Society Doesn’t Exist

“We live in a rape culture. Society tells men to treat women like objects, which leads to the normalization of sexual assault and rape.”

“We need to severely restrict immigration from the Middle East, as these people come from cultures which promote values incompatible with American ideas of freedom and equality.”

I have problems with both of these statements, but not in the way you might think.

About a year ago, my small group was discussing what it means to respect women. The gentleman leading our discussion was making the argument, or at least as I remember, that society told us women were weak creatures desperately needing the assistance of us men. This troubled me, as I believed society told us the opposite. In my world, society told us there were no differences between men and women, and it was patriarchal and taboo to act like there were.

I’m probably misconstruing my friend’s argument, but the specifics are not supremely important. We believed two completely opposite things, but we were fighting the same enemy – this construction we called society.

This society didn’t actually exist. It was a fiction we had internalized to give us something to fight. Soon after, I began looking for condemnations of this mysterious “society” in other arguments. They were everywhere, and each time it was the same story.

Someone, often myself, was being rhetorically lazy, and they gave shape to this generalization called society to give them an enemy and something to resist. The more I thought about this fallacy, the more it frustrated me.

I don’t discount the power of social context to influence human action. In fact, the research suggests it is the most powerful influence on what we do. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is a remarkably insightful and accessible book I would highly recommend, and he has a long section on the power of context. In it he references a number of psychological experiments that prove how the roles we fill largely determine our behavior, the most famous of which is the Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971.

However, it is incredibly lazy to suggest that one cultural context exists, pulling everyone in the same direction.

To return to the feminist example, I actually believe that hookup culture on many college campuses creates an environment where young women are easily taken advantage of. It’s one of those weird spots the traditionalist and the feminist critiques overlap. However, to suggest all of society is infected by “rape culture” or even a broader patriarchy, meaning the contexts in all of society negatively affect women, would be absurd. There are contexts which are very much not patriarchal. Your weekly women’s book club where you read the latest feminist dystopia is not a context infused with the patriarchy.

So you say “fine, maybe it is an oversimplification to suggest all of society exerts a uniform pressure. But you just presented a red herring. Contexts project their influence. The strongest influences reaching the largest amount of people, that is what we call ‘culture’. A few counter-cultural enclaves, like our feminist book club, don’t change the underlying fact. Most of society is objectifies women, so therefore it’s acceptable to say that American society objectifies women.”

I’m sympathetic to that argument, but it is still an oversimplification which imposes a uniformity where none exists. It would be like saying America is a white country. It might be true most Americans are white, but it’s not a fair assessment of what is actually real. If we don’t accept such oversimplifications when describing demographics, why should we tolerate it when making social critiques?

It also discounts very real counter-“cultural” enclaves. For example, I go to a Christian university, where the societal message is clear that sex is to be enjoyed between a married man and woman in a lifelong covenantal relationship. Certainly I hear messages in music, movies, and the context beyond my university that say otherwise. But the context I am most immersed in pulls me in the direction opposed to the broader “society.” It’s hard for me to accept the claim that “society” pull me towards promiscuity at my university. I might be pulled that direction, but it’s unfair to blame “society” for it.

You can hear this lazy argument about society as the enemy all the time in religious language if you’re looking for it. “Our society” tells us pornography is harmless. “Our world” tells us God isn’t real. “Our culture” tells us we have no higher purpose. I sit there agreeing on a general level, but I’m confused about what world we are talking about. The spaces we occupy are unique, and the social forces affecting us influence us in a similarly unique way. I might generally agree with the critiques, but adding legitimacy to your argument by criticizing this broad and shapeless “society” is just lazy.

Culture and context matter. However, they are extraordinary complex things that apply pressure to individuals in unique ways. When someone is so general as to attack “society”, assuming that uniform social pressures exist, they are oversimplifying to the point of being unhelpful, they are revealing their ignorant of specifics, or they are too lazy to be precise with their speech.

You can criticize the culture at your workplace, church, university, or even broader concepts like hookup culture like I did earlier. But all of these “cultures” have shapes. To try and attack “society”, “culture”, or “the world” is like trying to fight a ghost.

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