This document is very long and detailed so a brief bulleted summary is provided below for those who don’t have the hour it takes for a careful read.
- Modernity, in terms of the views and values that have brought us out of the feudalism of the Medieval period and led us to the relative richness and comfort we enjoy today (and which are rapidly spreading around the world), is under threat from the extremes at both ends of the political spectrum.
- Modernity is worth fighting for if you enjoy and wish others to enjoy the benefits of a first-world existence in relative safety and with high degrees of individual liberty that can express itself in functional societies.
- Most people support Modernity and wish its anti-modern enemies would shut up.
- The enemies of Modernity now form two disagreeing factions — the postmoderns on the left and the premoderns on the right — and largely represent two ideological visions for rejecting Modernity and the good fruits of the Enlightenment, such as science, reason, republican democracy, rule of law, and the nearest thing we can claim to objective moral progress.
- Left-right partisanship is the tool by which they condemn Modernity and continually radicalize sympathizers to choose between the two warring factions of anti-modernism: postmodernism and premodernism.
- A “New Center” centrist position is well-intended, represents most people’s politics, and cannot hold. It is naturally unstable and reinforces the very thinking that perpetuates our current state of what we term existential polarization.
- Those who support Modernity should do so unabashedly and without reference to relatively minor partisan differences across the “liberal/conservative” split. The fight before us now is bigger than that, and the extremes at both ends are dominating the usual political spectrum to everybody’s loss.
- Modernity can be fought for, and it’s probably what you already want unless you’re on the lunatic fringe of the left or right.
“Modernity” is the name for the profound cultural transformation which saw the rise of representative democracy, the age of science, the supersedence of reason over superstition, and the establishment of individual liberties to live according to one’s own values. At its core, it values empowering the individual to think, believe, read, write, speak, doubt, question, argue, and refute any ideas at all in pursuit of truth. What is there in the society of today for someone who still believes in this? If we insist on continuing to think in purely political terms, there are two primary choices, and they’re both bad.
We find ourselves offered a left-hand path upon which progressive crusaders bill themselves as the righteous defenders of Social Justice and moral progress, and thus the true future of Modernity. Beside it, forking away, lies a right-hand path upon which conservative stalwarts position themselves as the last desperate defenders of the heart of the project of Modernity, the so-called “values of Western Civilization,” defending it from the potential failures of progressive social and economic experimentation. Upon which of these two paths can the hopeful believer in Modernity hope to find the cornerstone of the Modern project, which is an allegiance to seeking objective truth and erecting sufficiently strong institutions to secure the fruits of Modernity?
The progressive left has aligned itself not with Modernity but with postmodernism, which rejects objective truth as a fantasy dreamed up by naive and/or arrogantly bigoted Enlightenment thinkers who underestimated the collateral consequences of Modernity’s progress. The regressive right champions premodernism instead, which is little more than a grand delusion that the intricate complexities of Modern society can function without the elaborate infrastructure required to run a Modern society in the first place. Both are outright rejections of the Enlightenment’s commitment to truth.
If you value Modernity, much of political and cultural life of late therefore feels like standing at this dismal crossroads, not of truth, but of what Stephen Colbert famously called “truthiness,” that which feels true, though it isn’t — or, put more squarely, an intuition of moral or ideological “truth” which has little to do with any objective reality.
Take the leftward road, and you’ll find the objectionable notion that truth is “situated” in identity, which leads to the farcical belief that truth is relative to whatever one’s cultural background has traditionally held it to be — unless that culture is considered to have unfairly dominated in the past, in which case anything it holds to be true must be refuted on principle.
If this sounds confusing, you’re not to worry. Priestly representatives have appointed themselves along this path to divine who can’t say what to whom and under what circumstances. You need only to check your privileges in life, fall in line, become an “ally,” shut up, and listen to those deemed more oppressed than you are. The shutting up is particularly important. It’s almost impossible to avoid being “problematic” if speaking independently. You probably won’t like being told your existence is obsolete, but according to the rubric (about which you will be reminded at every opportunity) there are those less privileged in the world and they like their oppression even less.
Veer rightward instead, and you’ll be similarly disappointed. There, truth isn’t much different, although they wouldn’t call it “situated” (but it is). It is the kind of capital-T “Truth” that’s both “obvious” to everyone and too simplistic to be true, and it’s situated in the lived experience of the traditionally recognized everyman. This right-hand Truth often arrives as some amalgamation of divination upon the everyday experience of rubes and the locally agreed upon exegeses of God’s parochially preferred ancient manuscripts. A more capital-S Sophisticated Truth can also be found along the right-hand path, placed there by Nature Herself in the form of philosophically reasoned-out Natural Law, despite the demonstrated meaninglessness of this term and its distinctness from anything established by the natural sciences. Truth, on the right, is thus exactly the “plainly True” Common Sense everybody “knows” (except the elites and experts, who are deemed too educated and too out-of-touch with Real Life to see what’s plainly the case).
How can you know what’s “plainly True” along the rightward path, then? It is whatever seems immediately obvious, which “obviously” works good enough to be getting on with (so long as most complexities of systems and of human interaction are dropped), or it is that which accords with the views of the provincially correct religious or political deities or their self-appointed emissaries. If you’re concerned that Common Sense in its perfected capitalized-letters form isn’t actually terribly common, that self-styled Holy Rollers and fearmongers might not speak for you, and that simple heuristics often miss the point, the right-hand road is going to be a frustrating and painful choice. You’d be exactly right in believing that Modernity requires a bit more than plain sense and “Natural Law” to keep itself functioning and moving forward. Not only that, but down this way, if you’re concerned that what passes for capital-T Truth often tends to rationalize and exacerbate structural inequalities in society, your job is to deal with what’s True, suck it up, and keep your questions and interfering to yourself.
“Collectively, these two groups represent one overarching ethos. They are both anti-modernists…”
Neither road seems good. In reality, they’re both bad. You’ll not make it far down either path before observing that the chief commodities along both are hysterical moral panic and a corollary absolute intolerance of thinking differently — duly papered over with claims to appreciate the right kinds of (limited) diversity. So it is that with just a bit of patient observation, you’ll come to realize these premodernists and postmodernists, despite their distinct moral dialects and impossibly irreconcilable differences in every political mood, are almost indistinguishable. Both are bent toward authoritarianism and values at odds with Modernity.
Collectively, these two groups represent one overarching ethos. They are both anti-modernists, and they are the enemies of Modernity. Treated as a single entity, they make up a relatively small, intrinsically divided, but alarmingly powerful minority. Separately, these two factions whirl in a centrifugal death spiral for society driven by a near-religious and redemptionless hatred for each other. They proceed as if by superpower, as they are nearly unrivaled at fomenting ideological divisiveness amongst the majority who believe in Modernity. They should be seen and resisted as a single dragon with two noxious heads that pose far more threat to everyone else than they do to each other. Regardless of the validity of any claim on which head is the nastier, the debate is a matter of much fruitless argument that feeds the dragon rather than slaying it.
When we advocate a defense of Modernity, we are talking about the fruits of the Modern era; the positive developments of that period from the Renaissance to the present day. This period is distinguished from its predecessor, the Medieval period, by several important intellectual changes including the Enlightenment, the formation of free societies governed by representative democracy, and the Scientific Revolution. Over the last 500 years, Western society has seen a shift from a dominant epistemology based on religious faith to one based on reason and science, and from a social system based on collectives within a hierarchy, to a recognition of individual human worth and the need for individual freedom. If you believe in the legitimate progress of the last 500 years and wish to see it continue, and you support the moral and intellectual values that have led us here, then you believe in Modernity too.
Some will argue that to see Modernity in this way is to create false historical categories which ignore continuities and do so in order to romanticize a period which remained full of false belief and injustice. This is a fair assessment but misses the point. Our intention is not to claim that everything was terrible and then the Enlightenment happened and all was wonderful. The Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and liberal democracy are processes which began in this period and progressed gradually throughout it. Along the way, they encountered many stalls and setbacks and made missteps that are proportionally grand to their far-reaching vision. They were and continue to be part of ongoing projects subsumed under the umbrella of Modernity which may never be completed but which it is essential to the wellbeing of humanity to continue.
To be pro-Modernity is not to support everything that happened in the Modern period to the point of including war, genocide, imperialism, and slavery, or their negative impacts, but to value that intellectual shift which produced benefits that had not existed before or had been lost in the Medieval epoch. You are pro-Modernity if you believe in the scientific method, human rights, liberal democracy, individual liberty, and established epistemologies based on evidence and reason.
The pillars of Modernity are a set of values that served to lift us out of the Medieval period and into the dramatically improved world we mostly take for granted today. These defining values include
- A profound respect for the power of reason and the utility and strength of science;
- An unwavering commitment to the norms of secular democratic republics, including rule of law, and an abiding belief that they are the most beneficent political force the world has known;
- A keen understanding that, whatever and however group dynamics may influence human societies, the atomic unit of society to be defended and cherished is the individual;
- An earnest appreciation that the Good is best achieved through a balance between human cooperation and competition brokered and mediated through the interplay of institutions that work on behalf of public and private interests.
Despite being unbelievably popular, these pillars of Modernity are currently under threat.
The Broad Popularity of Modernity
The most bizarre thing about the current threat to Modernity is that it is taking place within a Western society that still overwhelmingly supports its values and recognizes its benefits. Committed opponents of science, democracy, liberty, human rights and reason are a small minority and are found merely on the noisy fringes of politics. Still, despite perhaps the broadest support for any project in human history, Modernity itself gets very little direct defense, quite possibly because defending Modernity and its benefits seems far too obvious to bother with. However, to fail to defend Modernity is to stand above a pit of darkness — one we clawed our way out of, mind you — and to cut off the very branch we all stand upon. But who would do such a thing?! Mostly people who believe they’re doing the opposite.
The noisy anti-modern fringes have each planted their flag in the soil of Modernity and set themselves up as the sole moral luminaries of the left and right; as the only True Scotsmen of Modernity’s diametrically opposed ideological visions: liberalism and conservatism. These moral luminaries demand we face a ludicrous choice between odious poppycock and loathsome codswallop: only by perfect radical left-thinking can the true Modern Utopia be achieved, and only by perfect radical right-thinking can we hope to regain Modernity’s lost Golden Era.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of people on the left or the right believe in incremental progress and appeal first to the very principles and institutions of Modernity when criticizing the extremes of the other side. Those who claim that science and reason are a form of imperialism or an arrogant defiance of God are largely recognized as lunatics. Those who oppose democracy, liberty, and human rights in the name of any authoritarian vision are widely perceived as dangerous zealots. The respect for and desire to defend the fruits of Modernity is the mainstream view, and it transcends partisanship, and yet they are in danger of falling victim to the uncompromising machinations of the fringes.
The Enemies of Modernity
The philosophical underpinnings of these two types of anti-modernism are postmodernism (left) and premodernism (right).
The far-left manifests anti-modernism in postmodernism; a complex set of ideas rooted in the works of theorists including Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Jacques Derrida, adapted and further politicized within the fields of intersectional feminism, critical race theory, post-colonialism, and queer theory and manifested to various degrees in left-wing policies and Social Justice activism. By its focus on justice for systemic harms in society, theoretical postmodern poppycock easily appeals to people with liberal moral leanings.
Underpinned by a belief in the power of language, specifically discourses — speech which assumes or promotes a certain view — postmodernism regards society, knowledge, truth, and even the individual in terms of cultural construction. Our values, our ethics, our institutions, and even our scientific knowledge and reasoning processes are held to have been constructed according to the biases of dominant groups in society and now need to be deconstructed to allow other values, knowledge and truths to emerge. Because Western societies have been dominant within the modern period, it is those societies and the knowledge, institutions, and values formed over that period which come under strongest attack.
Although the founding fathers of postmodernism claimed to be continuing the Modernity project by continuing to break down oppressive power structures and institutions in the same way as feudalism and patriarchy, many of those structures and institutions are, in fact, products of Modernity that the majority seeks to incrementally correct and ultimately protect.
“Anti-modernists, in general, treat truth selectively as that portion of the whole truth which supports their moral ambitions.”
The far-right form of anti-modernism could be usefully thought of in terms of premodernism. Premodernists would reset society to an idyllic state that exists only in nostalgic memory and revisions of history, before the perceived corruptions of progressivism that accompanied later developments of Modernity. Premodern codswallop, through these values, often appeals to people with conservative or libertarian moral leanings.
Premodernism valorizes simplicity and purity that it imagines in terms of Natural roles, Laws, and Rights. It feels these have been subverted by the growth of institutions and complex social structures. It also deeply distrusts expertise for a wide variety of complicated reasons, including a certain self-assured and yet self-pitying resentment of sociocultural betterment, the undermining of “Natural” roles, the questioning and challenging of traditional values, and engineering in the social, cultural, and political spheres.
In the case of libertarians, particularly, a major influence is the political theory of Friedrich Hayek, who saw the increasing centralized regulation by government in the more recent Modern period as a gradual return to serfdom which threatens to bring about totalitarianism. In The Road to Serfdom, he argues, mirroring the postmodernists, that knowledge and truth is, in this way, inextricably linked to and constructed by power structures. Here and in The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek levied influential but profoundly dubious criticisms of rationalism in the forms of the expertise used in the planning and organization of socio-economic programs because, he argued, man’s knowledge is always limited. He warned that rationalism pushes a form of destructive perfectionism which disregards older traditions and values and restricts individual liberty.
In its own way, premodernism also claims to uphold the values of Modernity — liberty, in particular — and believes itself defending the worldview that led Modernity (usually termed “Western Civilization”) into the world and has now gone astray. In service to this delusion, premodernism threatens the values of Modernity that bear the fruits the wide majority wish to keep — including individual liberty, which in large, complex societies requires being secured by effective, elite-run institutions.
Enemies of Science and Reason
Nowhere are the anti-modernists more damaging to Modernity than in their contemptuous relationship with truth. Anti-modernists, in general, treat truth selectively as that portion of the whole truth which supports their moral ambitions. In this more than any other way, they reveal themselves to be the enemies of Modernity.
The postmodern left is openly hostile to the concept of objective truth and even to science and reason. These it associates with abuses that have arisen from applying technological gains, and it uses this to claim that the very Enlightenment enterprise is impossibly fraught with biases. Over the last thirty years, in fact, contemporary postmodernism has gone so far as to claim that the empirical pursuit of objective truth is evil in its built-in oppression of groups historically oppressed by European exploits. Of course, they have something approaching a point, but merely having a point is, as always, beside the point. Their hostility against science is both unwarranted and dangerous.
There’s no philosophical redemption here. Postmodernists, as “theorists,” set themselves against empirical science from the very beginning. Their implicitly moralizing assault upon it followed from Lyotard’s general distrust of “metanarratives” in which he ranked Christianity, Marxism, and science as equivalently constructed cultural narratives. Postmodern relativism reduced science to but one “way of knowing,” which it deems to be situated against and unfairly devaluing alternative (read: poor) epistemologies that can be found in other less ignoble cultures. This, incredibly, they teach openly at nearly every university.
Furthermore, postmodernism inextricably linked science to oppressive institutional power. The scientific enterprise’s claims to be in the business of obtaining objective truth were presented as both false and, though irrelevant to their point, tarred by association with the moral failures that came with industrialism, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. This fashionable nonsense permeated the later developments in critical theory and Social Justice activism whose proponents, missing the irony in their entitlement, will preach it endlessly to you in insufferably repetitious messages concocted in bewildering jargon over mass-market gourmet lattes and sent angrily from their iPhones.
For the premodernist right, their opposition to science and reason is far older, challenging as it does the Christian beliefs held dear by many and offering suspicious and often counterintuitive findings regarded as an affront to plain Common Sense. Premodern opposition to scientific impertinence is, after all, the line of thought that justified Galileo’s house arrest and Giordano Bruno’s “all-stars” funeral pyre. Though the Inquisition ended centuries ago, premodern distrust for inconvenient science hasn’t abated. Biblical creationism versus evolution, for example, still rages as a pretend debate even now, more than a century after it was laid to rest by firm scientific consensus.
The premodern impulse against science arises mainly when scientific efforts, and the elites hedging to them, offer provisional truths that overturn Common Sense — traditional wisdom intrinsic to the dominant culture — or that which is parochially deemed both Good and Holy. On the occasions when these provisional findings turn out to be wrong, sometimes catastrophically wrong, the anti-science impulse is intensified. This too is the result when well-intended elites utilize science to promulgate left-wing social or cultural initiatives for problems that “didn’t need fixin’.” In particular, premodernists greatly dislike meddlesome social science for reasons that range from legitimate critique of methods and ideological biases to inflamed concerns about social manipulation to paranoia about uncovering facts that threaten the status quo. These things, they, too, will readily tell you in extremely plain language from their beloved iPhones, usually in a politely stubborn tone that insists that expertise is but one opinion and that theirs runs otherwise.
For both postmodernists and premodernists, science and reason, as manifested in many forms of legal and professional expertise, are considered elitist and far removed from the lived experience of the non-expert, who, something akin to moral sorcery informs them, holds a deeper and truer form of intuitive knowledge than can be obtained in any university or elite institution. For the postmodernist on the left, the sacred non-expert groups may be minority, indigenous, or immigrant groups (or women) within society. For premodernists on the right, they are the salt-of-the-earth everyman (and his brother). In both cases, both the suspicion and rejection of expertise and the equivocating relativism about truth are the same, and the justifications are mere moral variations on a single tortured logic.
Opponents of Liberty and Individuality
Liberty and individuality are cornerstone values of Modernity. Unsurprisingly, both are trampled by anti-modernists of both stripes even while each earnestly professes to be the sole ideological defender of these most precious and delicate fruits of Modernity.
For the postmodernist left, liberty — primarily freedom of inquiry, belief, and expression — is often seen as an unearned privilege of the dominant majority. For this reason, in their view, liberty must be constrained for the safety and flourishing of the marginalized minority. Because discourses are understood to construct society, there can be no value and a great deal of harm in tolerating the expression of ideas, beliefs, and speech which question or contradict those which promote the postmodern conception of Social Justice.
Individuality to the postmodern is a myth because the individual is itself a construction of the dominant discourses in society and how these discourses position groups within society. This high-minded poppycock renders group identity paramount, and collective guilt or veneration is therefore both coherent and ethically mandated. All of this, of course, flies in the face of Modernity’s commitment to universal human rights and individual freedom under Enlightenment liberalism, and it is something the wide majority of Modern society strongly rejects.
Premodernists on the right have a more complicated relationship with liberty, not least because some of them openly profess to value it above nearly all else. Most liberty-loving premodernists rankle at individual liberty, however, when it is used unpatriotically (say, burning a flag), which they view as leading to a disintegration of culture in which people lose their sense of loyalty to their own people and fail to understand their place in society.
Further, for socially conservative premodernists, individual liberty has already gone too far in many social developments. They are especially unhappy about those which brought in a relaxed attitude toward some drug and alcohol use, gender equality, sexual liberation, same-sex marriage, and transgender rights. Gender equality and sexual liberation, in particular, are believed in the socially conservative premodern worldview to have encouraged a selfish (and often “immoral”) individualism in relation to sexual behavior and gender roles, which has led to an alleged destruction of the family and, in many ill-informed views, economic and social chaos.
This dim right-leaning view of individual liberty is paradoxically shared in considerable degree by the more culturally permissive premodern branch of anti-modern libertarians. Libertarians, particularly American ones, are distinguished by their insistences upon individual liberty being an unrivaled good. Yet theirs is a peculiar view of liberty that, despite being based in many of Modernity’s values, is overly narrow in its focus only upon restrictions of liberty issued by the state and thus rapidly ceases to be compatible with the institutions that enable Modernity. The oft-quoted epigram on the rattlesnake-bearing Gadsden Flag, “don’t tread on me,” is a good summary of their naively optimistic view of society: just leave them alone and everything will be fine. A similar mentality is found in the kind of Brexiter who focuses on the big themes of “independence” and “sovereignty” (going light on the details), whilst accusing everyone still unhappy about it of being undemocratic.
In reality, deeply interconnected societies like those that now define Modernity can’t just leave people alone — services are everywhere, and we’re (almost) all glad of it (just ask Colorado Springs). More worryingly, this narrow focus on opposing only overreaching governmental regulations fails to appreciate that powerful private-sector forces can tread on individual liberty at least as effectively. Because one can be and often is viciously trod upon by footwear other than that issued by the state, theirs is a recipe for another Gilded Era, which is hardly distinguishable from pre-Modern feudalism. It thus leaves us without sensible regulatory efforts that constrain Modernity’s project from poisoning itself. Only a minuscule fraction of people would embrace this vision of liberty were it allowed to yet again play out to its inevitable conclusion.
In terms of truth and knowledge, all anti-modernists are united in their suspicion of science, reason, liberty, and expertise, and they proceed defensively against perceived threats to what amounts to “folk wisdom” along with localized custom and tradition. They experience the benefits of Modernity in an entitled fashion and yet view them as counterintuitive and therefore a dangerous affront to “lived experience” or “Common Sense.” This is a superstitious, anti-intellectual mindset better representative of that period in human history before Modernity arose. For it to exist now is a rejection of Modernity. Thus, these two enemies are best understood as part of the same problem; the problem of anti-modernism.
What the Anti-Modernists Get Right (and What They Miss)
It does not do to dismiss the anti-modernists concerns with Modernity too easily. The very fact that they arose within ideological extremes so fundamentally opposed to each other indicates that they need examining. In this way Modernity can self-correct and improve.
Anti-modernism, is at its roots, a distrust that Modernity can successfully course-correct toward sustained societal improvements. While it is the premodernists who are usually seen as most opposed to social progress by advocating we put on the brakes and a return to simpler values and maintaining cultural integrity, this is also a feature of the postmodernists. Most famously, Jean Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation described the postmodern society as one which has entirely lost touch with the real and authentic and become lost in a world of rapid technological advance, artificiality, and consumerism. Much of the focus of postmodern theory on foregrounding histories, narratives, and cultures of minority groups is rooted in this search for authenticity and purity of culture. It therefore rejects the roots of the seemingly overwhelming advance of science, technology, capitalism, and consumerism that outwardly characterizes Modernity. Of course, Hayek feared the same from advanced technocratic states.
That said, postmodernists are right to claim that the dominant group in a society sets its social norms and that this can produce unacknowledged biases that grievously impact minority groups. They are reasonable to argue that we should look at dominant discourses thoughtfully and challenge preconceived ideas. They are also right to note that bias can be desperately difficult to overcome. These concerns are not unwarranted, nor did they arise in a philosophical vacuum. Historically, within the Modern period, those espousing Modern values have also justified human rights abuses including slavery, workhouses, and colonialism.
On the other hand, premodernists are not wrong to say that conservative values possess stabilizing social value and are essential to the Modern project. Yet these, they recognize, are culturally stigmatized from the left, which holds sway over the most powerful of intellectual institutions, the university, and the most influential of cultural institutions, mass media. They are right to point out that the left-wing parties historically committed to defending working-class interests can abandon them entirely in pursuit of progressive aims which don’t include economic progress for the working-class majority. They also haven’t forgotten the horrendous leftist excesses that followed from attempted and forced applications of Marx.
Both groups can point to episodes within Modern history in which projects framed in terms of science and reason and a duty to share the benefits of Western civilization with less Enlightened people have done great harm, although they might not be thinking of the same affected groups. Working class people, women, LGBTs, enslaved and colonized people, ethnic and religious minorities, criminal offenders, and the mentally ill have been subjected to social engineering projects which read well on paper but were catastrophically damaging.
However, the fact that valid concerns can be raised about Modernity in relation to ruling elites, marginalized groups, the uncritical acceptance of expertise and dizzyingly fast progress does not mean that anti-modernist solutions are right. They are, in fact, dead wrong.
The postmodernists present us with a false dichotomy: keep your commitment to truth and your cherished institutions but with them will come stagnation, narrow-mindedness, catastrophic error, and oppression; or abandon them and have plurality, tolerance, progress, and Social Justice. The premodernists present us with a different one: keep your beloved modern institutions and along with them degeneration, chaos, elitism, and oppression; or abandon them and have Liberty, Morality, Common Sense, and Natural Order. These are both utterly false, overly reactive, and render no cultural bathwater safe for any Modern babies.
Still, anti-modernists lodge fair complaints, despite their overreactions. The Enlightenment project that swept in Modernity has been over-confident and taken too little care. In its search for objective truth and unified ethical and political systems of society, it has been simplistic, short-sighted, and far too sure of itself, and it has gotten things wrong, at times with tremendous consequences.
Projects do not need to be abandoned because they get things wrong, however, unless they are fundamentally irreparable and destined to continue getting things wrong. Modernity bears no such fatal flaw as it is rooted in self-correcting principles. The consensus is that democracy, liberty, human rights, science, and reason are fundamentally sound. They are, after all, how we know we got things wrong. When science makes mistakes, it is science that discovers them, and when failures of reasoning occur, it is better reasoning that reveals them. When liberties are curtailed, it is the liberty to say so and campaign for change that we need, and we are hopeless to address human rights abuses except by arguing for human rights. There has not yet been shown a better way for everyone to have a voice than liberal democracy.
No honest reading of history could conclude that society did better at minimizing the hegemony of ruling elites, protecting the rights of marginalized groups, obtaining knowledge to the benefit of humanity, and critically assessing expertise and truth claims before we had the institutions that define Modernity. For the doubters, there are unfortunately still countries which have not developed mature Modern institutions, and a quick glance (or short visit — but do be careful!) should convince you. It is merely true that the tools and technological advances of Modernity enabled grotesque abuses against it, as we saw in Sovietism, Maoism, Nazism, and fascism more generally. Abandoning the projects of Modernity would be nothing short of disastrous; a pointless mistake driven by nothing more than destructive ideological overreaction.
Progress of the kind sought by all, not merely postmodern progressives, comes by defending and building upon the fruits of Modernity. Given that so many of us favor this approach over the screeching of the anti-modernist fringes, why is Modernity under threat right now?
Partisanship Is Modernity’s Weakness
Anti-modernists should be easy to ignore but have come to the point of being able to threaten Modernity. How? By being very useful politically at driving in partisan wedges.
Postmodernists churned out decades worth of identity-driven scholarship that was manna to the post-Civil Rights Democratic Party in America, to postcolonial guilt-ridden British leftists, and to the Western liberal left more generally. Premodernists organized around moral causes mainly concerning a starkly “paleoconservative” view of rights, liberties, nationalism, and religion (and, increasingly, nativism, protectionism, isolationism, and boorish white and male identity politics) and proved an extraordinarily useful bloc for the Republican Party in America. In Europe, these same ideas fed into a very real (but not necessary realistic) sense of existential threat which accompanied the refugee crisis and spurred the rise of nationalist parties and groups. (Jonathan Haidt’s explanation of this is unsurpassed.)
As these extremists were put to use by the dominant political forces of our time, our opportunistic or otherwise blind leaders of state and media slowly raised the two-headed dragon we now face to maturity (and quickly lost control of it). Rampant partisanship has steadily made this problem worse, leading each side to focus upon purity by attacking those who can be pilloried as alleged moral traitors: “cucks” and “RINOs” by the right; “Nazi apologists” and, astonishingly, “liberals” by the left.
As a result, the premodern right now wishes little more than to “crush liberals,” and, in their case, voting Brexit or electing Trump is often motivated by nothing so much as showing us how committed to this vituperative project they are. Simultaneously, the postmodern left cannot abide “bigotry” and “hate,” which they deem literally synonymous with conservatism. Everything turns outsized and hyperbolic in this environment. By reporting endlessly on the other side’s most outrageous examples, our increasingly partisan and “analysis-driven” media environment has steadily worsened this problem.
“Thus, we see those leaning left largely internalizing the message of postmodernism and those leaning right widely embracing the message of premodernism.”
Partisanship — prejudice in favor of a cause — is part and parcel of democracy, however, and it is for all its trouble one of Modernity’s greatest gifts to politics, replacing the single-minded authority of monarchs, emperors, and the papacy. Under normal circumstances, reasonable degrees of partisanship engender debate, diversity of opinion, a mixture of perspectives, and a number of safeguards against the excesses of single-party systems of government. Partisan democracy is also slow. Decisions require extensive debate and compromise, and for a truth to be convincing in a bipartisan fashion, it must, at bare minimum, be very firmly established or have tremendous support. The slowness of partisan democracy is often taken as a weakness in times when decisiveness matters, but it is one of the safeguards developed by and in service to Modernity. Impulsiveness at the state level is almost always unstable (and something the right is right to fear).
Deeply polarized partisanship is another matter. Highly polarized partisanship, in which each side is deeply entrenched in itself and unwilling to compromise even upon routine matters, is a threat to Modernity. It enables either side (or both) to hold the entire system hostage if only it possesses the barest minimum degree of advantage in the balance of power or, at least, for the fear that this could happen to seem credible. This creates a unique set of circumstances in which political hardlining can easily be taken by the opposing side as an existential threat to Modernity and free democratic society.
Existential threats register at an irrational and emotional level and produce more extreme reactions than the ordinary machinations of politics and culture (again, see Haidt). Thus, when political hardlining is stubborn enough to overcome its usual weakness of self-limitation, under certain circumstances deep partisanship can become self-reinforcing. Our present condition is an advanced case of such a state. It is not one of mere partisanship but of existential polarization driven by two anti-modernist extremes. Under these conditions, actions by either side readily produce oppositional solidarity in the other, and a predictable result of such solidarity is increasing partisan sympathy to its own extreme views, if nothing else than as an ugly means to a necessary end.
When polarization is deep, the large and only slightly differentiated middle that normally has nothing to do with anti-modern extremists is repeatedly forced to take sides against whichever is, from their perch, easier to see as the greater existential threat. Thus, we see those leaning left largely internalizing the message of postmodernism and those leaning right widely embracing the message of premodernism. Everyone knows on some level that the anti-modernists are a threat to Modernity itself and thus the other side’s anti-modernists must be massively and directly resisted. This results in nearly everything becoming yet another political battleground, every election is an existential fight for the “soul” of the nation, and extremists on one’s own side are repeatedly excused and defended in the name of the Greater Good.
Motivated reasoning comes into play by allowing people who truly believe in Enlightenment values to rationalize or ignore abuses of them on their own side. Our lunatics, we’ll insist, are just going a bit too far in putting up the good fight, but their hearts are in the right place. Their lunatics, on the other hand, are malevolent and an immediate danger to all we hold dear. Alternatively, we might acknowledge the problem on our own side but minimize it to a few fringe lunatics no-one takes seriously whilst maximizing the anti-modernists on the other side and arguing them to be a majority presenting an immediate existential threat.
Thus, the cycle continues to spin out of control. Under existential polarization, more and more everyday citizens are forced to side repeatedly with a team they deem to be the lesser of two evils and to galvanize themselves within their moral team against the perceived existential threat coming from the other side.
Right now, you might be feeling disgusted with what you see as false equivalence and want to point out the recent murderous violence coming from the far-right and ask how some silly postmodern ideas can compare with this. Alternatively, you might want to protest that a few very bad apples almost universally recognized as such cannot present a comparable cultural danger to that of the widespread respectability of postmodern ideas within the universities that are already turning out the leaders of our future. If so, you are still missing the point.
Even if we could calculate and compare the different kinds of harm being done on each side and prove one to be considerably more dangerous (and we have our own strong opinions on that which are being purposefully left out here to make a bigger point), this would not make joining the other side to oppose that one the right thing to do. The enemy is the lunatic fringe on both sides, seen as a single entity that interacts with itself in a toxic, accelerating way. This common, tribalistic error strengthens the uncompromising authoritarianism on “your” side (without reducing that on the other side a whit), and it makes recognizing the source of the problem — anti-modernism — even harder.
The cost of continuing this escalation of polarization is too high. Anti-modernist differences are superficial compared with their similarities. They are the two gruesome heads of the same anti-modernist Beast, and the only substantive difference they offer is whether to turn our back on Modernity and walk back into darkness in the name of “progress” or “tradition.”
The Center Cannot Hold
To counter existential polarization, a solution calling for a collaboration in the name of centrism has been held out. On the surface, this seems precisely the kind of compromise and rejection of extremism that is needed, inviting, as it does, the beleaguered majority to set aside its partisan differences and form a coalition called the “New Center.”
This project will fail.
The center, for the reasons described above, is unstable and cannot hold against existential polarization. While there may be some people sufficiently close to being true centrists to maintain it, it is unlikely that they are many, and it’s nearly certain that they are not a wide majority. Most centrists also lean one way or the other along our partisan spectrum, and this is where their values and their intuitions lie. Almost no-one is philosophically or intuitively committed to a position of “taking a middle ground” even though a majority is likely to find themselves somewhere near it in any political milieu.
A New Center is therefore the wrong way to bypass existential polarization. For most individuals on too many political choices, the stakes are just too high. As political events of 2016 showed, when forced to choose consequentially between representatives of two apparent existential threats, mostly everyone just loses their mind and digs in a little deeper.
There is a subtler reason to avoid pushing for a New Center. To push for a New Center is immediately to raise the question, “center of what?” The obvious answer is that the New Center is supposed to lie across the broad middle of the apparent left versus right dichotomy of Western politics. To think of the New Center, then, is to limit our thinking to the left-right spectrum all over again and legitimize the very conception that perpetuates our existential polarization calamity.
Ultimately, centrism and the spectrum itself are currently nearly irrelevant. Supporters of the fruits of the Enlightenment are a clear majority and those values are deeply ingrained. Thus, the problem is better summarized as society-level conflict between champions of Modernity and anti-modernists who would drag us away from it, maniacally calling out partisan hypocrisy every step of the way.
Supporters of Modernity, whatever their political orientation, should therefore unite against the anti-modernists. In so doing, not only do they establish a clear and popular rallying point for a majority that already exists, they also undermine the false authority that the anti-modernists have laid claim to by dishonestly promoting themselves as the legitimate standard bearers of “left” and “right.”
You may now be feeling that if you abandon your primary identification with the left or the right, that you’ll be betraying your principles and your side, that you’ll be failing your team when it matters most, especially after the other side ignites outrage or commits political violence. This is a mistake. There is no need to lose any principles which align with those of liberalism or conservatism by recognizing that defending the currently besieged values of Modernity is paramount. In fact, by ceasing to rationalize or minimize those abuses of them on your own side, you can only strengthen it. Anti-modernism fails to represent liberalism and conservatism and represents only the gross distortions of their lunatic fringes.
Renew the Expectations of Modernity
Modernity is strong but not invincible. It requires certain expectations to persist. One of these is the expectation that we will be received well and listened to if we make sense and have evidence, but with embarrassment and ignored or ridiculed if we talk utter cobblers. In 1992, Jonathan Rauch, drawing on Karl Popper, argued in Kindly Inquisitors that this was the basis of what he called “liberal science,” by which he meant the system of free expression of ideas, both factual claims and ethical arguments, which could then be tested and rigorously critiqued, leading to the survival of those that had worth and the marginalization of those which had none. He feared it was being eroded. He was right and the last twenty-five years have confirmed his fears.
One of the major problems of approaching the issue of the anti-modern extremists in politically partisan and moralizing terms is that it obscures the fact that we are losing respect for objective truth and reason. We need to get back to that expectation that our ideas should be both well-evidenced and reasonable, and so long as we stand firm against political violence in the meantime, this expectation alone can renew Modernity. Commit yourself to it. Don’t talk utter cobblers, and don’t credit those who do.
The concept of “the marketplace of ideas” is a foundational one within the Enlightenment project and it underlies nearly all of the others. It is how we progress. It is the way bad ideas get routed out, how mistakes get spotted and injustices addressed. It is essential to defend the freedom to express ideas and to strongly oppose limiting them or punishing people for them. Politically correct postmodern zealots and patriotically correct premodern fools aren’t likely to learn this lesson easily, so it’s best to ignore their calls to action when they whinge against free expression of speech.
“The problem is better summarized as society-level conflict between champions of Modernity and anti-modernists who would drag us away from it.”
For your part, respond to ideas with agreement, disagreement, ridicule, criticism, or by ignoring them. Nobody wants to be fired from their job or subjected to a social media mob for voicing an opinion. Nobody wants to put their life in danger by participating in civic life by taking part in a protest or demonstration. If you agree that society should operate in a way that safeguards most citizens most of the time from these abuses, then you believe in Modernity and have a right to demand it from your leaders, no matter their party.
How to Renew Modernity
Modernity is under threat, and it has begun to slip. This forwards a question of tremendous importance: What should a renewer of Modernity do now?
On a personal level, immediately reflect upon the ways you assess opinions and think about the full extent of variation of opinion that you can tolerate. Attempt to expand it by asking the following question as an acid test when you think you cannot accept a view: Is this view compatible with the broader project of Modernity, even if it carries a short-term setback from some of my goals? Remember, Modernity is equipped with tools of self-correction. Bad legislation passing from either side of the political aisle can be overturned by better legislation later, and usually will be in the wake of its failure. If the short-term cost is genuinely low, let Modernity tinker. Pick your battles and pick them on the sides of science, universal human rights, free democracy, individual liberty, and an epistemology based on evidence and reason.
Once you adopt this view, you will be able to achieve two things. First, by assessing your “opponents’” views from this perspective you will be able to find common ground and reduce your sense of existential panic. This promotes calmness, levelheadedness, kindness, and civility. It enables friendships, whilst our current level of polarization is destructive of them. Second, it will lead you to become more focused on what matters rather than blind party allegiance. Ally yourself with Modernity, make friends with other renewers of Modernity, and oppose anti-modernists even on your own side.
The simplest and most immediate things you can do on behalf of Modernity are probably the most efficacious and personally beneficial. Start engaging socially in ways that hold people in high esteem for standing for Modernity, especially when it takes going against their political tribe to do so. We who value Modernity should be proud of right-wing people who reject premodernism, and we should be proud of left-wing people who reject postmodernism. Supporting them is easy: just tell them so and do not be afraid of approving of their pro-Modernity messages on social media.
The idea that we should signal partisan tribal loyalty by never giving the “other side” credit for good ideas perpetuates the problem. Premodern and postmodern signaling, however, can be addressed calmly and reasonably for the purpose of drawing more people into conversation about the anti-modernist nature of their arguments. Avoid responding with outrage or condemnation of the other’s character which will only trigger the backfire effect and make watchers unsure that your view is the more reasonable. Ultimately, the aim is to marginalize these views out of the general conversation and into the fringes where they are seen as they are and dismissed, not to highlight them and further entrench polarization. Often, the best thing to do is ignore them.
More practically, become politically engaged, but not for any particular party. Get involved at the grassroots level as much as you can on both sides, left and right, and make your voice heard for Modernity’s values and vision. Analyze policies in terms of these values. Avoid partisan speaking points and caricature depictions of the other side. Don’t straight-ticket vote unless it makes the most sense for Modernity. Support candidates based upon their fundamental commitment to Modernity and shun anti-modernists of every stripe as effectively as you can.
“The idea that we should signal partisan tribal loyalty by never giving the ‘other side’ credit for good ideas perpetuates the problem.”
Therefore, if you are in America, demand viewpoint diversity within the major political parties. Conservatives, of late, are laying a moral claim to viewpoint diversity. Good. Put them to the test. If you’re a centrist on the left, become a liberal Republican. Show up at their primaries. Influence their thinking. If they won’t let you, let it be known that they’re enemies of viewpoint diversity and thus of Modernity. If the premodernists don’t like it, tough. They should be the ones to shape up their act or get out, not you. The same goes for conservative Democrats. There are many center-minded people out there who broadly agree with the Democratic platform, disagree with much of the Republican platform, and yet play politics (including voting) in close step with hardliner Republicans merely because they don’t want to feel pressured to conform with the postmodern left. Those people should join the Democratic Party, then, let their views influence and moderate Democratic thinking, and leave the postmodernists to go vote Green or for some whimsical unicorn party.
Similarly, in the UK, the anti-modern elements of the Tories or Labour can best be opposed by those defenders of Modernity who broadly agree with their ethos. Many of the harshest criticisms of both parties have been directed at their elements of anti-modernism whether it is a xenophobic form of nationalism and expertise-rejecting populism on the right or reality-denying, culturally relativist ethics on the left. Those whose values remain aligned with either party’s core aims would do well to stay put and try to affect change by specifically targeting those problems. Alternatively, those defenders of the values of Modernity who see strategic value in attempting to build support for the liberal Democrats as a strongly liberal center party should focus on this and hold the LibDems accountable for claims to be the party which best represents those values.
The skill with which the anti-modernists are able to conquer and co-opt political movements on their side is a huge contributor to the problem, so do what you can to stop it. Postmodern extremists like Linda Sarsour have co-opted the left-wing Women’s March, for example, and Pride UK is currently under great pressure from the same groups to ban criticism of Islamic homophobia. Premodernists like the religious right and the Tea Party have already deeply infiltrated the Republican Party, and populist support for the far-right UKIP within the UK was largely responsible for the pressure on the Conservative Party to put forward the Brexit referendum. If extremists cannot be excluded and successfully co-opt a project, withdraw your support for the initiative to let it die on the vine, then publicize that fact (which is easy to do because the other side’s media is always hungry for this kind of story). These are enemies of Modernity, and thus they are enemies of any pro-Modernity movement and should be excluded as non-representative, however much they scream about it. Enough is enough!
Conclusion: Stand for Modernity
Modernity is the period that brought us the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and Representative Democracy. It is the era which replaced faith-based thinking, divine authority, superstition, and folk wisdom with a respect for evidence, science, reason, and objective knowledge. It brought us out of a society formed of collectives and hierarchies and introduced us to our common humanity and our individuality. A requirement to think the right way, hold the right values, believe the right truth claims, and say the right things gave way to the freedom to ask questions, doubt received wisdom, investigate our world, our societies and ourselves, and seek factual and moral truth in new and productive ways. Systems, expectations, and institutions were set up to safeguard and utilize these new developments and society flourished because of them.
Modernity hasn’t been perfect. Bad ideas, epistemologies, and power structures weren’t overcome all at once. The Modernity project also made its own terrible mistakes, but the system worked to correct and learn from these. We are freer, better informed, more just, and less prejudiced than we have ever been. It is therefore essential that the Modernity project continue.
Fortunately, the vast majority of us want it to. Support for the scientific method, human rights, representative democracy, individual liberty, and epistemologies based on evidence and reason, as well as for the institutions which protect and develop them, is overwhelming. Promote these values explicitly and evaluate and engage with society and our current political situation in these terms. In this way, the defenders of Modernity can unite to help society climb down from its existential polarization, marginalize those anti-modernist fringes, and continue the project we all depend on.
Helen Pluckrose is an exile from the humanities with research interests in late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities.