Ever since the election I can’t stop thinking about social constructs. When I was in school we often joked about how first years were obsessed with the idea that gender was a social construct. It’s true, but just because something is a social construct doesn’t mean it has no real world consequences.
And yet, as I see executive order after executive order passed limiting everything from immigration from predominantly muslim countries to hiring of federal employees, I can’t help but think about how we collectively create much of our own reality. Without the consent of the governed, Donald Trump is nothing but a man writing his personal opinion on some paper. Democracy doesn’t work unless we all agree to act within it’s constraints.
But this isn’t just about Donald Trump, but also the system that gave him legitimacy. It’s about capitalism, an economic system that thrives on the exploitation on low-wage and unpaid workers. It’s about how we understand success in this system. Our collective understanding of success is about financial gain and acquiring assets such as homes and vehicles. It’s about money itself. The value of stocks in the stock market is more often then not influenced by public perception of the well-being of a company. As more of our banking goes online it becomes clear that money is nothing more than numbers on a screen.
I think about this while I sit at work day after day. I think about how some days I am sick or exhausted or depressed. I think about the sunny days when I would rather be outside finding beauty in our world. I think about how if I didn’t have my job I would be able to pay rent or buy food or afford health insurance. In a capitalist system our ability to exist is literally determined by the labor we provide. It disadvantages so many women, people of color, poor folks, and people with disabilities.
So why do we agree to these structures? After all, our participation is essential to keeping these institutions powerful. What if we all chose to withdraw our consent from oppressive systems that we exist under? What would the world look like?
For the most part I think we either don’t realize our own power within these systems, or else are afraid about what follows that kind of revolution. We stay with the devil we know because we can’t imagine what a more egalitarian system would look like, or because we have achieved small success in this system and don’t want to forfeit our privileges.
And yet I think as more and more people become dissatisfied with our society, it will become our responsibility to construct new realities where we value people more than labor, and relationships more than monetary gain. Where we understand identity politics to be less about the individual and more about our collective definition of what labels represent. Where we understand how different facts and theories have been shaped by their historic context, and where we allow them to change as we do.
I think it is hard to change how we imagine the world and I think it takes a lot of time. But I also believe we all have the power to create change. Through art and theory and conversation and protest we put our ideas out into the world and allow them to germinate and be influenced by others, and slowly transform what we understand to be truth.
That is what it means to be a social construct. And idea is built by many and with it comes consequence.