From: L. Michael Hall
2021 Neurons #43
July 16, 2021
Can Save Politics #6
THE BAD IDEA OF POST-MODERNISM
I ended the last article asserting that postmodernism is a really terrible idea. Now I want to explain why and how it is not only a bad idea for politics, it is actually a disastrous idea. To accomplish that I will need to define both modernism and post-modernism.
Modernism describes the modern age of science from the seventeenth century to the twentieth century. This idea was based on the belief that there is an objective reality. Starting from that premise, the brilliant thinkers of that age began researching and studying to be able to make a map of that territory. From that came the development of science as a methodology for engaging with an object or an experience, defining what it is, determining how it works, and then determining the validity of the mental maps that we make about it. In this way, Newton’s laws of physics were discovered, the elements of the periodic chart, the foundation of chemistry, the anatomy of the human body, and on and on.
Modernism brought about developments in engineering and construction, it gave us the foundational principles for democracy and self-government of a people by themselves, it led to discoveries of electricity, cars, electronics, computers, and all of the things that we take for granted today that comprises and that advances civilization.
Then certain philosophers in Europe (Foucault, Derrida, etc.) began questioning all of this. First they questioned whether any human truth could provide an objective representation of reality. With this doubt, they eventually concluded that all truth claims are actually cultural constructs and therefore unreliable and science is not a better way to produce knowledge. Post-modernism’s reaction to modernity,
“… 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 values.” (Pluckrose and Lindsay, 2021, p. 22)
Here they took a grain of truth and exaggerated it into a corrosive cynicism about objective knowledge, science, and truth. Yes, a great deal of our knowledge is cultural and culturally defined. Much of it is thoroughly contaminated by built-in biases. But just because the maps we make are not the same thing as the territory does not mean there’s no territory. If you don’t believe in external reality and if you think it is all a social construct, jump off a ten-story building. You will quickly discover that in spite of whatever culturally informed ideas you have, gravity will have the last word.
It is only true in a banal sense that a lot of our knowledge is socially constructed. Yes, the maps we make are made by fallible human beings. And human beings are social beings who are consciously and unconsciously significantly influenced by their cultures. Yet that does not mean that some maps are more valid, useful, and effective than others. Nor does it mean that once a map is created, it cannot be improved, updated, upgraded, refined, etc. That’s what science is designed to help us do— to keep testing and improving what we know so that it becomes increasingly valid and reliable.
But post-modernism gave this up and then, taking skepticism as their creed, took things to a whole new level until it became cynicism. This was the problem with post-modernism from the 1960s to the 1990s. It created a nihilistic despair. If there’s no objective reality, if all is a social construct, if it is all relative, then what does it all mean? What is meaningful? And if it is all meaningless, what’s the point of living?
Post-modernism attacked reason, science, and rationality as the “Western way of thinking,” suggesting that rigorous, evidence-based research belongs to the West and does not apply to the East. It accused the Wet of “colonizing” indigenous people and Eastern countries, disadvantaging other forms of knowledge. But that’s over-simplified and polarized presentation. Further it demeans anyone not from the West as irrational and superstitious.
Later, post-modernism had a rebirth in the 1990s. Activists took the ideas (e.g., there is no objective reality, it is all a cultural construct, it has been the West’s way to subjugate people, it’s the group that counts, not the individual, etc.) to create their current revolution. By putting their focus on power rather than truth (“it’s all about power”), post-modernists invented “identity politics” as a way to take control. For them, the group you belong to defines who you are, what you think, how you vote, how you are victimized, etc. All of this became tools in the service of gaining power. But identity politics is not the answer. Historically it has led to tribalism, revenge, racism, wars, genocide, totalitarian governments, etc.
This lead to Critical Theory and its many forms: critical race theory, queer theory (which ignores biology and makes sex, gender and sexuality news forms of oppression), post-colonial theory, etc. Since language governs the maps (mental models) that we make and since “knowledge” is considered to be totally a social construct, post-modernists sought to gain power by controlling and changing the language. We see this in the demand that people use only approved and prescribed pronouns and other expressions. This eliminates freedom of expression. “Racism” no longer is prejudice or hatred in one’s heart against other people, it is a “unconscious system” that you can’t see. It is always there even if you can’t detect it, and cannot be eliminated. If you disagree, that proves you are racist. If you disagree, you have committed “epistemic violence” against them.
These post-modern ideas teach people to assume there is racism, prejudice, victimization, colonization, etc. all around them and victimizing them. It teaches them to be angry, upset, and ready to cancel or even overthrow society. As a result, post-modernism has become highly intolerant and an authoritarian ideology. The only social justice to be had is not equality, but equity. Merely offer equal opportunity to all people is not enough. People must have equity— made equal in money, possessions, positions, etc. If you disagree, you should be censored. Disagreeing makes others feel inadequate and victimized, so it must be eliminated or you must be eliminated.
Unlike modernism and liberalism which is self-correcting as it welcomes fierce debate and testing the validity of things, post-modernism refuses opposing views. This makes it especially closed-minded and rigid. It refuses freedom of debate and post-modernist universities cancel conservative speakers from their campuses.
Now how many really terrible ideas does post-modernism involve? A lot! So what’s the solution to all of these really bad ideas? Open conversation and debate so that in the marketplace of ideas— the best ideas will eventually win out. Truth is not afraid of free expression or even conflict of different ideas— it welcomes it so that we can have a more complete perspective of any given subject.
What is stultifying and victimizing is censorship. To separate people between those who are so-called “woke” and those who are not is just another form of prejudice and name-calling. It is also quite arrogant and presumptuous. While the truths we know and the knowledge we have attained is still influenced by culture and language and always will be — there is a larger truth. Namely, we are all human beings first and human from a particular society second. We have more in common than what divides us. Because of that, we can save politics if we have a mind to.