My department has an ample supply of postmodernists. I have had a problem with their ideas since the start, but I think I can finally explain what that problem is.
In reading and talking to postmodernists I am seeing two distinct arguments:
- Epistemological: There is no such thing as objective truth; the very concept of truth is outdated and counterproductive.
- Ideological: Because there is no truth, all perspectives or opinions have equal weight. The corrolary to this in most cases is that any argument based on a truth claim is de facto oppressive to all other claims and, by extension, the groups that make them.
I can mostly buy the first part. I say mostly only because I do believe that there are some basic truths in the natural world. For example, I believe that it is objectively true that if I step in front of an oncoming bus within a certain distance (ie too short for it to stop) and stand there, I will get hit by said bus. I’m pretty sure every postmodernist has some beliefs of this nature, otherwise they would have all stepped in front of buses by now and I wouldn’t have to think about this kind of thing.
When it comes to human beings in response to one another and things that don’t involve the laws of physics, I do believe there is more room for subjectivity. We all agree that Bhutto was shot and died yesterdays, but interpretation of that event and reaction to it are different depending on a persons perspective, history, current context, beliefs and values.
I do NOT believe the search for truth or at least accuracy is counterproductive, but I also don’t think that it is sufficient.
Having said all that, my disagreement is with part 2 of the definition. I do not believe that all perspectives or opinions have equal weight and I doubt most postmodernists do either.
I agree that many voices have been completely silenced using objective truth as a gag, but that doesn’t mean that all of those voices had equally important things to say. A good example of this is religion.
Most postmodernists would say that all religions deserve equal respect and acknowledgment; that each has something useful to say and should be heard. Yet most would also scoff at a Pastafarian wanting their voice heard on equal footing as a Muslim. Is FSM a “real” (i.e. true) religion? Who gets to decide? And if we can never decide (see point 1) than how can you justify including one church and not everything else that calls itself a church?
Most people would say that there are “real” religions (say, Judiasm) and “made up” religions (say, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster). Yet where does Scientology fall into that? Is it a real religion because it has rich followers? Lots of followers? It certainly isn’t old. Is it based on the intention of the creator? Do we KNOW that L. Ron Hubbard didn’t mean Scientology as either a huge joke or a money-making machine?
The idea that if we accept one we must accept all as valid is where I start to have real problems. Those problems are compounded with the general contention that any attempt to put forth any form of truth is not just incorrect but also oppressive. That’s a HUGE step as far as I’m concerned. Maybe this is my libertarian ideology coming through but I see no conflict between saying “There is no God” and “but you can believe in him if you want to”. My atheism doesn’t oppress anyone else and, for that matter, my Mother’s Catholicism stopped oppressing me when I moved out of the house and stopped going to church. The overwhelming Christianity of this country doesn’t stop me from practicing my atheism; am I oppressed anyway?
Yes, there are many historical examples of “the truth” being used in an oppressive manner, but the implication that the purpose was oppression rankles me. Human motivation is complex and we rarely do something for only one reason. The “fact” that women are “less intelligent” than men was long used to keep women in the home and out of the work force, but the reason for that effort wasn’t exclusively to keep women from financial independence. There were many other reasons; biological (physical strength differences, ability to nurse a baby), genetic (nurturing instinct), societal (education not provided to women, traditional roles), the nature of work (farming vs. manufacturing vs. information). These reasons all played a roll in the emergence of that “oppression” and as they changed so did the situation.
I’m not trying to say that there aren’t oppressed groups. There certainly are, with that oppression being more or less severe, rising or falling over time, and being maintained by a variety of mechanisms.
But one shouldn’t attribute malice to something better explained by ignorance or insensitivity. The movement from “X happens” to “X happens and it is oppression” (a value judgment) to me is too large to justify in any universal way.
I welcome comments on my thinking here; I’m not as versed in either philosophy or history as I feel I need to be to properly argue this, but I do feel as though my thinking is starting to crystallize on the issue and would appreciate feedback on how I am expressing it.