A long while back, I asked FLG for a real counter-argument to the social constructionist approach that even little things matter and are worth addressing and protesting, such as the notion that pink is for girls. (Full context at Pink Wars, More on Pink, More on More on Pink, Pink Follow-Up, in December 2009, but this is a narrower focus.)

When social constructionists say “no, it’s isn’t just a kid’s toothbrush, it’s part of an overwhelming system of messages that will bombard Miss FLG every day for the rest of her life”, what counterargument do you offer to prove that that system doesn’t matter? Or that this is not a good way to attack it?

I got an immediate answer from commenter Robbo, which I will paraphrase as:

if you raise happy healthy well-adjusted children they’ll be able to ignore the messages.”

Fair enough, I can respect that viewpoint. I don’t necessarily believe it myself, but it’s a good answer. Less convinced by Robbo’s hint that teaching children about the messages makes them less well-adjusted, but that seems like a different debate.

But FLG also gave me several responses, and I am overdue in responding to them.

If the tiniest human interaction is part and parcel of a social construction and is consequently tremendously important then nothing is important.

First of all, there’s no reason you can’t have priorities within “important”, different angles of attack for one large problem, or specialize in what’s doable rather than what’s ideal. Indeed, those are techniques useful in any problem—rejecting them doesn’t scale.

But more importantly, this is hardly better than “sometimes it’s just a toothbrush.” It’s a rather more sophisticated version of “we can’t worry about everything,” that conflates “matters” with “everything is tremendously important.”

I have known men to run circles around me or elbow me out of the way because they apparently believe women are not allowed to expend simple human courtesy in the act of opening a door for a man. Do I have to wait until I actually trip over them and fall before such behavior escapes the label “the tiniest human interaction”?
If one endorses FLG’s statement as a general principle, then the list of things not worth doing includes:

  • holding a door open for anyone at all
  • the military practice of saluting officers and calling them sir
  • starting emails to a stranger with Dear So-and-So

Either small things matter, or they don’t. You can’t say “the ones I believe in matter but the ones I don’t believe in are too unimportant for anyone to worry about.”

To attack pink is to attack the symptom and not the cause“.

Absolutely a legitimate claim.

There’s a strong argument to be made that the billions invested in children’s toys and marketing those toys, and in Disney’s princess industry in particular, have turned pink into a cause rather than a symptom, but let’s set that aside and assume that pink toys are just a symptom.

However, attacking the symptoms can be an effective approach—it’s certainly used in modern medicine a lot. You can’t destroy an entire system at one sweep. Previous campaigns to change vocabulary, etc, have succeeded. FLG himself stated that “Ridding acceptable discourse of the word [nigger] was a necessary and relatively simple step in the long march toward equality.” Consumer boycotts and protests are a proven means of effecting change in big companies.

In fact, separating individuals from the system and attacking the symptoms actually balances out an undesirable tendency of social constructivists to operate on a meta, structural level. It’s really a very conservative approach, and it puts the responsibility for change in the hands of the individual to act as they believe, rather than demanding big systemic fixes, for which government regulation seems to be the main tool we have.

And if people choose one aspect of a bigger problem as their personal campaign, what’s it to you?

The things I worry about are things that construct gender roles AND have reasonably direct negative consequences. Saying girls don’t do science or math or whatever are in this category.

But the argument here is not that pink toothbrushes construct gender roles, or that parents should resist when girls pick pink as their favorite color. Rather it’s that when pink is the only option for girls, either because of manufacturing or because the dental hygienist says “oh no, honey, girls get the pink toothbruth”, then that constricts gender roles in the same fashion as “girls don’t do science”.

Creating the notion that certain colors, toys, and activities are for girls while others are for boys helps “girls don’t do science” land on fallow ground—“girls don’t take computer science” becomes an extension of a pattern that already exists. Different form, but same function. Girls hear “girls aren’t good at math” and accept that it makes sense, because it fits with other things—“girls don’t play trucks, girls don’t like blue”—they’ve been told all their life. That’s direct enough for me.