Monday, March 29, 2010

Political "Reality"

This is the paper I mentioned - social constructionism and politics. Obviously, I had to try to present the argument in a neutral manner, which was tough in light of Conservapedia.

The political atmosphere today makes it easy to seem as if Republicans and Democrats are living in entirely different worlds, with entirely different realities. Rational debate is difficult, as each side believes its value set is accurate and morally correct. The dichotomy between the two viewpoints is hard to understand - how can two groups of people, looking at the same facts, have such wildly varying conclusions?

In 1966, Peter Berger introduced the concept of the “social construction of reality” in his book of the same name, positing that the social world is the ongoing creation of humans and the language we use. Reality is modified, reified, and institutionalized over time, leading to the creation of what we consider “fact”. Individuals seek to associate with the reality that most closely resembles his or her internal beliefs, thereby reducing cognitive dissonance. Organizations serve to reinforce this reality and associated beliefs. By examining the political debate in this light, we can better understand the existing polarity.

“Things are that as which they are named” (Berger and Pullberg, 1965, p. 203). While we tend to look at word definitions as concrete facts, Berger would argue that language and meaning are part of the social process. We assign meaning to words based on our construct of reality and our associated values. One of the most fascinating aspects of the political conversation is that that certain words seem to have different (and loaded) meanings to different parties. If we look at the word “liberal” across three websites -, Wikipedia, and Conservapedia - we can see the wide variance in definition. offers no political commentary, simply definitions pulled from Merriam-Webster dictionary and assorted anthologies. The site defines the word “liberal” as “favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs; favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. protection of civil liberties; favoring or permitting freedom of action, esp. with respect to matters of personal belief”. To me, a self-proclaimed liberal, this seems to be a reasonable and unbiased definition. Wikipedia uses a similar definition on its user-generated encyclopedia, describing “modern liberalism” as a combination of “social liberalism and social progressivism with support for a welfare state and a mixed economy”, and lists causes such as voting rights, freedom of choice for women, and “government entitlements such as education and health care” as examples of liberal policies. Again, to me, this definition seems neutral and unbiased, as Wikipedia is theoretically a neutral aggregation of facts.

However, to many conservatives, Wikipedia demonstrates a strong liberal bias and distorts the facts accordingly. Conservapedia states that its purpose is to “convey knowledge free of liberal bias”. It does not embrace a conservative bias (anymore than Wikipedia claims a liberal bias); instead, it attempts to present just the facts. According to the site, a liberal is “someone who rejects logical and biblical standards, often for self-centered reasons. There are no coherent liberal standards; often a liberal is merely someone who craves attention, and who uses many words to say nothing”. Obviously, this is a very different definition than the two previous sites, with a much more pejorative slant. As a liberal, I find this definition offensive, but many conservatives see this as the unvarnished truth - this is their reality.

It would be easy to claim that one site is “real” and the other “fake” (according to the reader’s personal views), but a social constructionist viewpoint rejects that option. Individuals and organizations create meaning based on their reality and interpretation of events, even if that constructed reality is repugnant to others. If we accept that reality is fluid, must we then accept all versions as valid? Perhaps or perhaps not. However, as a society, we should be aware of the power of groupthink and the danger of institutionalized views based on factually incorrect information.

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