Do we have a generation who are unaware of postmodernism?

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Do we have a generation who are unaware of postmodernism?

As an ethicist, my work falls outwith the realms of classical science. But by using the scientific method whilst working within the non-physical, I have a unique appreciation for the problems caused by postmodernism. Indeed, if you don’t actively take an interest in both the scientific method and philosophy, you may not even know what postmodernism is.

This would usually be the part where the author defines ‘postmodernism’, however that itself would be a much larger article than I intend to write. Ranging from critiques of enlightenment thinking, to philosophising on the meaning of just about anything, post-modernism is a tricky subject to pin down. Alas, this doesn’t help much. Roughly speaking, post-modernism refers to the school of thought that aims to base theories around ambiguities rather than rational probabilities; to unearth perceived or willed complexity in issues which could be simple, by referencing theories or ideas which are either indefinable or else impossible to ponder. In other words, postmodernism is about confusing or impressing people into agreement rather than actually discovering truths: indeed, postmodernism disagrees with objective truth as a concept, which makes the whole idea of it kind of self-defeating… yet it thrives within animal rights thinking.

When explained like that, postmodernism doesn’t seem like a particularly big problem. After all, what I’ve just described gives the image of a professional looking academic standing on a stage and trying to impress people with big words or concepts, so that they give him the authority to be right without actually knowing whether he is or not. That image wouldn’t be terribly far off. It’s just that when those kind of common language accusations are faced toward post-modernists, they don’t just say ‘so what’ (which is what they mean) but instead they cleverly string linguistic marvels together so as to give the further illusion that the rational criticism is somehow below what they are doing.

This isn’t just my bitter opinion after losing arguments against them either (though I’m unsure one can ‘win’ an argument where the opponent disagrees about what success in academia entails) it’s something rationalists have been pointing out long before I picked up the baton.

Indeed in a 1994 book entitled ‘Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science’, Paul Gross and Norman Levitt state the following:

To give a precise statement of postmodern doctrine would be an almost impossible task… understand it as a negation – particularly as the negation of the themes that have reigned in the liberal intellectual life of the West since the Enlightenment…postmodernism defines itself, in large measure, as the anti-thetical doctrine: that such a project [as the Enlightenment] is inherently futile, self-deceptive, and worst of all, oppressive.

Perhaps most helpful of all is the title they gave to that chapter: ‘The Realm of Idle Phrases’.

One might ask why the need to write about postmodernism now – can it be relevant to use chapters from a 1994 book in 2014? Well postmodernism hasn’t changed – perhaps unsurprisingly, it does not lend itself to change – and these chapters are more relevant now than ever. There isn’t a great deal written about post-modernism primarily because opponents see it as meaningless arguing, with no useful content (it is about style rather than content, after all) yet it flourishes still within social sciences. I encounter it all the time in ethics: from sociologists to social justice advocates, well-meaning people are dragged under the bus of postmodernism because it’s not obvious that it is nonsense.

For instance, it’s very easy to sit and scoff at a subject which you have just read is nothing more than a rejection of rationality, yet if you’ve had someone persuade you of something with the term ‘intersectionality’, then odds on you’ve been postmoderned™! Intersectionality sounds rational enough – it is the study of the connections within oppression, all of which come from some sort of power relationship. But if someone is referencing that someone else is exerting their power, it’s a very obvious argument with clear ramifications. ‘Intersectionality’ takes that one valid connection of power in order to invent an ambiguous concept which doesn’t technically exist. When someone says ‘intersectionality’ it doesn’t actually mean anything other than “connections that I can’t explain but that I believe to exist due to power relationships being roughly similar” in the vast majority of cases.

You might wonder ‘why on earth has he used that as an example, is he purposefully trying to be provocative?’ Kind of, is the answer to that, as it leads perfectly to a second example. I am almost certain that, if anyone reads this article, someone on the internet will be saying that I am simply a ‘white’ ‘male’ acting out of ‘privilege’ (assuming they didn’t read this bit, anyway). There we have 3 more buzz words in postmodernist bingo. Again, they are very useful terms and accusations if used properly – plenty of white men in society have a degree of privilege through which they don’t understand the struggles of those without such privilege. However these terms are fairly often used in the same way as ‘intersectionality’ is: ‘I disagree with this guy but don’t have an actual argument to put across’. If a male is arguing against abortion, for example, whilst ignoring the interests of females, it makes sense to point out his sexism and his bias: this, in a sense, is ‘privilege’ leading to misunderstanding. The argument only needs to become about ‘privilege’ (dependent on sex, race or culture) when the person wants to say something beyond that which is privilege related. For instance, if I make the case that postmodern feminism is speaking out of it’s metaphorical arse, I am often criticised for failing to see through my own ‘privilege’ (as I am a male criticising a subject which exists on behalf of women). What I am actually doing is criticising postmodernism’s inability to create coherent arguments, or even make any sort of broad sense, which in turn makes a criticism of my argument difficult. Hence the use of the word privilege allows the opponent to feel like a substantial counter-argument has been made against me without actually having to come up with one. It’s lazy thinking or even explicit confirmation bias, to you or I (perhaps an ad-hominem, even), but it’s defended as postmodernism to those making the case.

This concept of postmodernism, characterised by a misused call of ‘intersectionality’ and inaccurate, harmful accusations of ‘privilege’ (harmful to both sides of the argument), is alive and well within animal rights. In part this is due to the strong feminism most of us debaters on the subject feel – we end up influenced by postmodern feminism, so it crosses over when we discuss the need for our campaigns to be non-sexist. However, think also about the examples of direct action activists who preach about being ‘soldiers’ and enacting violence from a place of ‘truth’, as if that were even the point. But less obvious is the example of people who genuinely do just want to confuse the issue: people who refuse to accept reason or evidence on the basis that the issue is impossibly complex, so we must side with their opinion instead. The point to take away is not just a skepticism of anything which sounds too complex to be possibly testable, but also a skepticism of anyone claiming the very simple is actually very complex. Reason is about accepting that which has most rationale, and only siding with absolute uncertainty in cases where absolute uncertainty is warranted.

Perhaps surprisingly, post-modernism is also surprisingly common among people who consider themselves to be advocates of the scientific method. Almost as if the inability to judge social science in the way we judge natural science has left us at the mercy of absolute uncertainty. This poses not just a rational problem – a generation of potentially wonderful minds who will not build a contribution, based on not applying evidence correctly in social science – but also an ethical one – a generation of potentially wonderful minds who will not build a contribution to the subjects for which they have a passion.

In the words of the philosopher, Daniel Dennett: “Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.”*

I quite agree, yet I think he actually underestimates the problem. Those disabled by postmodernism are also now the teachers of the humanities for the coming generations, as well as the role models on social media who show everyone else how to think. Thus this unchallenged postmodernism is being passed down like a virus to people who do not know the full danger it contains.

Rob Johnson is a British ethicist, editor of The Abolitionist and author of the book Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong.

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