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Anti-postmodern commentaries are certainly in vogue these days. Whether penned by conservatives or liberals, they all support the same basic assumption: postmodernism is dangerous. For instance, Robert Sibley suggests that postmodernism has led to “the total eclipse of all values,” while Terry Glavin blames the American academic left and “the gospel of postmodernism” for the rise of Trumpism. According to Glavin, postmodernism’s emphasis on the social construction of facts “effectively cleared the field for President Donald Trump’s lies in the first place.” Jordan Peterson has insisted that transgender activists who demand he use their preferred pronouns represent a “a post-modern, radical leftist ideology” that is “frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.” Helen Pluckrose, Areo’s own editor-in-chief, believes that postmodernism “presents a threat not only to liberal democracy but to modernity itself.”
But, all too often, anti-postmodernists rely on hyperbole, polemic and conjecture, rather than balanced arguments.
Postmodernism in a Nutshell
In his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition, Jean François Lyotard refers to postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives”: a suspicion of anyone who forwards big stories about how the world works. Since truth, knowledge and interpretation are human constructs and therefore limited, we must always be aware of their contingent nature.
Basically, what postmodernism says is that we only have access to the material world through human descriptions of it. Since none of us comes equipped with a God’s-eye point of view, we must interpret reality with the vocabularies at our disposal, such as those established by science, philosophy, law, ethics, sociology and a myriad other disciplines. Diverse perspectives then compete to determine standards for truth.
Postmodernism does not eliminate value judgments. Nietzsche’s concept of the “death of God” refers to the death of absolute values, not of values per se. To resolve the dilemma of epistemic relativism—the belief in personal or culturally specific truths or facts—conflicting points of view are scrutinized. Those lacking merit will be abandoned, while those with more credibility win support.
Nietzschean scholars have long accepted this process of value exchange. In his 1909 dissertation, Friedrich Nietzsche on the Philosophy of the Right and State, Nikos Kazantzakis reminds us that, once discredited truths have been jettisoned, humankind “erects a new ranking of values and new ideals of humanity, society and state.” In other words, there is no unchangeable principle or final ethical boundary. We are continuously searching for more rigorous ways to explain existence.
Postmodernism, then, does not reject truth: it only suggests that it is provisional. Over time, certain propositions will inevitably become obsolete or problematic in the face of new challenges to their veracity. Although postmodernists may reject universalist notions of objective truth, morality and social progress, bold claims still require the marshalling of evidence.
Myth #1: Unlike Postmodernism, Science Is Objective
Postmodernism is often criticized for lacking epistemological grounds. Fair enough. Postmodernism has always been more akin to a philosophical mind-set than to a scientific theory. But scientists who boast that their specific scepticism separates them from postmodernism’s radical scepticism may want to engage in the latter periodically. At times, those who act in the name of science—both natural and social—have not been sceptical at all: in fact, their views have often been tainted by cultural, political and religious biases. Three specific examples come to mind.
The first involves scientific racism. In Superior: The Return of Race Science, Angela Saini reveals that scientists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries not only supported racial hierarchies, but believed that they were based on objective fact. This claim led to the social acceptance of everything from human zoos and the eugenics movement to white supremacist organizations. In this instance, scientists did not act as detached researchers. Their assumptions were a product of the dominant culture’s racist narrative.
A second example concerns conversion therapy. For decades, trained psychiatrists developed psychoanalytic theories in the hopes of curing unnatural sexual behaviour. One of the most prominent advocates of this therapy, Joseph Nicolosi, concluded that overbearing mothers and distant fathers caused same-sex attractions. Whenever Nicolosi’s views were challenged by gay rights supporters, he dismissed them as “political activists” posing as “objective scientists.” But it was Nicolosi who adopted dominant Christian norms surrounding procreation and dressed them up in psychoanalytic garb. The fact that Nicolosi worked at the Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic proves that it was theology—not the hermeneutic science associated with psychoanalysis—that informed his methods.
The third issue relates to doctor-assisted suicide in Canada. In the late twentieth century, many physicians lobbied against its decriminalization for two reasons: it offended the sanctity of human life and was a slippery slope. But neither of these assumptions were scientific: these were faith-based arguments. Their notion of the sanctity of human life originated in the Book of Genesis, and the slippery slope allegations proved baseless. The terminally ill suffered needlessly because Christian norms guided medical ethics. By contrast, the postmodern understanding of illness moves beyond the prevailing medical narrative. As Arthur W. Frank points out in The Wounded Storyteller, dying patients often “express suspicion of medicine’s reduction of their suffering to its general unifying view.” They wish to reclaim their own voices by having their suffering “recognized in its individual particularity.” Medical practitioners opposed to doctor-assisted suicide would have benefited from this broadening of perspective.
So, is science invaluable? Absolutely. Are its truth claims perfectly objective? Absolutely not. Cultural baggage can undermine the epistemological grounds of science, resulting in confirmation bias. The usual fall-back position of anti-postmodernists is to claim that these scientists, psychiatrists and physicians were not acting in a rational or logical manner. This is precisely what postmodernism has always maintained: contingencies impede objectivity.
Myth #2: Postmodernism Encourages Dogmatism
Because interpretation and knowledge are situational, postmodernism rejects the idea of immutable truths, in stark contrast to those who embrace absolute values and impose their beliefs on others. This latter practice is the most corrosive form of perfectionism: a personality trait that incites hatred and leads to irrational acts of violence.
The examples of this are numerous. In 2011, anti-immigrant brainwashing motivated Anders Breivik to kill seventy-seven people, in order to counter the threat of multiculturalism. In 2015, racism prompted white supremacist Dylann Roof to murder nine black parishioners in a Southern Carolina church. In 2017, anti-Islamic hysteria drove Alexandre Bissonnette to kill six Muslim men in a Quebec City mosque. All three individuals are what philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah calls “counter-cosmopolitans.” They believed in rigid, toxic narratives about culture, race and religion, which left no room for diverse perspectives.
No connection exists between postmodern thinkers and the behaviour of depraved thugs, most of whom could not name—let alone spell—a single postmodern thinker. Violent extremists already claim to possess the truth, so, from their perspective, there is no need to debate complex social issues. As Stanley Fish points out, when individuals say or do reprehensible things, “their way of talking and thinking couldn’t be further from the careful and patient elaboration of difficult problems that marks postmodern discourse.”
Yet fanatical tendencies also plague the left. Take, for example, radical feminists and their militant stance against prostitution. They insist that abolition is the only progressive solution that will allow women to achieve full gender equality and human dignity. The problem is, they marginalize all other competing narratives in order to impose their ideological worldview. For instance, radical feminists reject any scientific evidence that counters their oppression paradigm—the belief that sex workers are universally exploited and dominated, regardless of context. They also dismiss liberal and postmodern feminists because they insist on providing space for a multiplicity of sexual voices and expressions.
Postmodernists view master narratives as illusory. Sooner or later, these narratives lead to violence or imposition. Postmodernists want to prevent functional, contingent truths from becoming dogmas. It is irrelevant whether narrow, ideological thinking is co-opted by the left or by the right. Postmodernists recognize that either extreme can fail to maintain a self-critical attitude.
Myth #3: Postmodernism Rejects Enlightenment Values
Anti-postmodernists also claim that Enlightenment values are in jeopardy. Citing philosopher Stephen Hicks, Velvet Favretto contends that postmodernism leads to “a wholesale rejection of the Enlightenment’s salient ideas of reason, logic, knowledge and truth.” But the eclipse of these values has never been one of postmodernism’s core objectives. This attributes to postmodernism a political agenda it does not possess.
Under a postmodern framework, truths are considered contested and contextual, but this does not lead to an all values are equal or anything goes mentality. It does mean, however, that additional judgments are required in order to provide nuanced interpretations. This quest for broader knowledge complements the Enlightenment’s emphasis on truth-seeking. It is also in accord with the Enlightenment’s rejection of intolerance.
Western societies continue to make subtle shifts in public policy and law that respect secular values, such as truth, compassion and equality. Courts continue to make fine legal distinctions in keeping with constitutional law; physicians acknowledge inconsistencies in medical ethics, which must be tackled in order to alleviate patient suffering; and social scientists debate the soundness of research methods, as they attempt to draw more accurate conclusions. Postmodernism has not impeded this kind of progress. If anything, its emphasis on scepticism ensures that the grounds for truth are examined more carefully.
Anti-postmodernists also suggest that critical thinking is in decline in western liberal arts programs. Favretto argues that, “Courses that have embraced a postmodern viewpoint tend to harshly ostracise any conflicting perspective, thereby eroding the intellectual freedom upon which the liberal arts had hitherto relied,” and claims that one of her humanities lecturers, “seemed unaware that the course she teaches is saturated with cultural and political biases that exclude any student who holds differing views. Such is the devious nature of postmodernism in the modern classroom.” But these claims are anecdotal, not scientific.
Are post-secondary students becoming more intolerant of opposing ideas? Based on large-scale studies, Kyle Dodson has found that academic engagement promotes not intransigence but the moderation of views: “While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement … critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas—a hallmark of the college experience—challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions.”
Likewise, a 2018 American study found that first-year college students become more tolerant of both liberal and conservative views. The authors admit that “college attendance is associated, on average, with gains in appreciating political viewpoints across the spectrum, not just favoring liberals” and conclude, “It appears as though the first year of college is doing what it should, exposing students to experiences that teach them how to think rather than what to think.”
Ironically, this research addresses Favretto’s main concern: “The liberal arts should be a place where students are challenged by their peers and by new perspectives … They should be pushed to think critically about new ideas and to reconsider and re-think their existing biases.”
Myth #4: Postmodernism is Antithetical to Both Conservatism and Liberalism
Postmodernism and conservatism share similar values, since both doctrines are founded on scepticism. Andrew Sullivan points out in The Conservative Soul that the defining characteristic of the conservative is that “he knows what he doesn’t know.” As the “guardians of doubt,” conservatives remain humble. Unlike the religious fundamentalist who believes that truth is settled, conservatives admit that knowledge is imperfect. Sullivan reminds us that the pursuit of absolute values cannot be fully reconciled with the government of mortals, who are limited by custom, feeling, habit, history and prejudice. Like postmodernists, conservatives accept that truth is not perfectly objective. Perspective always comes into play.
But, if postmodernism poses a threat to modernity, the same accusation can easily be levelled against conservative views. Because conservatism accepts truth’s contingent nature, this might lead to epistemic relativism. And, because conservatism emphasizes doubt, truth is potentially up for relativist grabs.
Conservatism has morphed into neoconservatism—a hard-right political ideology that emphasizes interventionist foreign policy and moral certitude—but should this radical version disqualify conservatism as a valuable political tradition? Thoughtful conservatives would argue that it is disingenuous to select the most extreme form of a belief system and present that as its core meaning. Instead, conservatism and neoconservatism should be judged on their own merits. If so, similar consideration should be given to postmodernism and the dogmatism currently plaguing some areas of critical studies.
Anti-postmodernists also submit that postmodernism opposes liberalism. This too is overstated. Since the late eighteenth century, liberalism has been a successful, on-going experiment. Democratic societies support both individual freedom and the freedom of others, and, when liberty conflicts with communal ethics, tensions are worked out gradually by balancing competing interests. In democracies, postmodernism poses no threat to liberty. It could just as easily enhance personal freedom by revealing how traditional structures limit constitutional rights.
What should concern anti-postmodernists more is neoliberalism, a belief that the market should reign supreme in all state and public policy decisions. This doctrine pushes aside liberal, socialist, environmental and feminist concerns in favour of market fundamentalism. Without government regulation, neoliberalism becomes freedom at other people’s expense. Postmodernists reject the dominant economic narrative that the market should decide, knowing that other viewpoints will expose what is being concealed by uber-capitalists.
The Benefits of Postmodernism
As Kenneth Houston has written elsewhere in this magazine, postmodernism is about “holding our common-sense notions up to the light and checking for cracks, prising those fissures open and upsetting our certainties and our perceived inevitabilities.” Postmodernism’s greatest asset, then, is self-reflexivity: a sharpened awareness of the need to challenge self-evident positions, including one’s own, so that new interpretations can emerge.
Michael J. Hyde notes that postmodernism acts as an “interruption,” by calling into question what has been taken for granted as common sense. Postmodernism simply asks, Are you sure? Adopting this mind-set makes us all less egotistical.
Anti-postmodernists continue to connect postmodernism to a variety of evils, including genocide, the subversion of democracy and the rise of Donald Trump. Relying on Glenn Beck-style conspiracy theories, anti-postmodernists posit their own grand narrative: all of life’s ills somehow lead back to postmodernism.
However, there is reason to be optimistic. Postmodern intellectuals have not abandoned truth values, nor do they believe that all truths possess equal merit. They simply repudiate the notion that truths are fixed for eternity. It is the arrogance of dogmatists—be they religious fundamentalists, counter-cosmopolitans or radical feminists—that makes postmodernists cringe.
Nor is postmodernism turning students into thoughtless drones. Those influenced by postmodern philosophy understand that Gandhi is not Hitler and that a qualitative distinction exists between the rhetorical eloquence of Martin Luther King Jr. and the rantings of a Tiki torch-wielding white nationalist.
Enlightenment ideals have not collapsed because postmodern intellectuals decided to challenge the authority of metanarratives. Postmodern discourse has made us more aware that the notion of absolute truth is a distortion of reality. As fallible human beings, we are all at the mercy of contingencies.
Instead of jumping to conclusions about the dangers posed by postmodernism, perhaps anti-postmodernists should heed the warning given by sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne: “Presumption is our natural and original malady.”