We Construct our Reality: Rory O’Carroll at TEDxYouth@TheSpire (Transcript)

Rory O’Carroll

Rory O’Carroll – TRANSCRIPT

I just want to start off and give you a bit of advice. First of all, you need to be intelligent.

Why do you need to be intelligent? Because you need to get a good degree to get a good job to earn good money. That way, you can be successful. Don’t moan about it because that’s the reality, so you have to accept it. That’s the reality we live in today so just accept it and stop moaning about it. I want you to take that advice, and I want you to leave it over here.

Leave it over there for the moment. I’m going to talk about social constructionism. What if I told you that we can create our own reality? We can construct the reality for ourselves. We can construct this ourselves through the concept of social constructionism. So, what is it? Social constructionism is a mental creation; the fact that reality is just in our mind, it’s created.

The only reason we see this as a bottle is because we called it a bottle, and when we called it a bottle, that means it’s subjective. There is no objective truth, there is only subjectivity. Because we’re calling it a bottle, we don’t call it other things. I visit Berlin, I have a great time, I come back. The reality for Berlin is how I see it, what I experience.

Each and every interpretation are experiences of what you experience is true to yourself and unique to yourself. We can’t experience everything because that’s impossible so there are realities created for us. How are these realities created for us? Through conversation. People that haven’t been to Berlin before ask, “Sinéad, what’s Berlin like?” She tells them, they read on the media, they look at films and see books, and the reality is created for them. For example, I looked at the film “The Beach”, I loved Leonardo DiCaprio.

I thought that it was great and I heard that this beach was real, and I was like, “This is great,” I looked through the Internet, it’s Maya bay, it’s in Thailand, so I thought is amazing. Then, I actually spoke with people who are in Thailand to visit it, so the reality that was constructed for me, what I need experiencing was this. This is what it looked like, and this what it was. If I had never been there before, then the reality would still be like that. But unfortunately, I actually visited it and this is what it looked like.

That rock in the middle was superimposed. My friends never told me that, and the Internet didn’t say it either. When I arrived, the tide was ebb; and it looked absolutely awful. Basically, if I’d never visited there, the reality for me would be completely separate. Moving on, number one on social constructionism.

We take a critical stance for a taken-for-granted knowledge. If you lived all those years ago where the world was flat, you’d have believed you’d fall off the edge of the world because the top scientists then told you that. You’d be walking around, and you wouldn’t question it, the reality was the world was flat. If anyone thought that it wasn’t flat, you’d think they are absolutely crazy, you wouldn’t even mention it. The reality for that is we socially construct categories like that; that we believe.

Say gender, for example. We split humans into two categories: men and women. So why not split into short and tall? We’re doing that based on one sexual organ. The largest organ of the body is actually the skin, and people have different colour skins, so why not separate us between black and white? But I can hear you thinking, “Well, there’s procreation, so ” “It’s the final point, we have to” But why is procreation important? We’re told it is, but why? Because the continuation of the human rac.e That’s really important, you know? Hands up who here has children OK, now hands down.

When you had a child, was your motivation the continuation of the human race? I don’t think it was. I doubt in the history of the world that anyone had a baby, had a baby for the continuation of the human race. But that’s the reason we’re told, that’s why procreation is important. But when you actually look back, is it actually important? I really question whether it is. You can say the same for music.

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Music is music, no matter where you listen to music. But we socially construct these categories to put music into. Who’s to say in the nature of music that we should do that? We do it for a convenience purpose, you go to a store, you want to listen to different types of music, to a different type of radio station, and that’s fine, because no one’s affected. But when you do that with gender, people are affected, because people can be oppressed. As we said, humans constructed humans into two categories: men and women.

That means Anne today, years and years ago, in Ireland you couldn’t vote because you were put into that category of men and women. You can’t be a priest today because you are a woman. You got to quit your job when you get married because you are a woman. Those categories we put ourselves into are all made by ourselves, it’s all constructed through reality. The reality back then is one thing, and now, because we challenged that and because we questioned it, reality’s changed, so it’s just proof that we do change reality, and reality is created by us and the society we live in.

Just like marriage referendum. Marriage is between a man and a woman. Why? It’s been like that for thousands of years OK, but that’s because people were living for years and years, and they decided to put — It’s a socially constructed concept. Back then, nobody ever thought to put a man and a man together.

In a thousand years’ time, we’re going to look back and say, “Well, of course same-sex couples can get married. That’s ridiculous. It’s been like that for thousands of years.” It’s just another socially constructed concept.

The second thing is our understanding is always contextually relative. It all depends on time and where you are. For example, if you were bold in school 50 years ago, you’d get quipped. That was the reality, that’s what to do. When you’re bold it means you’d get beaten, that’s what you’re meant to do as a teacher and what you expect as a child. That was the reality for you.

But now, because we’ve questioned that, because we’ve moved on in time, we have a completely different reality, completely different look on things on how we should treat children when they do different things. Just like homosexuality is accepted now, it’s just everyday normal thing. But if you live in the Uganda it’s completely outed. Where you live and when you live there is extremely important. A very interesting point is knowledge and social action go together.

When we construct a problem; for example, alcoholism. I believe it’ll always be a problem, but back before the temperance movement and prohibition, we saw alcoholism, “It’s all your fault,” “You’re completely blameworthy,” “It’s your choice”. Therefore, that was the problem constructed. When a problem is constructed, an action follows from that. The action that followed from that was imprisonment, or being arrested, or whatever it was.

Therefore, when you have one construction of a problem, another action follows. These days, the medical/disease model is used for alcoholism a lot. Whether you agree with it, let’s use that as an example. “It’s an addiction,” “It’s not your fault” “Circumstances lead to that”. When we construct a problem one way, it leads to another action.

That action is rehabilitation and trying to overcome problems though therapy. Basically, it’s very important to remember that the way we construct things, and these are just constructed, as I said, contextually, it leads to certain actions. Homosexuality in Ireland, was constructed. Well, now it’s just your life, for me and you, it’s the same thing. But back then, it was constructed as a problem.

The action that followed that was criminalization. We have to be very careful on how we actually construct different things and whether we construct them as problems or not. When you construct something, realize that a certain action will always follow. How are these realities sustained? They’re sustained through conversation, through the media, through word of mouth. There’s more you haven’t experienced than you have, but I’m sure everyone has opinions of things they haven’t experienced.

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And how did you get those realities in your head? It’s through conversation, it’s through reading, it’s through looking at films, and through looking at media. The most important thing is language in this, because the language we use is extremely important on how we construct our reality. We construct reality based on the language we use. Different ways of talking construct different ways of realities depending on the language we use. As I said with the bottle, when we called it one thing, that means we’re not calling it another, so there’s 100% subjectivity there.

For any situation, multiple descriptions are usually possible. I’ll read a quote, I do have the reference if you want it after: “I will use words to represent what is in my mind, and transfer the meaning to you, so that you will understand the meaning I intend.” We talk about ‘disability’. Now, what is disability? Disability is another socially constructed concept, but it’s very important when we use the word ‘disability’ because it’s extremely stigmatizing, it’s extremely debilitating, describing someone with a disability.

People say, “Sinéad is small, she’s got a disability” “Why is it a disability?” “Because she can’t do what we do”. By virtue of being in the majority, we think it’s OK to label someone as disabled. There’s a million things that I can’t do, but you won’t call me disabled. This is an absolutely lovely painting by Andy Warhol, a piece of art, some may say.

Andy Warhol has dyslexia. Dyslexia is described as a disability. It’s actually on dyslexia i.e., it gets disability support. Because Andy Warhol can’t read or write as well as the rest of us, that means he’s disabled, but he can create this piece of art, but he can’t call you disabled.

We constructed this world where money is extremely important, where getting jobs, reading and writing are very important. Very important to get jobs, to earn money. We place a huge amount of emphasis and importance on those things that earn money. Therefore, that is seen as able, that is seen as the norm, that is constructed as the reality. If paintings were to earn the same money, if we constructed a society where they were very lucrative, then the people who can’t draw or paint very well would be called disabled.

If you imagine an scenario, “Does Rob want to come play football?” “No, he’s disabled.” First question, “What’s wrong with him?” “He’s in a wheelchair” “Oh, Jesus” “OK, does your granddad want to come?” “No, he’s disabled” “What’s wrong with him?” “He’s 95, so he can’t play.” But you wouldn’t call him disabled.

By virtue of being different, people are called disabled. My mother can’t turn on the television, but I’m not going to call her disabled, even though the majority – I’d say everyone in this room – I actually came into hers last night, she wanted to watch a film and she couldn’t turn her television on. Anyway, everyone in this room I’d say can turn a television on, but I won’t call my mother disabled by virtue of being in the majority. I know I’m over time; the last component is how discourse become dominant.

A discourse asserts a preferred version of the world. Discourse say, for example, the role of women. It’s one that disqualifies and excludes competing versions. The role of women in Ireland in the 1930s was they should be in the kitchen, they should not get jobs, and be in the home, and look after the kids. That’s what was said and when it’s said, it’s not challenged, it just becomes the reality, that’s the way it is.

How many times have you heard your mother say, “That was the reality”? So much so, that it’s enshrined in our Constitution that women should not neglect their home duties for economic necessity. And that’s still in our Constitution. Be very careful on how these certain realities, if they go unchallenged and unquestioned, they can go as far as being in a country’s constitution. That means there’s huge amount of power there.

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Those with dominant discourses have huge amount of power. If you imagine the Catholic Church back then and Magdalene laundries, the Catholic Church were closely aligned to the State. It even had a special place within the Constitution, as described by Dáil Éireann. Whatever the Catholic Church said, often that was just the way it was, and it didn’t go questioned. Their voice became very powerful, and that became the reality.

Magdalene laundries, those unmarried women who had children, their babies were called illegitimate. What a stigmatizing and absolutely horrifying word to describe a baby. But because those in power said it, it was accepted as the reality. Then, that discourse became powerful, and that became real for everyone. And those marginalized voices of the women, the mothers of those babies, they became marginalized.

And as a result of their voices being marginalized, they, as human beings, were marginalized and treated as subhuman. Always remember, when there’s a powerful voice, there’s a marginalized voice. And often, those marginalized voices become marginalized people. Going back to my advice, bring my advice back over here. We’ve got intelligence, you have to be intelligent.

What is intelligence? We’ve constructed a society where academic intelligence is intelligence. “Jesus, John’s got 600 points, he’s very intelligent.” I could. Well, I couldn’t, but someone could disassemble and reassemble a car engine in 20 minutes. You’d say he’s a great mechanic, but you’d never say he’s intelligent, because we’ve constructed a world where because academia leads to jobs and leads to earning money, that is intelligence. There’s loads of different types of intelligence. But when you’re a child, and you hear, “Joanne did great at the exam, she’s very intelligent,” you associate intelligence to academia, you don’t associate it with anything else.

I actually have a friend who got 600 points, and he did Arts. “Why is he on Arts?” “He can get a good degree” What’s a good degree? A good degree is a degree that you want to use; Arts is the best degree if you want to be a teacher, and that’s what he wanted to be. I’ve experienced the stigma of doing Arts, in the toilets, just above the toilet roll, it says, “Arts degree”. It’s not seen as a good degree because it doesn’t earn good money. But if you want to be a teacher, it’s the best degree, you couldn’t get a better degree to do.

If you want to get a good job. What’s a good job? “What earns good money”. A good job for you is a job that you enjoy, a job that you love, not one that earns a lot of money.

But what’s good money? Good money is what you want it to be. If you really want to earn millions then a teacher might be a good job, but if you were just happy to enjoy a job and earn enough money to live on and have great summers, then be a teacher.

As I said before, you need all that for success, but what is success? “Tom’s set up his own company there; he owns 6 parts in New York, he’s very successful.” That’s because we associate success with money. I know a Capuchin monk who dedicated every single day of his life since 1969 to serving the homeless. I’ve never heard anyone going, “He’s successful”. That to me is honourable, that is success, that is successful. Success is all relative to you. Absolutely question everything that you hear as reality because you can construct your own reality. So think critically, question everything.

Just because I’m on a stage saying something, it doesn’t mean it’s right. You have to question it. That’s the whole thing of comparing, you think because someone is on a stage that means it’s more important than your opinion up there; it’s absolutely not. But I would encourage you to embrace the concept. Think critically, question everything, and lastly, do more of what makes you happy.

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