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

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 solid foundations exist that allow societies to make subtle shifts in public policy whenever complex legal or ethical dilemmas arise.  For instance, courts rely on the history of jurisprudence to make proper decisions, physicians acknowledge consistencies (or inconsistencies) in medical ethics to help guide them, and social scientists debate the soundness of prior and current research methods to draw more accurate conclusions. To be clear: truth is not affirmed on a whim.


Myth #2: Postmodernism Is Incompatible with Western Values           

Citing philosopher Stephen Hicks, Favretto further contends that postmodernism leads to “a wholesale rejection of the Enlightenment’s salient ideas of reason, logic, knowledge and truth.”  Yet the subversion of logical analysis is not one of postmodernism’s core objectives, and for Favretto to insinuate this is to attribute to postmodernism a political agenda it does not possess.  Because truth values are both contested and contextual, human beings search for more nuanced ways to interpret their social, political, economic and legal environments.  This quest for higher truths easily complements the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rational thought.  It is also in accord with the Enlightenment’s rejection of dogma and intolerance.

Furthermore, postmodernism and conservatism share similar values since both doctrines are founded on skepticism.  As Andrew Sullivan points out in The Conservative Soul, the defining characteristic of the conservative is that “he knows what he doesn’t know.”  As the “guardians of doubt,” conservatives remain humble.  Unlike the religious fundamentalist who believes in moral certitude, conservatives admit that knowledge is imperfect.  Sullivan reminds us that the pursuit of absolute values cannot be fully reconciled within the government of mortals, who are limited by custom, feeling, habit, history, and prejudice.  As with the postmodernist, the conservative accepts that truth is not perfectly objective.

If, as Favretto strongly implies, the positions of postmodernists are logically incoherent, the same accusation can easily be levelled against conservative views.  Because conservatism accepts truth’s contingent nature, this too might lead to an “anything goes” mentality.  And because conservatism emphasizes doubt, truth is potentially up for relativist grabs.  Conservatives would argue that it is disingenuous to adopt the most extreme, most hypothetical form of a belief system and present that as its core meaning.  If so, similar consideration should be given to postmodernism.


Myth #3: Postmodernism Prevents Critical Thinking  

Favretto alleges that postmodernism leads to the decline of a liberal arts education.  She states, “Courses that have embraced a postmodern viewpoint tend to harshly ostracise any conflicting perspective, thereby eroding the intellectual freedom upon which the liberal arts had hitherto relied.”  Her conclusions, however, are derived from a single experience.  Favretto acknowledges that one of her humanities lecturers “seemed unaware that the course she teaches is saturated with cultural and political biases that exclude any student who holds differing views.  Such is the devious nature of postmodernism in the modern classroom.”

The question begs, are post-secondary students becoming more intolerant about opposing ideas?  On the basis of large-scale studies, Kyle Dodson, assistant sociology professor at the University of California, concluded that academic engagement promoted moderation of views:

While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement . . . critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas—a hallmark of the college experience—challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions.

Likewise, a 2018 study found that first-year college students do become more tolerant of both liberal and conservative views.  The authors admitted that “college attendance is associated, on average, with gains in appreciating political viewpoints across the spectrum, not just favoring liberals.”  The study’s conclusion: “It appears as though the first year of college is doing what it should, exposing students to experiences that teach them how to think rather than what to think.”  Ironically, the research supports Favretto’s main concern: “The liberal arts should be a place where students are challenged by their peers and by new perspectives . . . They should be pushed to think critically about new ideas and to reconsider and re-think their existing biases.”

Like other anti-postmodernists, Velvet Favretto attempts to discredit postmodernism by associating it with moral nihilism, the weakening of Western values, and the supposed decline of critical thinking in the liberal arts.  These misrepresentations serve to reinforce a deep cynicism that already preoccupies the anti-postmodern mindset.  Favretto simply assumes that “in a world where objective truth doesn’t exist, absurdity is indistinguishable from fact.”  Somehow, the widening of perspectives—the crux of postmodern pluralism—spells the end of truth.  Instead of jumping to conclusions, perhaps Favretto should heed the warning given by 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne: “Presumption is our natural and original malady.”