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

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

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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 already claim to possess the truth, so from their viewpoint, there’s no need to deliberate over complex ethical dilemmas.  As American intellectual Stanley Fish points out, when individuals say or do reprehensible things, “their way of talking and thinking couldn’t be further from the careful and patient elaboration of difficult problems that marks postmodern discourse.”

Contemporary postmodernists believe that perfectionism—the kind that lays claim to God-like knowledge that results in God-like vengeance—must be rejected and replaced by systems of thought that are more valuable and life-affirming.  Nietzsche’s concept of the “death of God” simply refers to the death of absolute values, not values writ large.  This does not mean that “all values are equal” or that “anything goes” since one absolute would be substituted for another.

To resolve the relativist dilemma, truth claims are challenged in an open, adversarial forum, the purpose of which is to locate more nuanced interpretations.  Whenever competing claims are exposed to scrutiny, those lacking merit will be jettisoned while those with more credibility win the support of the citizenry.  From a postmodernist perspective, truth is found only in dialogue with others.

Nietzschean scholars have long accepted this process of value exchange.  In his 1909 dissertation, Friedrich Nietzsche on the Philosophy of the Right and State, Nikos Kazantzakis reminds us that once absolute values are jettisoned, humankind “erects a new ranking of values and new ideals of humanity, society, and state.”  Hence, there is no unchangeable doctrine or final ethical boundary.  We continue to search for better ways to interpret our social, political, economic and legal environments.

Unabated, naysayers continue to promote untenable positions that connect postmodernism to a myriad of evils, including Nazism, totalitarian communism, and Islamic jihadism.  Like a Glenn Beck conspiracy theory, somehow all of life’s ills lead back to postmodernism.

By swallowing the rhetoric of the postmodern boogeyman hook, line and sinker, Peterson, Sibley and Pomerantsev have deceived themselves and the public.  More importantly, they are deflecting blame away from the real culprits—namely, the perfectionists among us.  Hopefully, this distortion of postmodernism experiences the “death of God,” the sooner the better.

The Prince Arthur Herald

Photo Credit: Twitter, @Dawn_Bowden