During the past several decades, the American political scene has morphed so significantly that the politics of the mid-twentieth century are now unrecognizable. One of the reasons for the shift in political thinking—and the subsequent unrest and polarization we now see—is a shift in the way people think about truth and morality. We can call this shift the “postmodern” shift.
This shift first took place among university professors and other elite culture influencers such as artists and architects, but now has affected society as a whole. It is a revolutionary shift, and one of which everyday Americans should be aware.
Here is what everyone should know about postmodernism and American politics:
What is postmodernism?
Postmodernism (hereafter, “POMO”) is the word used to describe the contemporary cultural condition significantly. It can be summarized by articulating seven central features of its enthusiastic supporters:
- It is radically skeptical about whether human beings can attain objective knowledge, and is therefore committed to moral and cultural relativism.
- It is often radically skeptical of the conclusions of scientists, doctors, and others who claim to know “the facts.”
- It is often radically skeptical of human reason, preferring instead human experience and emotion.
- It is radically skeptical of traditional categories (e.g. male/female), believing that traditional categories are not “factual” and are used to oppress people who don’t fit neatly in the categories. It wishes to blur traditional boundaries and overturn traditional categories.
- It is radically skeptical of traditional words and language, believing that languages develop to reinforce the beliefs and preferences of dominant groups, and that dominant groups are inherently oppressive.
- It is radically skeptical of other features of contemporary cultures (in addition to traditional categories and traditional language), affirming a cultural relativism in which no set of cultural norms is better than another.
- It is radically subversive of “individuality” and “universality.” In other words, it wishes to focus on groups of people (e.g. identity politics) instead of focusing on, for example, “individual” rights or “universal” commonalities among all human beings.
Why did postmodern ways of thinking gain ascendance?
The initial surge of postmodern thinking came in the aftermath of Marxism. Marxism was a substitute ideology for people who rejected Christianity; it functioned as a religion and claimed to have comprehensive explanatory power. Yet, when Marxism failed miserably, postmodernist thinkers gave up on any comprehensive way of trying to explain the world—whether that was religion (e.g. Christianity) or secular ideology (e.g. Marxism).
Yet, later forms of postmodernism regained their faith in comprehensive systems of thought (such as critical theory, intersectionality, identity politics, and Social Justice Theory), which we will discuss in future posts. Additionally, they determined that the best thing to do politically is to tear down the West by rejecting traditional language, received categories, cultural traditions, and individual rights.
What are the main features of postmodern politics?
Postmodern politics wants to show that traditional Western ways of thinking and traditional morals are absurd. Their theories are critical of anything traditional, highly moralistic, and prone to revolutionary action. They see the core problem in politics is that traditional people have unjust access to power. Therefore, they launched a new view of justice that we can call Social Justice Theory (SJT).
Postmodern politicians and activists want to “critically examine” traditional ways of thinking and speaking, exposing them as corrupt, power-hungry, and oppressive. These critical examinations include postcolonialism, intersectionality, critical race theory, queer theory, disability theory, and fat theory. They want to disrupt traditional ways of thinking in order to change the world, dismantle power structures, and build a new morality. They want to police language, curb free speech, cancel people with politically incorrect views, and turn all other sectors of society (e.g. universities, churches) into hotbeds of postmodern political activism.
How should we respond to postmodern politics?
There is a kernel of truth in each of the seven features of postmodernism (mentioned above). And there are things to be learned from various types of postmodern political theory and activism (e.g. postcolonialism, intersectionality, critical race theory, queer theory, disability theory, and fat theory). Yet, on the whole, postmodernism and postmodern politics are radically destructive; as long as major segments of our society are captive to them, we will experience increasing polarization, vitriol, and unrest.
In future posts, I will answer FAQs in regard to various manifestations of postmodern political theory and activism. We will begin with postcolonialism. Stay tuned.
Readers who want a “deep dive” into the issues should purchase Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay.