Were the Postmodernists Correct?
If there is any state of affairs that proves the postmodernists were correct, it is the present situation in America.
Communication is Impossible, Claim Postmodern Philosophers
Throughout the 20th century, various postmodern theorists claimed that each of us are locked in the theoretical standpoint of our particular group, unable to achieve meaningful communication with those in different ideological communities. Because all narratives are ultimately agenda-driven (so they claimed) it follows that there is no shared reference point by which members of different groups can meaningfully understand each other. All truth is relative, in the sense that all of us are prisoners of the self-referential subjectivity of the biases and agendas of our own group.[i]
The Postmodern Nightmare Becomes Reality
Whatever we may think of postmodernism as a theoretical explanation for reality, it does seem to describe much of what we see in America today. Our society is fracturing into a series of intractable conflicts between groups with little to no communication across the ideological divides that separate us.
My own community, on the border between one of the most red states and one of the most blue, has afforded an up-close view of various conflicts as they have come and gone in succession. First, there were disputes between those who thought COVID-19 was real and those who believed it was a hoax. Then conflict erupted between pro-mask vs. anti-mask individuals, a conflict that quickly mapped over to arguments between those who were pro-lockdown vs. anti-lockdown. Then controversy arose between those who believed there had been fraud in the Presidential election vs. those who did not. Now, of course, the uber-conflict is between pro-vax and anti-vax. All of these conflicts have resulted in friendships ruined, churches split, and families divided.
The significance of what we are witnessing is not just that people strongly disagree with each other, nor even the intensity with which Americans cling to their opinions. Rather, the significance is that we have lost the shared categories even to have constructive dialogue. It is the postmodern nightmare of a society where each of us becomes isolated in the micro-narratives of our own tribe, believing we are free thinkers while slavishly following the ideology handed to us by our camp.
We Disagree; Therefore You’re Bad
Part of the reason there has been a complete breakdown in understanding is because in any of the conflicts I just mentioned, we have got into the habit of dismissing those with whom we disagree as not just wrong, but bad.
We all need to ask ourselves some serious questions here. If you were in favor of the business lockdowns, did you dismiss those who wanted business to remain open as simply caring more about money than loving their neighbors? Or if you were against the lockdowns, did you dismiss pro-lockdown individuals as not caring about people’s jobs? Or again, if you are pro-vaccine, how often have you dismissed all vaccine-hesitant individuals as uncaring, not even giving a thought for others who could get sick? If you are anti-vaccine, have you dismissed individuals who are pro-vaccine as deluded and part of the system that only pretends to have our best interests at heart?
Caricaturing those with whom we disagree enables us to treat complex issues as utterly obvious, which then absolves us from the difficult work of really trying to understand our opponents’ positions, let alone perform careful due diligence on whatever issue is under debate.
Making Sense of the World with Different Data
A related reason why there has been a complete breakdown in communication is that in most of today’s disputes, both sides use competing sets of data to make sense of the world, and different criteria for determining truth.
For example, one group in a controversy may believe an issue should be settled by reference to the needs of the community rather than the individual, and those who disagree are simply selfish. But another group believes the needs of an individual should take precedent over the needs of the community, and those who disagree are on the slippery slope towards communism or statism.
Or one group may believe that an issue is settled by reference to experts and establishment knowledge instead of alternative sources of information, and those who disagree are simply gullible to misinformation, including the tendency to just believe everything they see on the internet. But another group thinks issues should be settled by alternative information sources because those who look to experts and establishment knowledge are simply over-trusting and gullible—the types of people who would unthinkingly follow propaganda in wartime Germany.
In this way, what at first appears to be a simple disagreement is actually a symptom of different ways of knowing, different ways of working with information, and different starting points or first principles for navigating reality. Because these meta-issues are rarely recognized, both sides just talk past each other, engaging opponents as if they are operating from the same first principles, and then conclude that the other side is just deranged, stupid, or willfully closed-minded to reality.[ii]
How Disputes Become Interminable
These disputes have the character of what Alasdair MacIntyre described as “interminable disagreement.” A disagreement becomes interminable when each position is logically valid according to its own criteria yet there is no rational way to adjudicate between competing criteria without implicitly assuming or abandoning one or other of the very criteria under question. Once reason can no longer be used to adjudicate then it comes to be assumed that all appeals to rationality merely disguise the preferences of the speaker. Discourse then comes to be seen as merely a proxy for power, and dialogue collapses into a zero-sum contest between winners and losers.
So are the postmodernists correct, or is there a way out of this state of affairs? Fortunately, there is a way to overcome the postmodern dilemma. But that will be the topic of a follow-up article. We will see that, as an explanation of reality, postmodernism is false precisely because it fails to take into account how communication and relationships actually work. We will see that, even in today’s climate of rigid binaries and polarization, men and women are coming together to understand each other, to build syntheses, and to engage in meaningful communication. How are they doing this? Stay tuned.
[i] The origins of these and similar theories about the relativity of all discourses, and the impossibility of communication between competing groups, need not concern us here. Suffice to say it arose from a convergence between French philosophical epistemology, German hermeneutics, and American social sciences—a story I have described here.
[ii] Cole Hartin put his finger on this problem in an article last July for Mere Orthodoxy, titled “The Metaphysical Stalemate Behind Political Divisions.” Drawing on Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck’s diagnosis of intra-Christian divisions and applying it to America’s political disputes, Hartin observed that today’s political divisions have the character of “an inevitable stalemate, where both groups use competing sets of data to make sense of the world.” His article is worth reading as a penetrating psychological diagnosis of dynamics upstream of many hot-button issues today.Robin Phillips
has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/covid-era-controversies-and-communication-deadlock