“Subjectivity” And Social Constructions

A Jesuit professor of my acquaintance once told me that he once taught a class in which student complained about the grade they had gotten on a test. The student had gotten a score of 89 on the test. The cut-off point for an A grade was 90. “I missed an A just by a single point”, the student whined. “Why not make 89 the cut-off point? There is practically no difference after all between an 89 and a 90. So there is no reason not to make 89 the cut-off point. Making 90 the cut-off point is arbitrary and therefore unfair.” “I accept your reasoning,” the professor said. “There is practically no difference between a 90 and a 91. A single point can’t make that much a difference. So it is arbitrary to make 90 the cut-off point. Therefore, since there is no reason not to make 91 the cut-off point, 91 is now the cut-off point for an A. I am now changing the test grade for everyone who had gotten a 90.”

Needless to say, quite a few students were unhappy.

But the professor had to place the cut-off point somewhere. The placement is a bit arbitrary. That is just life, he might have told his students. So stop whining.

Notice I said “a bit arbitrary”. Had he made an “A” any score equal to or greater than 0, he would have been more than a bit arbitrary. Likewise, he would have been more than a bit arbitrary had he made a score of 100 an “F”. So now the question intrudes itself (I want to avoid saying “the question is on its knees, begging to be answered”): ‘when does it become more than just a bit arbitrary to make a particular score the cut-off point for an “A”?

It would seem that the professor has no principled way of placing the cut-off point anyplace. An 89 is just as good a place as a 90. And an 88 is just as good a place as an 89 — and so on down the range of scores. How can he stop before getting to 1? Indeed, even at 0, he could face the challenge posed by the question: “Can you specify a reason why the cut-off point can be 1 and not 0? Just the fact that making 0 an “A” just seems totally ridiculous is not by itself a reason — it is just an emotional reaction”. It would seem that the range of scores is like a playground slide that has been greased — it is impossible to stop at any one score.

But in fact the picture of a greased slide is not the best metaphor to use here. A more appropriate metaphor would be a slide in which one experiences more and more friction as they proceed down the slide past a certain point. The slide becomes stickier and stickier as one moves down, until at some point it becomes impossible to “slide” down any further. One gets frozen in place, certainly well before reaching a 0 score.

“Betcha you can’t specify in a non-arbitrary, principled way any of those ‘certain points'”, I hear some heckler in the peanut gallery yell out. “Ha ha … I hear nothing but crickets. Consider yourself pawned”.

Well, certainly I can’t specify in a non-arbitrary, principled way any of the aforementioned ‘certain points’. Not by myself, clearly. Nor can my Jesuit professor. But expecting any single person to specify the cut-off point is to miss the fact that grades are a social institution. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village — or at least a congery of professors — to specify any of the aforementioned “certain points”. So let’s set up the following communal statistical experiment.

Get all the colleagues of my Jesuit professor together. All of them know the subject matter of the subject the professor is teaching well enough to teach it themselves. All of them are familiar with the average ability of the students in the professor’s class. All of them know what information the professor is trying to obtain from the test. Ask each of them to specify the cut-off point for an “A” grade on the test.

Each professor will experience something similar to what one undergoes when getting tested for the limits of their visual field. A dot is moving on a screen. The dot starts off from a point that is clearly beyond the outer limit of one’s visual field, but steadily moves toward its center. You will get a “sense” of the dot’s presence well before you can say with 100% confidence “the dot is there. I see it”, or raise your hand, or whatever the affirming response happens to be. I am taking the test. Should I wait until I see the dot with no without question before I raise my hand? Well, that seems too strict a criterion. It will produce too many false negatives. Should I raise my hand or say “I see the dot” when I first get the aforementioned “sense” of the dot’s presence? But maybe that will produce too many false positives. I am too liable to jump the gun. So I will end up giving an affirming response at different points in this range that starts from “first got the sense of the dot’s presence” and ends with “dot present in all its concrete glory as a figure against the ground of the screen”. My answer varies a bit from moment to moment.

I submit that which score each professor will choose as the cut-off point for an grade is likely to also vary from time to time. But the scores chosen by all of them will clump together fairly closely, and form a kind of distorted bell curve. I will leave visualizing the curve as an exercise for the reader. If the professors are not bat-shit crazy, the portion of the curve from the median downward will be quite steep and end well, well above 0. Without knowing the subject matter or the average ability of the students, an outsider will not be able to say exactly what point that is. It will vary according to the situation. But each professor will be bound by a serious social constraint and norm: the need to preserve grading as a social practice meant to provide information to others — to other professors in the same school, to people outside the school. Clearly being too extreme an outlier would destroy the purpose of this institution. Making 0 an “A” or a 100 an “F: (in a setting in which the grades are “A”, “B”, “C”, “D” and “F”) would provide no useful information at all to one’s colleagues.

So a range of scores exists within which it can be left to the discretion of the individual professor to specify the cut-off point for an “A”. Within that range, the specification is “subjective”. This limited “subjectivity” exists within a “social construct”, namely, the social institution of grading. But the fact that the practice of grading is both “subjective” (in a limited way) and a “social construct” does not mean that anyone who binds themselves to the social and institutional norms that preserve the purpose of this construct can choose just any cut-off point for an “A” grade.

So when a certain Gil Sanders produces the following as the start of his argument against the legitimacy of same-sex marriage:

Either marriage is a social construction or it has an objective nature.

1. If marriage is a subjective, social construction:

…then marriage can be defined to be whatever we make it to be and it hereby has no way in which it “ought” to be.

…then there is nothing wrong with defining marriage as between members of the opposite and;or same sex.

Gil Sanders, https://thomisticthinker.com/a-secular-argument-against-same-sex-marriage/#more-424

And of course if there is no way that one can prohibit a marriage between a person and his horse if there is no way that marriage ought to be. Who can marry whom and what is completely up for grabs.

Mr. Sanders is quite seriously confused. Where to begin? FIrst off, saying that something is “subjective” because it is a “social construction” is not terribly illuminating. What is “subjective” supposed to mean here? Is this the same sort of “subjectivity” that is at work when I prefer cookies and cream ice cream to vanilla? There being no principle by which anyone can tell me “You ought to prefer vanilla to cookies and cream”?

Is it “subjective” in the related sense of being a matter of whim? As when, purely on the basis of a whim, that is to say, as Dictionary.com puts it, an odd or capricious notion or desire; a sudden or freakish fancy, I take a midnight walk?

Obviously, however, the mere fact that an institution is a social construct does not render it a free-for-all in which one can do just anything. The fact that grading is a social construct does not allow one to make an “A” anything they choose. For one is responsible to one’s colleagues (remember — it is a social construction) and through them to the norms that preserve the purpose of the institution. The range of scores that one can legitimately call an “A” is limited by those norms. One’s “subjective discretion” is limited to that range in the manner described above. This subjectivity is quite limited and does not license a free-for-all in which everything is up for grabs or can be done on the basis of “an odd or capricious notion or desire, a sudden or freakish fancy”. One’s range of discretion is limited by the norms of this particular social construction, norms that in turn derive their legitimacy from the purpose of the construction.

Marriage, of course, is a social construction. The claim that its being a social construction therefore makes its “definition” a matter of whim (“If marriage is defined subjectively by mere social whim….”) is, frankly, an embarrassment which even Mr. Sanders’ youth does not excuse. The “definition” of marriage as a social construction depends upon its social purpose, just as the “definition” of grading does. I take it that the social purpose of marriage as a contract between human adults is to create human bonds of the sort that discourage the kind of chaos that results everyone fucks everyone one else and that create the kind of human stability most conducive to raising children, whether these are adopted, created through artificial insemination or one’s biological children. Same-sex marriage accords with this purpose. A “marriage” between one and their dog or their horse does not. That marriage is a social construction does not mean that it is “defined subjectively” by a mere “whim” with the result that anyone or anything can enter into a marriage.

Who is this Gil Sanders? And why am I picking on him? Gil Sanders is a young right-wing Christianist and Trumpite who on his Facebook page scapegoats LGBTQ+ people by spreading vicious, bigoted propaganda directed against them. He also helps propagate Trump’s big lie. He is the sort of loon who thinks that the Maricopa “audit” is a legitimate enterprise. But worse than being a loon, he seems to have no notion that when he ignorantly repeats claims that an entire voter database was dropped in Maricopa County, that claim can easily be fact-checked on Snopes and elsewhere. Lacking this any such notion, Mr. Sanders was thrown for a loop when it was pointed out that the fact checkers have falsified this claim. He did not even attempt to say “Well the fact checkers are obviously all a bunch of pinko commies”. In other words, he lacks common sense.

Yes, that Gil Sanders.

Now I point all of this out because, now that I refuted Mr. Sander’ argument, I would also like to emphasize just how bad it is. As Richard Yetter Chappell points out:

Further, I think insults aren’t always inappropriate. Creationists and homophobes, for example, tend to make revealingly bad arguments. In critiquing these arguments, we first aim to show why the conclusion doesn’t follow. But we are also in a position to draw a conclusion about the character of the person advancing the argument. Many arguments are so bad that they could not be honestly made by any informed rational person. Thus anyone who makes them must be either stupid, ignorant, or dishonest. In the course of criticising such an argument, a partisan may wish to point this out, just to emphasize how incredibly bad the argument really is. I don’t think it’s necessary wrong to do so. Some positions are so lacking in rational warrant that they deserve our scorn.


And one reason why I want to emphasize just how bad Mr. Sanders’ argument is that similar “arguments” are so commonly used by right-wing evangelicals and reactionary Catholics to claim that one is committed to a position which would justify anything — murder, man-on-dog sex ala Rick Santorum, whatever. So I am glad to have the opportunity to squash it like a bug.

Greased on certain lengths, sticky on others

About Cliff Wirt

I created this blog as a means of getting my thoughts in order about whatever topics I am interested in at the moment. These are always topics for which getting my thoughts in order is a bit of a challenge, so I expect most of my attempts to fail. (I keep trying, though.) I am not responsible for any brain damage the reader may incur from these posts. They (intentional use of 'they' as the epicene singular pronoun) are hereby warned. . . . Who am I? I am a banking DBA with various and sundry interests, including art, poetry, philosophy, music, languages, relational algebra, database administration, and blueberries. Don't forget the blueberries. Some of these interests tie in in surprising though usually tangential ways with database theory. Even the blueberries. I have published one article in a Philosophy Journal, and I have one painting in a corporate collection (housed in what used to be the Amoco building in Chicago). According to 23andMe, my paternal haplogroup is I2 (40% of the male population of Sardinia has this haplogroup, though I believe that my particular variation originated further north in the Baltic area. The Basques are apparently close cousins.), my maternal is H5. The Neanderthal percentage of my ancestry is 3%. (Let no one impugn my knuckle-dragging bonafides!) My most famous ancestor is William Wirt (from whom I get my last name, though possibly not my Y chromosome), who defended the rights of the Cherokees before the Supreme Court, and ran for President in 1832, carrying one state. My homepage is at http://www.cliff-engel-wirt.com. My FaceBook page is at https://www.facebook.com/cliffengelwirt. My LinkedIn page is at https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=4298877&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile_pic. View all posts by Cliff Wirt

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