Postmodernism: A Primer

Postmodernism is, at it’s base, a philosophical school of thought, with roots going all the way back to the work of Rene Descartes, in the early to mid 1600s.

Rene Descartes’ most famous philosophical thought was ‘Cogito ergo sum’, or ‘I think, therefore I am.’  Descartes was watching the enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, and he saw within it a potential to displace God.  Being very religious, Descartes began to look for a philosophical base for religion, and he came up with the notion that since we perceive the world through our senses, our senses can be fooled.  There could be a great trickster out there, he reasoned, who gives us all forms of sensory input, creating a reality like a dream, that does not actually exist.  If you think about the movie The Matrix, that’s what Descartes was talking about (minus the nasty robots and the ‘woke’ humans).  There was one thing, and one thing alone, Descartes said he knew with absolute certainty, and that was his personal existence.  We all, individually, know we exist – everything else could be some kind of dream world that only exists in our heads, or in the mind of some external entity trying to trick us.

Descartes used his philosophy to rationalize his belief in God, in a world that, to Descartes, was rapidly losing its need for God.  There have been many other philosophers since who have been influenced by Descartes.  One of them was Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher who was one of the creators of postmodernism, in the mid to late 1900s.  Jacques Derrida, who died in 2004, was another of the more influential early postmodernists.

Postmodernism started in the field of literature.  Words, postmodernists reasoned, have multiple definitions and can be interpreted multiple ways.  From this they reasoned that as words are put together into sentences, paragraphs, and books, the number of potential interpretations grows exponentially until there are an almost infinite number of ways to interpret what is written.  This is, of course, theoretically true.  If you can imagine a computer trying to determine what a book means, since a computer is not alive and cannot think, it would have to go through every possible combination of every possible definition for every word in the book, one at a time, to determine what the book means, and there would be no rational way to program the computer into choosing one interpretation over another (even if it were possible to get through them all).  This is all very true.  Postmodernists however go a bridge too far, and tell us that there is no objective way we, as living and thinking creatures, can choose one interpretation over another.

I have bad news for postmodernists:  when someone – anyone – reads the book Moby Dick, there is no way to avoid the fact that it is about a whaling boat captain who lost his leg to a particular whale, and is obsessed with killing that whale.  There is a lot of social commentary embedded in Moby Dick, and there are a number of ways to interpret some of the finer nuances, giving us much that we can discuss with regard to the subtleties of the book, but anyone who reads it will see the same basic story, rendering all but a few of the nearly infinite interpretations, completely irrelevant.

Another great computer problem – one which has already been solved – is that of finding the shortest route between two points, using roads.  People can look at a map and intuitively see that some possible routes are shorter than others.  I can see very easily for example that going from my home in Rochester Hills, MI, to downtown Detroit, should not take me through Chicago or Dallas.  I can, just by looking at a map, very quickly narrow down the number of possible routes to a select few.  Computers need to determine the best route by brute force, looking at every possible route (which is almost infinite), one by one, and comparing every one of them until they find the shortest.  Navigation systems work around this problem first by only looking for a good route (rather than the best), and also by using a database of pre-selected routes between points, as a base.  These programming tricks limit the calculations the computer must do to a manageable number.

Just as people have solved the problem of using computers for navigation along roadways, so too people will one day solve the problem of using computers to determine meaning from written words.  There are a number of firms actively working on this, and making great progress.

Not to be confined to language, postmodernism began to merge with Descartes, suggesting that everything we see or experience in the world around us is based on our perception of imperfect senses.  There are a nearly infinite number of possible ways to interpret what we sense, and to the postmodernist, there is no objective way to pick one interpretation over another.  There is some truth to this as well, which is why artificial intelligence struggles to make robots that can interact well with the world around them.  It would be impossible to try to interpret the world around us through computer code that compares every possible interpretation to look for the right one, and this is very true.  Postmodernism however then goes a bridge too far (again) and suggests that every possible interpretation is equal.

Just as people have solved the problem of using computers for navigation along our roadways, so too people will one day solve the problem of using computers to correctly interpret the world around them such that robots can interact with the world the way people do.  Postmodernists are wrong when they suggest that every possible interpretation is equal, but as with literature, they believe it anyway.

Descartes had a reason for coming up with ‘I think, therefore I am’.  Descartes was trying to find a rational reason to believe in God, in a world where he thought belief in God was becoming less and less important.  So too, around the time postmodernism came out, communism was becoming less and less viable as a legitimate economic argument.  The early postmodernists were also communists, and they created postmodernism as a means to bury their heads in the sand, and to continue to believe in communism in spite of the hundreds of millions of people communism killed in the 20th Century, and in spite of the fact that communism was imploding around them in the real world.

Unlike Descartes, postmodernists do not suggest that the world could be fake.  They merely make the world subjective.  I have my truths, based on how I interpret the world, and you have your truths, based on how you interpret the world.  Since all facts are truths based on perception, facts too become subjective.  We each have our own facts, and though mine may contradict yours, there is no objective way to determine which set of facts are correct.  They even rationalize away math, saying that to do math we have to interpret symbols written on a page.  There is no objective reason to interpret those symbols as numbers, let alone specific numbers.

There are two things postmodernists do believe in as absolutes.  One is that our sense of individualism is inherently linked to group affiliation, and that it is our group affiliation that defines us and not our individual identity.  They tie culture, for example, to ethnicity, telling us that we are invariably shaped by our cultural background (in which we were raised) and that we cannot separate from that no matter how hard we try.  Trying to separate from culture is actually forbidden in postmodernism – it is labeled ‘cultural appropriation’ and is considered racist.  All cultures are kept separate, and considered equal.

The other thing postmodernists believe in as an absolute, is power.  Each group seeks power over other groups, and any interaction between groups is a power struggle, even when not intentionally so.  Some groups have already gained relative power over other groups.  In our society, sis-gendered, straight, white men are the group postmodernists consider dominant.  Postmodernists believe in a hierarchy – almost a caste structure – of power, shaped like a diamond, with one dominant group at the top, one most-oppressed group at the bottom, and a myriad of groups between them that are more or less oppressed, on a relative scale.  The amount of power your group has is called ‘privilege’, and any success one has in life is either heroic (if done in spite of a lack of privilege), or is purely the result of privilege, with little or nothing owed to the one who succeeded.

If you want to see a postmodernist description of privilege, here is a short video that describes it:

Many of the things in that video are true.  Those who grow up in a two parent household do tend to do better, on a per capita basis, than those who do not.  Those who have parents who earn enough not to struggle with bills do tend to do better, on a per capita basis, than those who do not.  Really, the video only makes two falsehoods.  One is the comparison between life and a race with only one winner.  That is not how life works at all.  We all start at some point, and  it behooves all of us to try and improve our lives as best we can.  Those who are generous – and hopefully everyone is – can spend some of their productive capacity helping others, but only a fool stands where they start in life and refuses to lift a finger to try and to improve their outcomes.  In the video, a large number of people did not bother racing at all, being so far back that they had no chance of winning.  The message was ‘why bother?’

The video would have been more realistic if each person had a lane, and each lane had $20 bills spaced at set distances apart.  The race would have no finish line, but would continue farther than anyone had any chance of running.  Those with so-called ‘privilege’ would still advance first, and would gather the money they pass as they do.  When the race started, everyone would run, gathering as much money as they could in the process, until time was up.

Those with so-called privilege would still, on average, get more money than those without, but everyone would get money, and if they raced multiple times, starting each successive race where the last one ended, over time the fastest runners would work their way to the front.

The second thing wrong with the video is the notion that all so-called ‘privilege’ is random.  It is true that none of us determined our starting positions in life by ourselves.  Our parents had a lot to do with where we start, and their parents did a lot to help determine where they started.  People made decisions that affected our ancestors, and some of those decisions still have some effect on us today.  None of that is random, and in fact going forward, the decisions we make will affect our children.  Anyone who decides not to run is holding back, not only themselves, but their children as well.

It is however true that we do not all start on equal footing.  There has in fact never been a society where everyone started on an equal footing.  Equality in that sense is a fool’s errand; equal treatment under the law is the best mankind can achieve.

Postmodernism attempts to level the playing field by squeezing the power caste-system together until the top meets the bottom, and all identity groups are on the same level.  To do this, the groups on the top must be oppressed, and the groups on the bottom elevated.  Postmodernists believe it to be easy to tell when all of the groups have the same opportunities – they will also all have the same outcomes.

There is no reason for different identity groups to communicate, according to the postmodernist, other than to compete for power.  As such, to make things fair, speech should only occur upwards, with oppressed groups speaking their truths to those who oppress them.  Speaking from a position of privilege is an act of violence, as it only serves to protect power over those who most need to be heard.  Furthermore, any speech that forwards the interests of the privileged is by definition harmful to the oppressed, and is thus violence.  Self defense dictates that violence be met with violence, and as such oppressed groups are free to physically attack anyone who says anything that they perceive to hold them down, such as Ben Shapiro.  From this perspective, The Daily Libertarian could be considered a violent web site.  Absurd?  Yes.  But postmodernists believe it – hence, ANTIFA.

Enter the Descartes piece again, where all truths and facts are subjective.  You will never convince someone who has been bitten by the postmodernist bug that they are wrong, for whatever you tell them can be discredited out of hand as ‘your truths’ or ‘your facts’, and your truths are by definition less important than are the truths of oppressed groups.  ‘Check your privilege’ is the only argument a postmodernist needs.

Truths and facts, like speech, can only travel up the privilege caste system, and since there is no objective way to determine which truths are correct, other than through the lens of identity group power struggles, only the truths coming from the bottom of the privilege caste system count.

One obvious problem with this ideology is that oppressed people are the only ones who are allowed to determine how oppressed they are, and they can do so independently of all facts or reason.  Each group can make up whatever they ‘feel to be true’ on the fly.  This is where the so-called ‘alt-right’ comes from.  The alt-right is nothing more than a series of post-modernist groups who happen to be white, and who believe that other postmodernist groups are trying to oppress them.

Luckily for most postmodernists, there is one objective way they have found to determine fairness: ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’.  Postmodernism may have started with Descartes, but it ends with the Communist Manifesto.

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