The Phenomenon of Postmodernism

Introduction to worldviews and postmodernism

The term "postmodern" is quite overused, being applied in many areas from art to architecture to culture. In its most general sense, it refers to an era of thought that came after the modern era, which ended around 1960, and is with us today. (Think of it as corresponding to later Baby Boomers, and Generations X and Y.) I shall use the term "postmodern" in the cultural sense only, not in an academic or artistic sense. It is not the view of every American, only of a significant portion. Furthermore, it is a generalization, so not everyone who holds a largely postmodern view will have every characteristic described here.

Restricted thusly, postmodernism is a worldview, or a pair of glasses through which people filter the information they take in, and hence which acts to constrain their subsequent words and actions. A more eloquent definition of a worldview is given by Schaeffer [1]:

People have presuppositions, and they will live more consistently on the basis of these presuppositions than even they themselves may realize. By presuppositions we mean the basic way an individual looks at life, his basic world view, the grid through which he sees the world. Presuppositions rest upon that which a person considers to be the truth of what exists [and] lay a grid for all they bring forth into the external world. Their presuppositions also provide the basis for their values and therefore the basis for their decisions…

Most people catch their presuppositions from their family and surrounding society the way a child catches measles. But people with more understanding realize that their presuppositions should be chosen after a careful consideration of what world view is true."

Schaeffer understates the situation regarding self-awareness of worldviews. Few people can even name a single one, let alone characterize their own view. Most confuse the concept of a worldview with their political or religious views, yet a worldview underlies both.

Those who understand worldviews have a powerful tool not just for understanding themselves, but for comprehending what makes other people tick. Just as shaking marbles in a box will cause them to assume the tightest-fitting arrangement after a while, people's beliefs also settle into consistent patterns that can be characterized and categorized. Most people cannot easily hold 10 well-fitting views and one that radically contradicts them. This natural consistency allows someone in the know to extrapolate what someone likely believes about a particular topic, given only knowledge of what they believe in other areas. [2]

Worldviews underlie everything

Some explanation is required for the statement that worldviews underlie even a person's religious and political beliefs. Consider the issue of abortion within the confines of Christianity in America. The same Bible is shared by both liberal and conservative Christians, yet Christianity is divided over abortion. How is this possible if religion is the lowest level of belief? Rather, these (mostly hidden) presuppositions govern how people subsequently view the Bible and church doctrine. These steer Biblical interpretation and beliefs about the "shoulds" and "oughts" of society. Thus, people with differing worldviews will conclude diametrically opposing things about higher-level issues like abortion.

Fundamentals of postmodernism

Essentially, postmodernism represents the disillusionment over the failure of modernism to fulfill its promises. Modernism believed that the world was an orderly place that science would fully unravel. Man could largely control his own destiny, and would figure out the best moral course to chart. It was even stated by some that disease and poverty would be defeated on our planet. After World War II and its Holocaust, it was plain that this optimism was completely unfounded.

Postmodernism was born out of this disillusionment. It consists chiefly of these components.

The absence of absolutes

Postmodernism eschews belief in absolute truths. Little-publicized polls show this to be true, and the number of Americans rejecting absolutes has been on the rise. Modernism taught that science (not God, as in pre-modern worldviews) would provide absolutes to govern mankind. But without God, any absolutes are sterile and artificial. If they were made by man, then man could rewrite them at any time, hence they were not absolute. Postmodernism simply codifies this logical consequence.

Rejection of absolutes in the area of morals is best known by the buzz-phrase "moral relativism". "Tolerance" and "Don't push your morality on me!" are its characteristic slogans. Despite the obvious contradiction that it produces, there are individuals who will even assert that there are no absolutes. (Yet those same individuals will go so far as to judge those who still hold absolutes as evil.)

Subjectivism

Subjectivism is a reliance on emotion to determine what will be accepted as right or real. This coheres with relativism, in that it allows everyone to have his or her own perception of right and wrong. It adds another dimension, however, by elevating emotion above the intellect. Liberalism makes good use of this, substituting emotion-laden words and the politics of "caring" for substantive solutions to problems.

One example of the shift to subjectivism is in the area of marriage. Several generations ago, marriage was considered a solemn commitment, and genuine love was the act of keeping that commitment. This love was of a more permanent nature than capricious romantic love, which was viewed as a passing (yet pleasant) fad of youth. In contrast, love today is defined as the emotion and nothing more, and the strength of a marital commitment is equated with the strength of that emotion. When the flames burn low, the marriage is in danger of collapse, having no solid foundation.

Anti-intellectualism

The failure of modernism to fulfill its promises caused one more cultural reaction: anti-intellectualism. This belief is manifested in a reduced desire to see ideas tested against reality, and in a rejection of reason as a means to extend one's understanding. This can be witnessed in university curricula, where courses having little basis in reality are not uncommon. Religions such as the New Age could not have become popular in an era that still valued the use of the intellect.

Corollary beliefs

From these basic tenets of postmodernism, stem a number of closely related phenomena:

Childishness as a replacement for goodness

When people reject absolutes, the basis for a proper of goodness (or dare I say, righteousness) is lost. Postmodernism replaces it with immaturity. I'm not simply referring to the bumper stickers, popular a few years back, that said, "I refuse to grow up!" I am instead referring to the belief that being like a child (and having the naivete that goes with it) is the path that will return us to goodness and innocence.

One place this can be seen is Hollywood's incessant lecturing that adults have more to learn from children than vice versa. Movies such as "Big", "Forrest Gump" (both starring Tom Hanks), and "Jack" (Robin Williams) feature wisdom dispensed from the young to the old. Even the opening ceremony from the Nagano Olympics featured the song, "When Children Rule the World," which spoke of how wonderful that would be. Various peace and pacifist movements are additional examples [3].

Compartmentalization of standards

Relativism allows for separation of a person's character into as many compartments as needed. No absolutes remain to govern the whole person. No God remains, who sees in secret.

The best recent example of this is ex-President Bill Clinton. Half of the American people were able to separate his public and private life in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They insisted that he could tell the truth about matters of state, despite being able to lie (publicly) about the most important private relationship. This is foolish; a person's public behavior is driven from their inner life, not the other way around.

"If it feels good, do it!"

Moral relativism opens the way to unbridling the passions. If something is instinctively desirable, and does not cause easily detectable harm, then it should be permitted. Morals of a bygone era can be ignored, according to postmodernism.

How does such a worldview survive?

Given the blatantly illogical nature of postmodernism, one wonders how it could survive as a popular worldview. But this is not such a mystery if one reads carefully what I wrote earlier: worldviews tend to have internal consistency. I did not say that they had to be consistent with the real world, or that any two postmodern individuals had to agree between themselves. In fact, relativism smoothes over the rough edges between people by making it unacceptable to hold absolutes or to make them public if one does.

Only in a time of great prosperity could such a system survive. Increased wealth allows a larger fraction of people to make bad personal decisions (indicating a disconnect with reality), and yet suffer so little. Hence the belief system inflicts little harm, and its holder is not forced to re-examine it.

It is no coincidence that postmodernism began in academic circles. Academics will research and teach, but (except for the sciences) where are their views regularly tested against reality? It is not surprising therefore, that a worldview so disconnected from reality would originate with people whose feet rarely touch the earth. (See [4] for many examples of patently false ideas that have originated in academia.)

Where it leads

As with any worldview, postmodernism has implications. The following are a few.

The generation gap and shifting culture

Rejection of transcendent things leaves little to which a culture can be anchored. Hence, our society's ways are evolving noticeably in as little as one generation. This creates a gap of communication and understanding between the generations. This is new; no reference to a "generation gap" can be found before the 20th century.

In fairness, part of the blame for this must be laid at the feet of technologies which allow people to easily separate themselves. For example, consider broadcast communications and the availability of inexpensive electronic devices for receiving these broadcasts. In the 1920's families gathered in the living room and listened to the same radio broadcast because a household owned but one radio. Today, each family member has their own radio, music collection, and quite possibly their own TV. Thus, each family member can receive a unique stream of information, disconnected completely from that of every other family member. Couple this with the shift from an agrarian society--where culture transmission was ensured by the fact that fathers and sons worked together, and mothers and daughters likewise--to an industrial/information society. Today, mothers, fathers and children all go separate ways at 7:30 each weekday morning. Surveys demonstrate that more evening time is spent with the TV, than together as family but apart from a TV.

This combination of factors allows our culture to shift more rapidly than at any other time in human history. As evidence, just since the 1940's, nearly four out of five common social customs and elements of courtesy have been abandoned.

Failure to teach and learn history

Anti-intellectualism, relativism, and the generation gap combine to produce a dangerous lack of interest in the lessons of history. This is evident both in a failure to teach it properly in public schools, and a lack of interest on the part of recipients.

This reaction is partly understandable, given the horrors of World War II. It must surely have seemed as though everything up to that time was one big mistake. Nevertheless, all of history holds lessons that should not be lost.

Troubled youth

The dismissal of a relatively fixed set of standards is trouble for the young, who naturally thrive on consistency and fairness [5]. Moral consistency and social convention provide a needed basis for getting along with adults and peers, and finding a satisfying path through life. With postmodernism, this is taken away from our youth.

Exceptional groups

Two primary groups seem to resist postmodernism better than the rest. Scientists are one. Since science concerns itself with the physical world, there is a decreased tendency to believe that reality is malleable to suit one's feelings. Modernism, which taught optimism regarding man's ability to control nature, is a good fit with science. Most scientists therefore are not fully postmodern.

Conservative Christianity is the other. It retains a commitment to moral absolutes that govern the whole person. It rejects use of the emotions as a basis for deciding what is real, and does not forsake the intellect in the pursuit of understanding.

Conclusion

Postmodernism has the following unfortunate characteristics:

- It leads to situational ethics, difficulties in holding public leaders accountable, and difficulties in dealing with others on a personal level.
- Society-strengthening institutions like marriage that depend on constant values over time are threatened.
- Feelings are used as a guide, which leads to disillusionment and pain when the emotions change for no apparent reason.
- It leads to a culture that can change its standards in less than one generation's time, contributing to the generation gap and other problems.
- It stalls the transmission of history and culture between generations, and hence is destabilizing.
- It leads to great diversity of belief in people, and hence to a lack of societal unity.

Such a belief system is clearly a threat to a nation's liberty and prosperity, and should be rejected by all who can comprehend its flaws.


Notes.

[1] Schaeffer, Francis A., How Should We Then Live?, The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, Crossway Books, 1976, ISBN 0-89107-292-6.

[2] At this point, I'm sure the reader can think of anecdotal cases of someone who holds mostly liberal views, except for one conservative view, or vice versa. However, anecdotal evidence does not disprove a general thesis. As supporting evidence for my claim, one need merely consider the wealth of demographic and polling information available to see great consistency in how groups of Americans think. Politicians and advertisers--who know how to manipulate people--use such data with success.

[3] I refer to peace and pacifist movements as naïve because of their simplistic view of world issues. It is agreed that pacifism can work when the oppressor is unwilling or unable to inflict mass death. Consider the civil rights movement of the 1960's in this country, or India in the 1940's. However, in the face of a completely brutal oppressor (think of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, and their treatment of Jews), passive resistance is suicide. Peace movement members seem to think that world affairs are no more complex than retaliatory shoving on the playground, where one push begets another. Simply absorb a shove without reacting and the cycle will end. In the adult world, nothing could be farther from the truth. Furthermore, for the most part, these individuals have never seen their own nation endure an all-out war, nor have they tested their ideas in any sort of practical way.

[4] Sowell, Thomas, The Vision of the Anointed, BasicBooks, 1995, ISBN 0-465-08994-1.

[5] Some think that providing stable standards to young people will embitter or warp them. It is however a mistake to equate stable standards with extremely strict and repressive standards. I do not advocate the latter.

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