Has the postmodern revolution gone full circle?

By Colin Turfus

While discussions about the philosophical foundations of judgements of right and wrong are often framed in terms of rational versus irrational perspectives, viz. those based on the enlightened values of science and reason as opposed to those based on authority or faith, this is not altogether an accurate view of where the real centre of moral debate currently lies. The game-changer has been the arrival of postmodern ideology and the hegemony which it has established over most debate about public policy and morality. This assertion may come as a surprise to many who are aware of the existence of a philosophical perspective called “postmodernism” but do not see it as having much to do with how they frame their moral judgements or how society around them is ordered. They would I suggest probably be wrong to believe so.

In understanding postmodernism, it is important to recognise that it arose not as a logical corollary of the efforts in the “Enlightenment” period to establish a rational foundation for addressing moral dilemmas and resisting the tyranny of religious and traditionalist worldviews in the 18th and 19th centuries, but as a rejection of that project. While Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Hume, Kant, Hegel and Feuerbach vied with one another to provide a theoretical foundation for moral discourse, ultimately none was able to prevail.

The great prophet who was ultimately to sound the death-knell of the enlightenment was probably Friedrich Nietzsche in his portrayal of the madman running around with a lantern proclaiming that God was dead. His suggestion was that the madman represented the enlightenment philosophers who, in their critique of traditional values, looked to construct in their place a system of values which pared away the superstition and retained the essence; but that there was no such essence. Freed from the constraints of the prior expectations of our peers, we are free to steer whichever course we choose.

Postmodernism builds on this insight pushing the corollary that there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only differences of perspective. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Reality, knowledge, and value are constructed by discourses; hence they can vary with them. This means that the discourse of modern science, when considered apart from the evidential standards internal to it, has no greater purchase on the truth than do alternative perspectives, including (for example) astrology and witchcraft. Postmodernists sometimes characterize the evidential standards of science, including the use of reason and logic, as “Enlightenment rationality.”

This point of view is often portrayed as moral relativism, but to do so is to miss an important feature of the postmodernist position: although it holds that there is no one correct point of view on questions of right and wrong, all points of view are not necessarily equal in validity. Indeed, echoing Orwell’s critique of communist society in his Animal Farm, some points of view are in practice “more equal than others.” For, as stated above, values are seen as arising in practice in “discourses” taking place in different social groups or communities. And some groups have greater power or “hegemony” to impose their view on other relatively disempowered groups. Without taking a position on whose views are more correct between the relatively more or less powerful group, postmodernists argue that it behoves us to take the side of the relatively disempowered group so as to help redress the intrinsic injustice of the situation.

So, the conversation moves from one about being right to one about having rights. While a traditional perspective on human rights would be to argue that all human beings possess rights equally, the postmodernist position is that greater rights have to accrue to the relatively disempowered and so greater emphasis given to defending their values. Thus, is born the concept of group rights: women’s rights, gay rights, transgender rights, black rights, Muslim rights, etc. It is one of the great achievements of the postmodernist agenda that, without any need for moral discourse, it has become possible to dismiss almost any moral position which is portrayed as disrespectful of any of those group rights, particularly if that moral position can also be portrayed as promoting the interests of some relatively more powerful group.

Not surprisingly, this approach leads quite quickly to inconsistency and even incoherence. For example, it is often argued in the corporate environment that “diversity” policies are necessary to ensure that the best people are chosen, by which is meant a sufficient number from relatively disempowered groups. But if that is one’s position, one needs to argue that members of different groups bring different talents and perspectives to the table by virtue of their belonging to those different groups, so there is a fundamental inequality between groups that demands to be recognised. This it would appear is acceptable if one were to suggest, say, that women bring a greater degree of empathy into leadership than men and should on that basis be favoured more than at present. But if one were to say something suggesting that men by virtue of being men are more likely to have some quality or qualities that qualify them for leadership, there would be outrage and claims of sexism or misogyny. Whether any of the supporting claims has a basis in truth or not is entirely irrelevant. The morality of the issue is determined by whose interests are served by taking a claim seriously.

Thus, is the new irrationalism born, where matters of fact and evidence are swept aside in favour of identity politics which is elevated as the determining principle in all disputes between competing moral perspectives. Just as within 19th century European society, as Nietzsche argued, Christianity exercised hegemony on the basis of authoritarian structures enforcing a morality which society internalised as the natural order of things, postmodernism has, by virtue of backing up its strictures with laws and regulations which carry stringent penalties and ensuring that its point of view is taught in all educational institutions, often even to the exclusion of parental rights to assert an alternative position, achieved a similar hegemony.

Basing its power on an enforcing authority backed up with persistent indoctrination, it has effectively managed to marginalise dissenting opinions and severely curtail moral debate in the public space. It is the new orthodoxy with divine-like authority to make truth claims on the basis of consistency with its asserted principles which are immune to disproof or falsification by reason or evidence. Indeed, those seeking to bring evidence to contradict its claims are routinely vilified and marginalised. Thus, have we come full circle in recreating the very conditions that the Enlightenment set out, but on its own terms failed, to address.

Happily, the inconsistency and incoherence of the postmodernist perspective is increasingly being challenged by a new generation of thinkers from across the political spectrum. For example, Ken Wilber in his Trump and a Post-Truth World notes how postmodernism has played itself out and in attempting to create a new basis for determining truth has ultimately undermined it:

And thus, postmodernism as a widespread leading-edge viewpoint slid into its extreme forms (e.g., not just that all knowledge is context-bound, but that all knowledge is nothing but shifting contexts; or not just that all knowledge is co-created with the knower and various intrinsic, subsisting features of the known, but that all knowledge is nothing but a fabricated social construction driven only by power). When it becomes not just that all individuals have the right to choose their own values (as long as they don’t harm others), but that hence there is nothing universal in (or held-in-common by) any values at all, this leads straight to axiological nihilism: there are no believable, real values anywhere. And when all truth is a cultural fiction, then there simply is no truth at all—epistemic and ontic nihilism. And when there are no binding moral norms anywhere, there’s only normative nihilism. Nihilism upon nihilism upon nihilism—“there was no depth anywhere, only surface, surface, surface.” And finally, when there are no binding guidelines for individual behaviour, the individual has only his or her own self-promoting wants and desires to answer to—in short, narcissism. And that is why the most influential postmodern elites ended up embracing, explicitly or implicitly, that tag team from postmodern hell: nihilism and narcissism—in short, aperspectival madness. The culture of post-truth.

Wilber looks forward to an evolution beyond postmodernism to a developmental model which is more “integrated” or “systemic”. His view is that when a system is broken, as ours currently is, it reverts back to the last point at which it functioned effectively. Let’s hope he is right. Such ideas are a welcome breath of fresh air in a political culture in which the discourse revolves less and less around facts and evidence and consists more and more of ad hominem attacks on detractors and dissident voices launched from within the relative security of group identity siloes. Voices of those who like Wilber are critical of the failings of postmodernism and emphasise the need for new ideas are increasingly being heard, particularly on social media where many of the new currents in popular thought are increasingly finding receptive audiences. It will be interesting to watch how all this plays out.


When Words Fail

There is nothing in principle to stop me picking up a spade and burying it in the head of my neighbour or driving my car into a passing stranger; or, for that matter, given the opportunity and the wherewithal, defacing a masterpiece or blowing up a holy site. The fact that I would not consider doing any of those things – would positively recoil from them – is either a piece of extraordinary good fortune for the world or the normal condition of humanity. In either case, unfortunately, there are those who do commit such acts and they fall basically into one of two types: those who commit them under the compulsion of some mental illness and those who countenance and commit them in the furtherance of some ideological cause. In the latter case there might be the smallest mitigation if these acts were carried out with a measure of regret for the suffering they cause or the loss to humankind; but on the contrary, we witness that they are announced in a celebratory and triumphal manner unassailed by remorse or doubt.

I have often been struck by a fundamental imbalance in the order of things, that it takes so long to build something up and so little to destroy, whether that be one’s personal finances, a marriage, a work of creation or a human life: a rash investment, a brief affair, a bonfire, or an indiscriminate shooting can see the end of all these. The strict reductionists will already have reached for the answer to that, which is that it is, of course, embodied in the principle of entropy. But that is an answer which explains everything and means nothing; it is like saying that a terrorist act like that committed yesterday evening is nothing more that the movement of fundamental particles, rather than being a violation of our common humanity and the trust upon which society is built, which is of course its aim. To speak of “atrocity”, “evil” “cowardice” “determination” and the like is understandable, when one must say something for which there are really no words; someone must speak and act on our behalf to express the collective revulsion, desire for peace and security and will that those responsible be punished. But these words are inadequate in the face of a brutal nihilism and an irrecoverable loss.

Even though we understand much about the psychology of victimhood and its manipulation by charismatic demagogues to advance their own political platforms, the geopolitical turmoil that gives rise to lingering resentments, and the pressure to conform in closed tight-knit groups, it is difficult for us to comprehend the journey that someone must have taken to arrive at a place where they deny their own future, their family’s love and hopes, their own religion’s universal values, the humanity of their victims, reason and logic, to embrace death and destruction. There are no words that will persuade them – even if they were to be heard – to turn from this path and rejoin humanity. For the mind and heart has closed in upon itself, in a tight circle of self-reinforcing justification. The mind, the person and the collective has become a black hole in the human constellation. The only recourse in defending an open society against such threats is the full force of the law.

In the film Unforgiven, the central character William Munny says, “It’s a terrible thing, killing a man. You take away everything that he has”. In the pursuit of rhetorical expressiveness, he can be forgiven the paradox that if someone is dead there is no longer anything to take away nor anyone there to possess the things ripped away. We understand the point. For each of those people killed in last night’s attacks in Paris there was a history which is a part of the shared experience of humanity, including those who carried out the attacks, those who today view them with horror and those who thoughtlessly celebrate them. It includes a birth to parents who were probably delighted at their arrival; taking their first steps and speaking their first words; years of play and study and work; maybe a struggle with teenage insecurities, identity issues, or coming to terms with a disability; appreciation of nature or books or music; first love; maybe setting out on their own journey of raising the next generation or building a life with someone; indeed, now all has been taken away, all gone. Our revenge is to live our lives for those who no longer will, with scant regard for those who have chosen to inhabit the darkest places in the human soul.