Conservatives Don’t Hate Postmodernism
“Postmodernism is just a form of artistic criticism,” Michael Barnard writes. This is not true. While it certainly is a form of artistic criticism, and Barnard gives a good description of what postmodern criticism is in literature, art, and architecture, postmodernism is clearly more than just a form of artistic criticism. It’s a form of cultural and political criticism, too, and that’s where conservatives find their disagreements.
Relativism is not a lesser thread of postmodernism. It represents a very important shift from modernism to postmodernism. I cannot stress enough just how important this shift was. In modernism, there was only one right way, ultimately. There was only one Truth. The introduction of relativism changed that. Importantly, relativism was not a theory thought up by an academic in one of those dusty halls, but — as any anthropologist will tell you — relativism comes from the data. It’s simply impossible to look at anthropological data and to conclude that there are not multiple ways of living that may or may not be just as good, if not better, than one another.
Now, I won’t go into detail here, but if you’re interested, I have written a full article on moral relativism here. Briefly, relativism is defined incorrectly, by both the left and the right. And Barnard actually gets closer to the truth than most: when he says “knowledge, truth, and morality [among many other elements] exist in relation to culture, society, or [and] historical culture and are not absolute,” he defines relativism pretty accurately. But too often, the assumption is then made that there is no truth outside of these relations. Put simply, relativism means that each culture has a way of looking at the truth (which exists,) but each culture sees it differently, and in a limited way. We cannot say how much truth each culture sees, nor which parts of their culture are seeing the truth clearly. But this does not mean the truth does not exist, simply because our ways of looking are limited.
I’m going to jump down Barnard’s article and address science before moving on to the authoritarian section, because that’s related to the paragraph above. Part of the postmodern view is this relativism, this “way of looking.” Science is not outside of that, and so it would be wrong to call it objective. Science is a way of looking, just like any other. It does not give us more access than any other way of looking. Does it work tremendously well in our time and place? Absolutely. Does reducing science from objective fact to a “way of looking” make it any less viable, powerful, or truthful? No. But it’s a more honest way of recognizing both the positives and the limitations of a scientific worldview/way of looking.
Now, to Barnard’s point about conservatives disliking the lack of authority: I think this is a good point. I would like to point out some unjust clumping, however. Jordan Peterson, one of Barnard’s “right-wing postmodernity-haters” (and a ferocious hater of it he is!), recognizes this and describes it with great clarity, based off work with fellow psychologist Jonathon Haidt (from the book The Righteous Mind.) If we think of authority in terms of hierarchies: conservatives like rigid hierarchies, liberals like to break free from those hierarchies (and therefore also make new ones. You cannot escape the hierarchy.) Barnard does well to point this out, although as Haidt (a liberal who has worked with Obama) explains well in his book, this is not a result of conservatives being evil people, or stupid, or wrong, or preferring a lack of freedom. It’s a psychological difference. It’s not that “conservatives must have hierarchies!” but people who are more inclined to prefer the structure and hierarchies are more likely to be conservatives. It’s less evil-right-wingers and more psychological, uncontrollable factors. (This also explains why communication between the left and right is so horrendous.)
And before we leave Jordan Peterson, he’s actually not a Christian by any stretch of the imagination. He’s certainly fascinated by the Bible and the stories within, but he’s always approaching them from a psychological perspective. He sees them as “stories that have passed the test of time,” not words inspired by God. And when he was pressed on his religious beliefs, he would not claim that Jesus Christ was the true Son of God (which seems like a pretty integral element of the Christian belief.) His paradigm, or way of looking, is actually more closely aligned with a purely scientific method than any religious beliefs.
So, finally, what do conservatives really hate? Anything remotely Marxist, communist, or socialist. And the core philosophers of postmodernism, such as Jacques Derrida (Jordan Peterson’s nemesis,) Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean-Paul Sartre, were well within that group. Are postmodernism and marxism/communism necessarily linked? Not really. If people read a little deeper instead of digging up the superficial slogans of 20th Century European philosophy, they might find that out.
I hope this clears some things up. This was a whirlwind tour through some very complex topics, so feel free to respond with questions and, more importantly, criticisms, and I will be more than happy to respond with clarifications, questions, and thoughts.
Thank you for your post, Michael.
Engage. Listen. Love.