, and a value that seems obvious enough we should strive for. To see the problem, however, let us rephrase the question just posed above: Who is this self that values self-development? I hope you will notice by now that the definition of self-development above is ridden with a load of implicit claims about what our society needs in order to reproduce the ideology of capitalism. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this post to do an analysis of such notions as “growth”, “skills”, or “character” (to pick a few) and show how they contain within them certain expectations of what kinds of practices one must participate in in order to be a good subject of capitalism. I hope that anyone reading this blog is able to see this on their own. What I want to raise here is a more subtle point, one that even once we’ve established that these ideas are constructed within capitalism, is difficult to fully grasp.
In this workshop, we are led to believe that we are choosing this value as something that represents our innermost selves. This is a major error. The reality is rather that, in addition to this value being relative to, and constructed by, our current social formation of capitalism, this value is not one which our self holds, but is that which constructs our self. I hope the difference is clear. It is not that we have an unconstrained, transcendent soul that chooses or has the value of self-development. Again, it is rather that in a social formation that has produced this particular concept of self-development in order to reproduce the ideologies which constitute it, a certain kind of subject is produced: namely, a subject who values this particular conception of self-development.
The error that the leaders and participants of this workshop were committing was in imagining that they were looking within their innermost selves to find that which is not socially constructed, but rather represents their true self. But, if we accept that there is not innermost self, no atman that is over and beyond the material conditions in which the human being is embedded, then it becomes clear that what we are “finding” when we look into our self to discover our values are the values of a self that is precisely socially constructed by such values.
Let’s take another example of a value which is supposedly to be found deep within our souls. I hope that this one will make my point event clearer.
The value “industry” is defined as follows:
to be industrious, hard-working, dedicated
Again, it should be clear that, even though this definition is so vague as to be almost meaningless, we can nonetheless see how the concept of “industrious” or “hard-working” is agreed upon socially by those of us participating in capitalism. If I introspect to find that I deeply value “industry”, have I just discovered something held dear by my innermost self, something that is truly me, and not something given to me by my family or my society? Of course not! What I have done is merely discovered how I have been socially constructed within my social practices, such that what I value is this particular trait that is required for me to be a good subject of capitalism.
The workshop aimed to have us learn to “reclaim for oneself” one’s values from the oppressive social formation so that we can better resist it. Who is the self that is reclaiming a value, from whom is it being reclaimed, and to whom is it being returned? Again, if we try to answer this question without assuming a transcendent self, it becomes obvious that the self that is doing the “reclaiming” is already socially constructed, as is the discourse of reclamation as an act of resistance, and the object being “reclaimed” (which, of course, is not really being reclaimed, but simply acknowledged as being a part of the self that is unknowingly already socially constructed by what is being claimed).
Another part of the workshop was about self-compassion. This part of the session helped me with a new way to understand rhetoric of “self-care” and “self-compassion” as, respectively, a new kind of social practice of caring for (reification) and being compassionate toward (refusal to challenge) the ideologies that construct this “self.” That will require a whole new post as I work it out further. For now, I wanted to offer this analysis as a food-for-thought and, hopefully, as a way for people to see how one might be able to tease out essentialist ideologies in ostensible resistance discourse. I hope that more people will be able to see through some of the rhetoric coming out of social justice movements that do not, either because they are unwilling or unable to, challenge capitalism.