«“BUT MOM, CROP-TOPS ARE CUTE!” SOCIAL KNOWLEDGE, SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND IDEOLOGY CRITIQUE Sally Haslanger MIT, Department of Linguistics and ...»
If a practice is the structured product of schema (a set of dispositions to perceive and respond in certain ways) and resources (a set of tools and material goods), it is not “subjective” in any of the ordinary uses of that term. Social structures are not just in our heads (just as the statue is not just 80 Sally Haslanger in our heads); social structures are public (just as the bronze only constitutes a memorial by virtue of the collective interpretation and pattern of action in response to it); although social structures are not simply material things, they are constituted by material things. They are “constructed” by us in the ordinary way that artifacts are created by us. One can believe in them without accepting the idea, sometimes endorsed by “social constructionists” that our thought constructs, in a less ordinary way, what there is in the world (Haslanger 2003).
This rough account of social structures helps to define idea of a social milieu. As we saw above, the schemas that constitute social structures are intersubjective or cultural patterns, scripts and the like, that are internalized by individuals to form the basis of our responses to socially meaningful objects, actions, and events. In many cases, perhaps even most, the dominant cultural schema will also be the one that individuals in that context have made “their own”. However, it is not always that simple. Individuals bear complex relations to the dominant schemas of their cultural context; they may be ignorant of or insensitive to a schema, may reject a schema, or may modify a schema for their own purposes. One may be deliberately out of sync with one’s milieu, or just “out of it”. It is also the case that different schemas vie for dominance in public space. For example, what happens when a group of people approach a closed door they want to go through? Some will employ a “gallant gentleman” schema and will hold the door for the ladies; others will employ a “whoever gets there first holds the door” schema; still others will employ a “first-come, first enters, hold your own door” schema. Which schema one brings to the doorway may be a matter of socialization and/or choice.
For the purposes of this paper it will be useful to define an individual’s (general) social milieu in terms of the social structures within which he or she operates, whether or not the public schemas in question have been internalized. Although we can choose some of the structures within which we live, it is not always a matter of choice, e.g., I am governed by the laws of the United States whether I choose to be or not. Of course, individuals do not live within only one milieu; and milieus overlap. One’s workplace, place of worship, civic space, and home are structured spaces; each of these structures are inflected by race, gender, class, nationality, age, and sexuality to name a few relevant factors. So it will be important to specify an individual’s milieu at a time and place and possibly in relation to specified others. In this essay I will not be able to give precise conditions that specify what milieu is operative for an individual in a given context; we’ll just have to rely on clear-enough cases for now.
Given the notion of a milieu, we can return to a claim introduced at the
beginning of the paper about which Parents and Daughter disagreed:
(1) Seventh grade girls who wear crop-tops to school are cute.
“But Mom, Crop-Tops Are Cute!” 81 Plausibly, cuteness and dorkiness are features that must be judged from social milieus because they are partly constituted by those milieus. In the seventh grade, the schemas that govern the responses to clothes constitute a structure that (1) accurately describes. Daughter, has internalized those schemas, and is correct in asserting (1); in Parents’ milieu, however, (1) is incorrect. It is tempting to say, then, that both are saying something true because (1) is true relative to one milieu and not the other. But how should we make sense of this “milieu relativism”? In the following section I will suggest a promising model and then raise some questions to be addressed in order to fulfill the promise.
V. Social Truths
There is something tempting about the idea that we live in different social worlds (or milieus); that what’s true in one social world is obscure from another; that some social worlds are better for its inhabitants than others; and that some social worlds are based on illusion and distortions.
How might we make sense of this?
a. Relative truth
Recent work in epistemology and philosophy of language has explored versions of relativism in order to give accounts of a wide variety of phenom¨ ena, including “faultless disagreement,” (Kolbel 2003; MacFarlane 2006) statements of personal taste (Lasersohn 2005), the context sensitivity of knowledge attributions (MacFarlane 2004). The basic strategy is to explore how the truth of a statement may be sensitive to context. Consider a sentence
(3) This oatmeal is lumpy.
Because there is an indexical term ‘this’ in (3), context—in particular, the context of use—must be consulted in order to determine what proposition, if any, is being expressed. In a particular context, (3) can be used to express a proposition concerning (a particular bowl of) Instant Quaker Oats, and in another context to express a proposition concerning (a particular bowl of) Scottish porridge. It is important to note, however, that whether the proposition expressed is true or not depends further on, e.g., the world or perhaps the world/time pair under consideration. So even if we settle what particular bowl of oatmeal is in question, it still might be true in one world (or at one world/time) that the bowl of Quaker Oats in question is lumpy and in another world (or at another world/time) not. For example, if (3) is 82 Sally Haslanger uttered in the actual world one morning referring to a particular bowl of oatmeal, it expresses a proposition that, at least on some accounts, is true at worlds (or world/times) where that oatmeal is lumpy and false where not.
So the context of use can play two roles in determining the truth-value
of a statement such as (3):
(i) it fixes the semantic value of any indexical in the utterance, and yields the propositional content, and (ii) it fixes the circumstances relative to which we should evaluate the proposition’s truth or falsity.
Drawing on John MacFarlane’s account of relative truth, we can then contrast indexicality, where context is necessary to complete the proposition expressed, and context sensitivity, where context is necessary to determine the truth value of the proposition by determining the circumstances of evaluation (MacFarlane 2005, 327).
MacFarlane argues that in addition to contributions from the context of
use, the context of assessment is also relevant to determining the propositional content and truth value of a statement:
We perform speech acts, but we also assess them; so just as we can talk of the context in which a sentence is being used, we can talk of a context (there will be indefinitely many) in which a use of it is being assessed. (MacFarlane 2005, 325) To see why context of assessment is sometimes necessary to capture meaning,
consider the statement:
(4) This oatmeal is yummy.
Suppose Fred asserts (4), and suppose further that what proposition is expressed and what circumstances of evaluation are relevant to its truth-value is determined by the context of use (no context of assessment is involved).
Suppose, though, that Ginger’s intervenes:
(5) Sorry, Fred, you’re wrong... This oatmeal is not yummy.
If ‘yummy’ in (4) and (5) is understood indexically, then the proposition Fred
(4 I ) This oatmeal is-yummy-to-Fred.
And in denying his claim Ginger is saying11 :
On this account, Ginger is denying a different proposition than the one Fred expressed and she isn’t disagreeing with him. The indexical interpretation makes no sense of her claim “You’re wrong!” An advantage of context-sensitivity over indexicality is that the proposition expressed by (5) is the denial of the proposition expressed by (4); context plays a role not in changing the content of the proposition but in determining different circumstances of evaluation. Continue to suppose, however, that only the context of use is available to evaluate the disagreement between Fred
and Ginger. We then have:
(4 S ) This oatmeal is yummy, relative to C U.
(5 S ) Sorry, Fred, you’re wrong... It is not the case that this oatmeal is yummy, relative to C U.
The proposition expressed by ‘this oatmeal is yummy’ in (4 S ) is denied by (5 S ), yet it is not yet clear how both Fred and Ginger can be saying something correct if the context’s contribution to truth-value is the same in both cases.
For example, if C U in (4 S ) relativizes Fred’s claim to his taste standards, then because Ginger denies (4 S ) with (5 S ), plausibly (5 S ) is relativized to the same standards and would be false. So Ginger’s utterance can get no purchase on Fred’s claim. What we need is that there is something about Ginger’s context of assessment that differs from Fred’s context and allows (5 S ) to be true relative to her context but not Fred’s.
MacFarlane argues that we should allow both the context of use and the context of assessment to play a role in determining circumstances of evaluation. (MacFarlane 2005, 327) Then because Ginger’s context of assessment is different from the context of Fred’s use and assessment, the proposition (4) is true relative to Fred’s context of assessment and false relative to Ginger’s.
(4 A ) This oatmeal is yummy relative to C UF and C AF.
(5 A ) Sorry, Fred, you’re wrong... It is not the case that this oatmeal is yummy relative to C UF and C AG.
In (4 A ) and (5 A ), Fred’s context of use determines the semantic value of the indexical ‘this’ and the contexts of assessment determine the different standards of yumminess. Fred and Ginger disagree because their statements cannot both be true relative to a common context of assessment (MacFarlane 2006). This gives us “faultless disagreement”: both are, in a sense, right, even though they, in a sense, contradict each other.
One might wonder, however, why parties to such a debate bother to disagree if truth is context-sensitive and both sides can be right. MacFarlane
Perhaps the point is to bring about agreement by leading our interlocutors into relevantly different contexts of assessment. If you say, ‘skiing is fun’ and I contradict you, it is not because I think the proposition you asserted is false as 84 Sally Haslanger assessed by you in your current situation, with the affective attitudes you now have, but because I hope to change those attitudes. Perhaps the point of using controversy-inducing assessment-sensitive vocabulary is to foster coordination of contexts. (MacFarlane 2006, 22) b. Truth relative to milieu, i.e., “social truth” relativism Can we use the model just sketched to make sense of the disagreement
between Daughter and Parents? Recall:
(1) Seventh grade girls who wear crop-tops to school are cute.
The suggestion would be that (1) is true relative to Daughter’s social milieu
and false relative to Parents’. So:
The context of assessment determines the milieu in question by reference to the assessor’s social milieu, i.e., the complex of schemas and resources operative for him or her in that context. (Recall that this is not a subjective matter, so in this respect there is an important difference between relativizing truth to an individual’s taste, and to an individual’s milieu.) How, though, does the context of assessment determine milieu? We saw above that it is a tricky question which structures are operative for an individual in a context and more needs to be said to make this precise.12 I am assuming here, however, that Parents are governed by the practices and norms of a parental social role that discourages the sexualization of twelve year old girls. (This is not to say, however, that the parental role or the message is always clear.) In initially considering the crop-top conversation, we considered three different strategies for analyzing the conflict: the objectivist reading, the subjectivist reading, and the framework reading. The relativist reading captures some elements of each. It has objectivist elements, for the statements in question are true by virtue of capturing a social reality. It also has subjectivist elements for the truth of the claims made by each party to the debate depends on their perspective, understood in terms of their social location. It is also possible to make progress in thinking about the framework reading on the relativist model.
Recall that on the framework reading, Parents are not objecting to Daughter’s claim by denying it, but are instead rejecting the cute/dorky framework. It is worth noting that there is a spectrum of possible responses to a framework of this sort along two dimensions: first, the dimension of
understanding, second the dimension of critique. For example:
“But Mom, Crop-Tops Are Cute!” 85
• One can accept a distinction but object to a particular application of its terms;
• One can accept a distinction but find it confusing or misguided and recommend conceptual revisions to it;
• One can object to a distinction and refuse to employ it, but still be able to “mimic” applications of it (as if with shudder quotes);
• One can find a distinction incoherent.