Paralysis of judgment

Postmodernism may be dead as a philosophical movement, but the idea that truth is relative continues to eat away at our civilization.

by T. Nelson


Paralysis of judgment

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
by T Nelson

T he postmodernists believed, or claimed to believe, that all knowledge is a narrative: a political story specifically designed to protect the status quo and written solely for its effect, without any regard for the truth. Any truth that claimed to be factual, they claimed, was at best relative. This means we can never know the truth about anything, only lies. Although the postmodernists have since moved on to more interesting ideas, the ideas they left behind are like an acid that continues to dissolve our civilization.

Thus we had self-professed historians who deliberately made implausible claims that they insisted were the truth, while real historians said little or nothing in defense, assuming the claims were so ridiculous that they would disappear of their own accord.


We had news media outlets who deliberately made up false news stories to influence elections. Most people remember Rathergate, when a major news network “discovered” a fake national guard memo purportedly discrediting President G. W. Bush just a few weeks before the election. That a national news network would lie in an attempt to try to subvert the democratic process in the most powerful and respected country in the world was considered ... not much of a story. It had become expected.

This is more than just corruption. The postmodernist idea that truth is relative had worked its way into truth-communicating organizations and begun to destroy them without their knowledge.

In the universities, pseudo-historians virtually succeeded in discrediting the concept of history. Sure, there are some physical facts, like the existence of Napoleon Bonaparte, that most people still believe to be true. But much of history has become political. We are no longer sure which ones can be trusted.

This did not happen by accident. Without a shared concept of history, we have no past. Did blacks build the Great Pyramids? Did the Arabs invent the zero? Was Columbus a great explorer or a mass murderer, as Howard Zinn portrayed him? Is it reasonable to conclude “How crude we are!”, as one student wrote in the margin of her copy of Zinn's book?

We ignore these questions, because there is no way of getting a definitive answer, or if we did get one, somebody somewhere would be offended by it. History has become politicized, which means your answer depends on who you are: whether you are a white, or an Indian, or a female. The process of establishing historical facts has been corrupted. As a result there is no common, shared concept of who we are as a people. And that, from the beginning, was the postmodernists' goal.

For historians to make their opinions clear in the public mind is considered unprofessional. Their professionalism remains intact, but by not clarifying their positions they have, in effect, conceded defeat.

The same is true with the daily news. If it's impossible to know whether any particular news story is true or fabricated, we have no concept of the present. Not only do we lack a shared concept of what is really happening in the world, but we eventually come to accept that a factual grasp of the world's true situation is impossible. So we retreat into conspiracy theories, simmering resentment, or apathy.

If there is no objective truth, then (as others have argued) there is no way to assign value. So we have entertainers who are famous for no discernable reason whatsoever, and nobody thinks it strange. The greatest cultural achievement of 2013, apparently, was the invention of twerking. This is what the civilization that gave us Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and NBC's My Mother the Car has come to. Maybe our cultural leaders can't tell the difference between quality and garbage, or maybe they don't care.

Even in science, which more than any other field has a solid and unassailable epistemological basis, there are people chipping away at the edges. The global warming debate, for instance, has become so politicized that many skeptics would doubt any new data, believing, probably with good reason, that it might well be faked. Warmers seem to be mainly concerned not with questioning why their computer models failed, but with maintaining their funding and calling their opponents nasty names.

No doubt this seems like an inaccurate perception to a professor of climatology hard at work grading papers in his office somewhere. He or she is above such petty politics, and would regard it as unprofessional to insist that others in the profession carry out their dialog with decorum and rigor. But whether we recognize it or not, the profession of science, too, is starting to dissolve in the corrosive acid of politics.

The effect of all this is a paralysis of judgment. In the absence of knowledge, the ordinary citizen cannot take any action or even make any value judgment that would support an action. With no way to know the truth, we are paralyzed. And that is why it is happening.

Of course, the idea that truth is relative is self-contradictory, which is why postmodernism ultimately self-immolated. But its goal of undermining the credibility of the institutions that create knowledge lives on. Journalism, especially, has had its credibility severely damaged.

Not everyone may realize just how prevalent the postmodern corruption of the idea of truth is, but everyone is familiar with its cousin, cultural relativism.

Evidently there are schoolchildren today so steeped in cultural relativism that they cannot bring themselves to say that Nazism was a bad thing. Indeed, the standard viewpoint has become the idea that the Nuremberg trials were nothing more than an act of self-congratulation by the “winners,” meaning little more than a post-touchdown spike in football. The implication is that WWII was just another struggle for power among political elites.

Just as relativism destroys the concept of right and wrong, the postmodern virus destroys the concept of true and false.

If there were such a thing as a shared sense of right and wrong, I might even say at this point that allowing the concept of truth to be stolen from us would be “wrong.“ But, even when it's in quotes, the word feels out of place. It feels like a bad sign, to the extent that “bad“ has any objective meaning, and insofar as there is any such thing as “objective meaning.“

But even if we are not steeped in Western philosophy well enough to create a new epistemology, we can still fight the trend. When a questionable finding gets distributed into the press, scientists can speak loudly and angrily before the false discovery becomes widely accepted by the masses as truth. Historians can express indignation when the integrity of their profession is threatened by charlatans. Ignoring them, as we have done in the past, only allows the cancer to spread.

The alternative is to allow what happened to history spread through our entire culture like a cancer, leaving us in a place where our entertainers feel free to call us nasty names and tell us the world will be better off when we're dead, and we're used to it. Without a shared understanding of who we are, how we got here, what is really going on, or whether we're good or bad, and afraid to discriminate between art and rubbish, the very soul of our civilization starts to wither. Eventually we will all grow to hate it and wish its destruction. To paraphrase an expression from the Bush era, at that point the postmodernists will have won.

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jan 22, 2014