During the last decades of the Twentieth Century, a new intellectual tendency rose to prominence. It appeared under various names, such as “poststructuralism” or “deconstructionism,” but it became generally known as “postmodernism.” The doctrine it advanced was radical and disconcerting. Instead of proposing a better and more accurate version of the truth, as countless new ideologies had done in the past, it questioned the very idea of truth, which, it maintained, changed according to social context and served the interests of those in power. Thinkers and savants who had claimed to seek or to have attained a detached and objective view of reality had been doing no such thing; they had actually been propounding ideas that benefited established authority and reinforced accepted prejudice.
“All thought is
“All thought is ideological...all knowledge is political.” This applied to science as well as to other departments of human knowledge. If anything, science was more culpable, because its influence and prestige were greater. Gleefully and incessantly, its postmodern detractors cited the racist, misogynistic, and homophobic theories that it had endorsed in the past and now recalled with acute embarrassment. They blamed it, not for a failure to employ scientific methodology with proper rigor, but for the methodology itself, for the very attempt to ascertain truth and understand reality with a dispassionate mind employing impartial means.
Postmodernism derided logic as no more preferable or more accurate than intuition or emotional conviction. It viewed reason as nothing but a “form of domination masquerading as rational,” and in some circles, the very word “rational” became as pejorative as the word “elitist.” Occasionally one even heard denunciations of clear writing as being contrary to “complex and critical thinking.”
By the arrival of the Twenty-first Century, the postmodern stance had achieved the status of orthodoxy in many parts of the academic world, where it had come to be considered a mark “of intellectual sophistication and moral rectitude.” As the dean of a school of psychology declared, “Twenty-five years ago, we were convinced that science could allow us to know everything. Now...we think we cannot know anything.” Papers in the scholarly journals of the humanities and social sciences regularly appear with the words “truth” and “objectivity” set off by ironic quotation marks. The same is often true for “fact,” “knowledge,” and “evidence.” In some classes, students’ papers are graded down if they fail to put quotes around the word “reality.”
While postmodernism has naturally aroused much opposition from partisans of the right, it has also stirred up protests from those on the other side of the political spectrum. With much earnest distress, they insist that they themselves are by no means conservatives or reactionaries, and that they believe in the same progressive social goals and programs as the postmodernists. They concede that postmodernism has done useful and valuable work in excoriating the vile purposes that science has at times served and in exposing the pernicious motives that have often hidden beneath the professed search for truth. But the effort has gone too far, they complain. Instead of doubting truth, scorning science, disparaging logic, and avoiding clear, forceful prose, their postmodern comrades should accept these things with enthusiasm and use them against the lies, prejudices, irrationality, and obscurantism of their enemies on the right.
Truth can be
“a weapon of
the right” and
a “source of
Such is the criticism that ordinary, well-meaning liberals have directed at postmodernism. Their naive faith is touching, but one may wonder where they have been for the last few decades. They assume that reality (and thus truth, along with the means for attaining it, like logic, reason, etc.) is fundamentally and inevitably on their side, the side that both they and the postmodernists share; whereas in fact the very opposite is the case. Reality has been giving them a continual battering ever since the enthusiasms of the 1960s cooled down.[ 1 ]
Many of those actively engaged in the struggle have sensed that something basic was going wrong. When they attempted to advance their cause by utilizing scientific proof, rational argument, logical analysis, and clear evidence, they have more often than not seen their political opponents take up these very implements and employ them with greater effect. In the agony of discomfiture, some of the combatants on the left have been driven to realize and even to exclaim in dismay that truth can be “a weapon of the right” and a “source of oppression.”
In the midst of so desperate a situation, a desperate strategy was needed, and postmodernism has provided one: demote the truth. It does not seek to abolish truth entirely, although postmodernists may sometimes sound as if that were their goal. After all, one wants to be able to resort to the truth when it happens to be on one’s side, so postmodernism provides for truth to be used selectively, at one’s discretion and choosing. It does this by weakening the authority of the truth. Formerly, truth trumped all other values; now, according to postmodernism, it is only one of a number of values, others of which may on occasion outweigh it. The possession of high idealistic motives is thereby able to trump a claim to the truth. From this perspective, the foremost consideration in discourse and debate becomes, not whether something can be presented as accurate or logical, but whether it can be viewed as promoting progressive rather than reactionary or conservative social values.
A striking example of this metaphysical gerrymandering, as it may be called, occurred during a panel discussion held at New York University in 1996. The question arose as to the distinction between Native American creationism and Christian fundamentalist creationism. A number of people on the left had rejected the scientific theory that the ancestors of Indians migrated across the Bering Strait to America and had accepted instead the Indian myth that their ancestors had always been present in the Western Hemisphere, having “sprung from the earth.” If leftists were willing to believe that, asked a member of the audience, why shouldn’t they also accept the Christian fundamentalists’ assertion that God had created the earth and all its inhabitants during a single week around ten thousand years ago? Andrew Ross, a prominent postmodernist, was not at a loss for an answer. He explained that the difference lay in “the inequality of power relations” between Native Americans and white Christians, the former being the most “screwed over” and “marginalized” minority in the history of the United States. Thus victim status trumps truth.
This kind of thinking and arguing is more a spontaneous tendency than a conscious and deliberate application of philosophical doctrine. It is a way that a growing number of idealistic people have found for coping with an increasingly uncongenial reality. Although their strategy may be conveniently referred to as postmodern, most of those who employ it do not necessarily think of themselves as postmodernists and may have little or no knowledge of the formal theories of the postmodern school. But even if the phenomenon is not explicitly identified or labeled, it is widespread in many academic institutions as an actual mode of argumentation.
To support a doctrine by citing facts and evidence can often be a difficult and disappointing task. Evidence may prove inadequate, and facts may turn out to be adverse. How much easier it is simply to assert that one is on the side of the angels. When criticism is rampant and the strength of one’s position is dubious, how reassuring it is to be able to declare, as did Martin Bernal, the author of Black Athena, that, even if his theories could not be proved right or wrong, they were superior to those of others “on ethical grounds,” because his, unlike theirs, agreed with “the general liberal preferences of academia.” This is a commonplace stance among scholars these days: proclaiming an idea to be superior or inferior according to whether it is on the right or the wrong side politically, socially, and morally.
The important thing
is what’s in your
heart, not what’s
in your head, if
Equipped with so convenient a club of authority, some professors have not been delicate in using it on mere students. Questioning left-wing views that proceed from the lectern is likely to provoke, not a “dispassionate examination of the issues at hand,” but an outright assault on the rash questioner’s “moral character and integrity.” This, of course, is in accord with the postmodern tendency: the important thing is what’s in your heart, not what’s in your head, if anything.
A few decades ago, it was an orthodox belief among academics that their disinterested pursuit of the truth would result in an accumulation of verified knowledge, which would in turn assist the effort to improve the human condition. Although the ensuing years have seen many advancements in the material circumstances of life, the higher goals of idealism, such as economic equality and a mass elite, seem as distant as ever. Animated by an awareness of this failure, a growing number of professors have given up on the attempt to determine objective reality and have instead become more deliberately and directly engaged in what they regard as the promotion of a better society.
When their research turns up something that will advance a politically progressive agenda, they are eager to study it and quick to broadcast their discoveries. When, however, they find something that threatens to do the opposite, they are just as quick, if not quicker, to ignore and conceal it. Some of them have publicly, emphatically, and righteously declared that if they ever encounter anything that they might regard as possibly having a socially damaging influence—such as evidence of the unattractive characteristics of a minority group—they would, as a matter of moral principle, refuse to publish it. So much for academia’s old vow and vaunt: to advance the discovery of the truth no matter where it leads. Truth is not so good or so important as to deserve such blind devotion, as postmodernism now admonishes.
of two cogent
Those who fail to obey this new ethical agenda receive sharp disapproval and actual coercion from its zealous adherents. One professor of psychology warned his colleagues that if they venture into controversial areas like “daycare, sexual behavior, childhood memories, [or] the treatment of substance abuse,” they may find themselves subjected to “vilification, harassment, intervention by politicians, and physical assault.” Even a subject as seemingly innocuous as left-handedness can prove dangerous. When two psychologists “published statistics in a medical journal, showing that lefties on average had more prenatal and perinatal complications, are victims of more accidents, and die younger than righties,” they were attacked with “the threat of a lawsuit, numerous death threats, and a ban on the topic in a scholarly journal—from enraged left-handers and their advocates.”
If this is the reaction to politically incorrect discoveries on such a marginal subject, it is no wonder that scholars become acutely nervous handling more sensitive and inflammatory matters. When one sociologist was doing a study on children’s attitudes toward work and found that those of blacks were much different than those of whites, he simply discarded the racial data he had collected. Such an action has not been at all unusual, prompted as it is by a persuasive combination of two cogent motives, low prudence and high-minded idealism.
Suppressing unfavorable evidence is not a new practice, even—or, one might say, especially—in issues involving elevated moral purpose. Neither is shifting one’s ground when one is getting the worst of an argument, nor is applying double standards to avoid being caught in an unfavorable situation. Only now, postmodernism allows its followers and their allies to employ these underhanded tactics with a clear conscience. Reassured by the postmodernist conviction that truth is uncertain and changeable—being relative, contextual, and contingent in its very nature—double-dealing idealists can play fast and loose with the truth whenever they find it convenient to do so, in the confidence that such a minor and fluctuating obstacle should not hinder them in the advancement of their noble goals and lofty aspirations.
The entire enterprise
of postmodernism is
permeated with an
odor of dishonesty and
During the course of their checkered and often adverse fortunes, they have had much need for this assistance. The issue of free speech is a case in point. Years ago, when the United States was still in the grip of the fears and repressions of the Cold War, idealistic leftists strove long and passionately to defend the right of free speech. They often repeated the classic argument that by allowing the expression of all ideas—even those which many people considered deleterious and reprehensible, such as Communism—the best ideas would emerge obvious and victorious. Then, with the arrival of the 1990s, the sudden popularity of multiculturalism and political correctness lifted these previously defensive combatants to an unexpected position of power, and they immediately began proclaiming that there were certain ideas—specifically those critical of minorities—which were so deleterious and reprehensible as to deserve, require, and demand suppression and punishment. The former champions of free speech became the energetic inquisitors and eager prosecutors of bad speech. And so they no doubt would have remained to the present day, but in 2001 the terrorist attacks of September 11 occurred. When a number of pundits and professors on the left responded in a way that many Americans viewed as insufficiently patriotic, degenerately perverse, or even outrightly treasonous, and politicians began to threaten them with censorship and dismissal, radical activists and their liberal allies at once reverted to the old position. Loudly and righteously they revived the cry for freedom of speech and insisted that it should include even speech which some members of the public might regard as deleterious and reprehensible.
However successful such maneuvering has proved in the short run, it has created lasting odium and mistrust. The tergiversations over free speech may seem entirely justifiable to a staunch idealist of the left, since with each shift of position he remains an advocate of what he regards as the highest cause in play at the moment, and that, from a postmodern perspective, is more important than ideological consistency. But to those who do not share his assumptions, his behavior seems like nothing but low opportunism. His paramount concern is obviously for one kind of speech only—his own. When he is in a position of weakness, as a tactical move, he will advocate free speech as a general principle. When he is in a position of power, he will discard the rhetoric of free speech and become as ferocious a suppressor of enemy ideas as the anti-Communist right-wingers were when they were in power, although he may accompany his repressive actions with much more denial, hypocrisy, and idealistic rationalization.
One of the main causes
of bad writing...is a
desire and perception.
The entire enterprise of postmodernism is permeated with an odor of dishonesty and deception, including self-deception, an obvious symptom of which can be found in the style of the prose it produces. One of the main causes of bad writing, perhaps even its chief cause, is a disjunction between desire and perception: what the writer wants to believe contradicts what his actual experience tells him, and in his effort to bridge the gap between the two, his writing suffers, since it must now perform the function of deception rather than elucidation. This is especially the case in higher education today, being the bastion of postmodernism and its project of demoting truth and disparaging reality.
Academic prose has always tended toward the ponderous and pretentious, but in the past two or three decades, as many have noticed, it has taken a turn for the worse, with a proliferation of sesquipedalian jargon, excruciating circumlocutions, vague abstractions, clotted syntax, and long, tortuous sentences. Since the mid-1990s, there has been an annual Bad Writing Contest, in which university publications inevitably emerge with top honors. The winners and the runners-up are often postmodernists outright or at least authors who have been influenced by postmodern ways of thought and explication.
Impenetrable prose functions as a form of defense, like a squid’s ink, concealing those who produce it from their enemies. To step forward with a clearly stated position into the open arena of intellectual combat is to risk being crushed and humiliated. The guerrilla fighters of the left have learned from bitter experience to avoid that situation. Throughout the 1990s (as one of their allies has noted), with each attack from their right-wing opponents, their own writing became more egregiously convoluted and evasive.
From time to time, despite all their obscurantism and obfuscation, the postmodernists have been caught out. Probably the most embarrassing incident of exposure was the Sokal Hoax. In 1994, the physicist Alan Sokal, a liberal in the traditional mode, wrote a paper stuffed full of postmodern cant and posturing, but also deliberately larded with scientific gibberish and errors of the most elementary kind. Social Text, the foremost journal of postmodern opinion, was no doubt elated to have an actual scientist appear on its side and published the paper with much seriousness and fanfare. When the hoax was revealed, it created a storm of ridicule and criticism. Some of the postmodernists retreated in confusion and embarrassment. Others proved more staunch and brazen. Acting in accord with their doctrines, they attacked the motives of their opponents.