Postmodernists took on the orthodoxy of European enlightenment, science and reason using philosophy to deconstruct the assumptions that underpinned the ethos of the western world and to challenge the elites who they saw as exploiting ordinary men and women. It was a radical challenge to 20th century thinking and society. But I wonder if those postmodernists like Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida could have anticipated that their iconoclastic ideas would ultimately become a platform for a resurgence of the extreme right? They hoped for a Marxist or socialist rebellion in the worlds of ideas, politics, academia and education, and in many ways they achieved their goal. Postmodernism has permeated, some would say infiltrated tertiary campuses worldwide as well as influenced governments, politicians, cultural thinkers and custodians and policy makers.
The fundamental tenets of postmodernism are that there are no absolute truths, that historical reality is created by elites to support and maintain existing power structures and that elites exclude ordinary working people, women and minorities from power, using science, reason and hierarchies.
Their philosophy is seen by many as the catalyst for relativism, the idea that truth, facts, reality and science are all relative depending on who’s determining the “narrative”.
Postmodernists have also been identified with promoting a culture of inclusion, in opposition to what they see as the capitalist and elitist exclusion of the working class, women and minorities. The purpose is to invert the pyramid of power that controls historical and cultural narratives. A policy of inclusion that widens access to people who might otherwise not be entitled or feel confident to apply for places or positions is highly commendable and has helped significantly in changing criteria used to select candidates. The problem as always with ideologies lies in their interpretation and application.
In embracing the culture of inclusion some branches of western society have adopted social policies that impose a form of inverse snobbery, leading them to oppose or negate excellence, downgrade the value of knowledge and experience and alter the aim, curriculum and purpose of institutions as diverse as universities, schools, art galleries, museums and public libraries: instead of being centres of excellence, education or mental stimulation where you are challenged to push yourself and encouraged to think differently they’ve been re-modelled into open access havens for all, no matter their ability, talent or competence. The right to inclusion has at times superseded or elbowed aside the requirement to be assessed.
In popular terms, postmodernism has been associated with and may be seen as responsible for political correctness, “nanny state” policies and the dumbing down of schools and tertiary institutions.
It’s also seen as anti-science and anti-intellectual. Some postmodernists argue that science and technology – even reason and logic – are destructive and oppressive, because they have been used by tyrants to destroy and oppress others, especially during the 20th century. It does seem more than ironic for a philosophy propounded by thinkers and writers working within and responding to an extensive tradition of western intellectual thought to be anti-reason and anti-logic.
All this has given rise to criticism by academics like Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, England that postmodernists have infected and compromised western thought and society; as a Guardian newspaper reviewer of one of Furedi’s books, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, wrote: “The pursuit of universalist truths has been given a knocking by the rise of postmodernism, he (Furedi) argues. After all, if there can be no truth, why search for Truth? The postmodernists have created an alibi for philistinism through their relativism. Nothing is better than anything else, everything is a – more or less – equally valid narrative”.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett meanwhile has contended, “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.”
At this point the provenance and rationale of the tactics, propaganda and strategies used by the Brexiteers, Donald Trump and the European right come into view. They have cleverly co-opted aspects of the deconstructed worldview of postmodernists to promote their polemic against globalisation, immigration and an enlightened liberal humanist society. Summoning up the spectres of powerful, self-interested elites exercising social and economic exclusion and exploitation, untrustworthy media controlled by those same powerful elites manipulating facts and information, they have suggested a conspiracy against voters to keep them oppressed with liberal globalised policies and “fake news”.
While they may only be using inflammatory or button pushing phrases hijacked from postmodernism, they are nevertheless trading on people’s fears, doubts and uncertainties about what is true, what is real, who and what can be trusted in a postmodern world.
The ability of the new right to appeal to large swathes of the electorate and to have them sign up to an alternative reality and “alternative facts” is, I would argue, at least indirectly a consequence of postmodernism. Not that Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen would at all be aligned with the philosophies of postmodernists, who are mostly socialists. On the contrary, they are throwbacks to old-style fascism. But they are cleverly using the idiom of our postmodern times to appeal to a sector of society that feels disenfranchised, left behind by globalisation and lacking a narrative that makes them feel included. The language they employ to attack so-called elites, mainstream media and the reliability of media reports is highly effective at pushing the emotional buttons of people who feel globalisation and liberal politics are destroying their world. That’s the most charitable end of the spectrum. The way in which the extreme right uses such tactics to inflame anti-immigration fears and promote racism and nationalism is terrifying and morally bankrupt.
Sadly, it appears to be working successfully in many places.
Just as insidious is the way the extreme right has traded on postmodernists’ attack on science. Some postmodernists don’t see science and technology as instruments of human progress, they see them as instruments of a capitalist, military/industrial society bent on oppressing workers and creating wars. Both are partially true but are not mutually exclusive, in the same way that science and technology delivered technology and materials to create sophisticated cutting tools that can be used to chop up food and perform life-saving operations but that can also be used to kill people and animals.
There is an ideological chasm between what the postmodernists’ critique of science intended and how that’s being exploited by the extreme right, but the consequences are none the less dangerous.
The philosophical questioning of the role of science has led to the more fundamental questioning of whether empirical truths established through scientific method can be trusted. That has created a fertile environment for tobacco companies, fossil fuel industries, climate change deniers, creationists and other religious fundamentalists to challenge scientific evidence and to propose alternative facts, evidence and interpretations.
Relativism creates a murky world where there are no certain or established truths – rather there are options to pick whatever facts, arguments or opinions support what you want to state or believe.
You could argue that that is simply democracy, the freedom to say and believe what you want. However, a world where everyone’s views and opinions have equal weight and validity is a world of anarchy. If there is no respect for established knowledge, values, expertise or factual evidence – then we have discarded thousands of years of human experience and wisdom, we have trashed the hard-won results of generations of human experimentation which have taught us what is safe to eat, how to farm crops, how to make tools, how to form successful societies, how to create languages and means of communication, how the solar system operates, how plants grow, the benefit of mathematics, antibiotics, immunisation and medicine. If none of what humans have tried, tested and found to work has value or is considered to be true, then we’ve wasted 150,000 years of human experience and cultural and intellectual evolution.
It is so absurd as to be laughable – were it not for the frightening potential of egotistical politicians and self-interested leaders to use the ideology of postmodernist philosophers to twist and manipulate public fears and emotions to their selfish and bigoted ends, unclear and perverse as those may be.
We are a species full of contradictions, but to survive we have to agree on certain truths and sign up to some commonly agreed understanding of what is reality, what is society and what knowledge and values bind us together. The right to free expression is one thing, the right to destroy the fabric of modern society is quite another.
I’m not saying that postmodern ideas shouldn’t be allowed or be discussed – far from it, freedom of expression is fundamental to western civilisation. Indeed, the role of philosophy is precisely to question how we think about our world and to challenge orthodox ideas. It is critical to our continuing intellectual evolution; however the danger exists in the interplay between philosophy and politics. Philosophy is about ideas; politics is about power. Unfortunately, as we’ve witnessed in the past when political leaders seize on philosophical manifestoes to support and advance their aims – the consequences can be devastating.
Now we have the double-edged sword of social media in the political equation: it can cut through bureaucracy, publicise issues widely and instantly and it provides the ultimate means for everyone to express their views globally and democratically with a sense of entitlement. However, social media also provides a direct, instantaneous, uncensored and unchecked way for political mavericks and charlatans to spread rumour and disinformation and to connect with their followers, aided and abetted by the clickbait culture.
It seems doubly ironic that regressive, extreme right-wing politics associated with racism, bigotry, sexism and nationalism should be making a come-back against liberal scientific enlightenment using the language of left-wing postmodernists and spreading them via the sophisticated silicon based technology and algorithms of social media.
Almost certainly the perpetrators don’t care as the ends justify the means. Do postmodernists see the irony? Do they care? Or would they see this as just an attempt to seize back narrative control by liberal humanists? Does any of that matter?
That’s the problem with living in this postmodern world: who cares about the irony? Who worries about the contradictions? Does it matter that people are being lied to and manipulated? What is truth, after all? But the stakes couldn’t be higher – peace or war, co-operation or conflict, civilisation or tyranny. We need a narrative that we can believe in, one that holds our world together. I believe we must defend and protect the narrative of science and enlightenment, based on truth and evidence. In the end, our future depends on who is controlling the narrative and who wants to believe it. That is something a man named Joseph Goebbels understood very well and exploited brilliantly. Incidentally – Goebbels graduated with a Doctorate in German Philosophy from Heidelberg University.