Are we fighting the postmodernists with one hand tied behind our backs?
Intellectual battles are the cognitive lifeblood of a healthy society. Life is complicated and the stakes are high, so thoughtful and passionate people have lots of arguments. Only by argument can we sort out the facts about complicated matters. Only by putting our ideas to the test of evidence and by being willing to change our minds can we make progress.
Intellectual fighting is not often fun, but it is better than settling our differences by physical fighting. The advantage of being an intelligent species, Austrian philosopher Karl Popper pointed out, is that we can let our theories die in our place.
But for argument to be productive, we need principles of civility to guide our investigations and debates. And we need our leading institutions - especially those like universities that are dedicated to truth-seeking - to make those principles explicit and foundational and instill them in the next generation.
So we have a strategy-and-tactics problem: Postmodernists don’t fight by the same rules the rest of us do. When everything is subjective narratives, the subversion goes all the way down.
Our classic rules are: Approach discussion with a spirit of benevolence and give people the initial benefit of the doubt. Make one’s goal the mutual advancement of understanding. Hear out both or all sides. Be civil in criticizing and in receiving criticizing. Don’t make stuff up. Believe that truth matters.
But the postmoderns cast a jaded eye upon “truth” and see words as weapons in a battle between adversarial groups. In that battle, power is the only reality and “truth” is merely the most persistent or ruthless survivor.
American postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty put it this way: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying.”
Rorty’s postmodern fellow-travelers in France, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and others work the same deconstructive territory.
It’s the difference between two lawyers arguing in a court over the facts and the best interpretation of them, their goals being truth and justice - and the lawyers who see the courtroom as a power struggle in which all that matters is who’s best at rhetorical and procedural manipulation.
Ourcode of ethics also includes rules about moral values: Be respectful legitimate differences. Tolerate an expansive range of beliefs and practices, unless physical force is initiated. Do not name-call or hurl insults easily. Be respectful of others’ accomplishments and proud of one’s own. Admit mistakes, individually and culturally, and strive to correct them.
On that latter point about taking responsibility: Individual and cultural improvement is a trial-and-error process, and while we have made great progress in battling poverty, slavery, racism, sexism, and incivilities, our historical record is not perfect. Hence the appropriateness of our intense debates, for example, over affirmative action and reparations. Can we make up for sins of the past? If so, how can we make good in a way that apportions blame and dessert fairly? Those are hard question, but morally responsible people take their history seriously.
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