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Stuart Chambers

Stuart Chambers, Ph.D., teaches in the faculties of arts and social sciences at the University of Ottawa. schamber@uottawa.ca

The misconceptions of anti-postmodernists

Anti-postmodern commentaries are certainly in vogue these days.  Whether penned by conservatives or reactionary leftists, these opinion pieces all support the same general premise:  postmodernism poses an insidious threat to society.  In a recent Quillette publication, Velvet Favretto is the latest to parrot misconceptions surrounding postmodernism.  According to Favretto, postmodernism erodes truth, undermines core Western values, and creates an atmosphere of intolerance on post-secondary campuses.  All three assumptions are highly suspect.   Myth #1: Postmodernism Undermines Truth  First, postmodernism does not impair our ability to negotiate truth.  What postmodernism says is that we only have access to the material world through human descriptions of it.  Since none of us come equipped with a God’s-eye point of view, we make do with our own vocabularies to explain reality, such as those established in law, science, philosophy, ethics, sociology, etc.  Because these vocabularies offer different perspectives, various groups compete to determine standards for truth.  That said, claims still require the marshalling of evidence to test their legitimacy; therefore, truth cannot be established by fiat or by mere opinion. Favretto distorts postmodernism’s essence by taking it to absurd extremes.  Referencing American public intellectual Stanley Fish, she insists that postmodernism “relieves me of the obligation to be right,” adding: “you don’t have to be right, because right and wrong don’t exist.”    If we accept Favretto’s premise, the difference in agendas between Hitler and Gandhi is argumentative.  Likewise, no qualitative distinction exists between the rhetorical eloquence of Martin Luther King Jr. and the rantings of a Tiki torch-wielding white nationalist.  It’s a red herring that no one in the arts or humanities takes seriously. Because postmodernism rejects grand narratives, Favretto assumes that there are “no grounds on which to say that any interpretation is superior to any other.”  There may be no ultimate grounds, but… Read More

Islamophobia needs to be approached rationally, not emotionally

When students ask me if Islamophobia exists, my reply is always the same: It does—if you can prove it. I advise them to follow the evidence when ascertaining whether a claim against Muslims or Islam possesses any merit. Unfortunately, not everyone adopts a scientific approach to understanding this social phenomenon. It has even become fashionable of late to discredit the reality of Islamophobia or deny its existence altogether. For instance, when interviewed on The Rebel, University of Toronto professor Dr. Jordan Peterson referred to Islamophobia as a term “without integrity.” Likewise, Toronto Sun columnist Tarek Fatah insisted that Islamophobia could not be defined, since it was a “fraud.” In the National Review, journalist Brendan O’Neill labelled Islamophobia a “myth.” Writing for the Prince Arthur Herald, political science professor Henry Srebrnik called Islamophobia a media “obsession.” None of these characterizations, however, are sufficient from a scholarly viewpoint. Self-evident positions, quick dismissals or gross exaggerations tend to detract from the main issue, that being whether a given claim made against Muslims or Islam is rational or irrational. Take, for instance, the statements made by conservative political commentator Mark Steyn. He remarked in the National Post, “most Muslims either wish or are indifferent to the death of the societies in which they live.” Yet Steyn provides no statistical analysis to support his case. Here is what the evidence states concerning Muslim attitudes towards violence. In a 2016 Environics poll, only one per cent of Canadian Muslims believe that “many” or “most” Muslims in Canada support violent extremism. Globally speaking, Muslims overwhelmingly reject suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam. Studies conducted by the Pew Research Center found that Muslims view such extremism as rarely or never justified, including 96 per cent in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Azerbaijan, 92 per… Read More

Pop culture dilemma: ‘Sex sells’ creates generic music artists

In 2014, it was revealed that Britney Spears was lip syncing her Las Vegas shows.  Then, in 2016, Victoria Beckham admitted that she turned off her mic during concerts with the Spice Girls.  And if anyone happened to watch Mariah Carey botch her New Year's Eve performance in Times Square—which included embarrassing mechanical failures, awkward choreography, and out-of-sync lip syncing—it was another indication that something was amiss with the music business today.    Instead of being art-led, the music industry has become market-led, and “sex sells” is its first principle.  Consequently, popular music is now saturated with generic female artists who require sensationalism to promote their product.   Pop music became more commercialized around the “sex sells” motto when the Spice Girls gained notoriety in the 1990s.  The group was not created to sell music per se; rather, the Spice Girls brand was key to marketing an image known as “girl power.”  Although the concept suggests autonomy and assertiveness, the result was a further commodification of feminism.   Artistry and musicianship were jettisoned in exchange for skimpy outfits and high heels.  Management was less interested in the group’s musical talent and more intrigued by its marketability.  Hence, the stripper chic phenomenon, which is now a staple of Music Television Video (MTV), was a Spice Girls’ trademark.  To sell more, one must dress less, and this “less is more” attitude is thoroughly embedded in the performances of contemporary female artists.   The release of the video “Lady Marmalade” in 2001 is a perfect case in point.  Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink are dressed to resemble scantily clad hookers in a Moulin Rouge-like brothel.  Aguilera touches her pubic area, all the while perching doggie-style on a bed.  In 2002, Aguilera followed up with “Dirrty,” a classic example of the stripper… Read More

Let’s stop blaming postmodernism for all of life’s ills

   Postmodernism has been getting a lot of bad press lately.  Ottawa Citizen columnist Robert Sibley suggests that it has led to “the total eclipse of all values,” meaning that “we have no basis on which to justify truth claims beyond our own willfulness.”  In a recent issue of Granta magazine, Peter Pomerantsev notes how postmodernism, based on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, contributes to the “equaling out of truth and falsehood … lies can be excused as ‘an alternative point of view’ or ‘an opinion,’ because ‘it’s all relative’ and ‘everyone has their own truth.’” In a National Post op-ed, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson insists 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.”  Hyperbole aside, none of these writers’ basic assertions accurately reflects postmodernism’s foundational meaning. First and foremost, postmodernism teaches that immutable truths—those fixed for time and eternity—do not exist.  In contrast, those who embrace absolutes are known as perfectionists, individuals who suffer from what Nobel prize-winning author Amartya Sen terms “the illusion of singularity.”  Whenever someone posits self-evident truths and acts violently or aggressively to impose them, they are embracing perfectionism, not postmodernism. In 2011, perfectionist brainwashing motivated Anders Breivik to kill 77 people (69 of them children) to stop the “threat” of multiculturalism.  In 2013, it convinced Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to detonate pressure cooker bombs behind spectators at the Boston Marathon.  In 2015, the same arrogance led white supremacist Dylann Roof to murder nine black parishioners in a Southern Carolina church. Yet there is no connection between postmodernism and the behaviour of depraved thugs, most of whom have never heard of Nietzsche.  Violent extremists… Read More

Beware of secondary motives behind hypothetical euthanasia scandals

In a recent article titled "A scandal in the euthanasia archives," the historian Ian Dowbiggin alleges that important records concerning the Euthanasia Society of America (ESA) have now been destroyed, documents that would have further exposed the euthanasia movement's sinister persona—its Dexter Morgan-like "dark passenger." Professor Dowbiggin admits that his claim is based on incomplete information: "If the euthanasia movement’s records have indeed been destroyed," then they are "likely gone forever." But let's play the Devil's advocate for a moment: it's possible that, in an attempt at damage control, euthanasia proponents may well have destroyed the archive to paint a more favourable portrait of their movement's past. If so, it would be a terrible act against truth. That said, Professor Dowbiggin has loftier goals in mind here. He wants readers to believe, as he does, that euthanasia advocates—past and present—are duplicitous at their core. "In light of the disappearance of the ESA archives," he writes, "can they be trusted?". His previous opinion pieces support this assertion. He has consistently refused to discriminate between the ambitions of 19th- and early 20th-century euthanasia enthusiasts, with their proposal to eliminate the "unfit," and those of today's right-to-die supporters who promote individual choice and autonomy in the face of intractable suffering. This can be attributed to the fact that Professor Dowbiggin singularly views the death and dying debate through the sanctity of life ethos. It has become the crutch he leans on whenever the topic of euthanasia or assisted suicide arises. It also explains why his research interests have focused almost exclusively on the "sins" of various euthanasia movements over the past century; for example, key members have at one time proposed mercy killing for "incorrigible human vegetables" (Joseph Fletcher) and supported drug experimentation on consenting death-row inmates (Jack Kevorkian). Yet Dowbiggin is far too… Read More
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