How post-modernism is failing us

Posted: October 11, 2014 by J in Theology

As I watch the West trying to grapple with the East and repeatedly getting no purchase, the thought that keeps coming to mind is ‘postmodernism’.

I’ve grown up with postmodern ways of thinking. It’s the air I breathe. Diversity is good. Uniformity is bad. Yep. Local is good, global is suspect. Yep. McDonalds is the enemy. Yep. No one can tell anyone how they should view the world or what they should value. Coercion is bad. Tick. A vision for a world of enlightened and peaceful co-existence governed benignly by representatives of the people, where everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. I like it.

But I have to say I’m getting pretty disillusioned about the whole thing. The vision seems to be falling apart. I’m thinking postmodernism is not working well for us as a guide to living in the 21st century.

Over the next few days I want to suggest a few major ways postmodernism seems to have failed us.

1. Postmodern’s key virtue – tolerance – has not proved to be strong enough to curb our hatred of the other.  Postmodern tolerance calls on me to not attack or spit on those who are different from me – but this is not really asking very much. Not asking enough in fact. We humans have a natural fear and contempt for those different from us. And that disdain can happily lie below the surface most of the time. I can walk past (or more likely drive past), and look down on you, without any confrontation arising. Just because you are inferior or stupid or unpleasant, doesn’t mean I have to fight with you. I can just keep my distance. I am willing to tolerate your existence. After all, you probably bake my bread and stack the shelves of my supermarket. Actually it can make me feel pretty good when I think how much more I earn than you. I am less happy for you to live in my street. And I am not at all happy for you to marry my daughter. This is how tolerance functions.

It is only at times of stress that contempt for the other will flare up into open hatred. If I feel threatened by you. Or you take my job. That’s when the spitting starts. And the violence. Which is just what is happening across the Middle East at present – and in Sydney. Tolerance turns out to have been a thin veneer that left our hearts unchanged, our racism and sense of superiority unchallenged. We never learnt to understand the others. Never learned to connect with them or like them. We never learned to see the world through their eyes, or empathise. Tolerance never asked us to do any of those things. It never asked us to love. 

And if we haven’t learned to love, we will still hate. And that’s what we are hearing from a large section of society at the present: hatred and fear towards a minority group. And there is no story, no consideration postmodernism can put forward into the public arena, that will persuade them to stop. The bonds that tie postmodern society together are proving to be quite flimsy.

  1. Keith says:

    Hi, Jonathan,

    Thanks for your post. I agree that tolerance can be skin deep and easily tested in conflict situations; though that is true of respect (owed to all equally) and even love which can as easily be superficial, especially when tested by conflict and hatred.

    My biggest puzzle is how postmodernism is implicated in this charge. As I understand things, postmodernism is a mostly welcome reaction to modernistic overconfidence. At its best, and it is a diverse movement (which in some ways has run out of steam; because of its essentially reactive nature) from which we have learnt much about the often self-interested nature of human reasoning. I don’t think it means that we can’t be critical; in fact it gives us greater critical skills. It doesn’t mean that we can’t judge some things to be morally reprehensible (including superficial tolerance).



    • J says:

      Thanks for your comment Keith, great to hear your view.

      All you say about postmodernism sounds right to me. However, I would say every philosophy and worldview has an accompanying moral code, either stated or implied. And the chief virtue of postmodernism – apart from suspicion – is surely tolerance.

      You’re right, respect and love can fail also. But in my view tolerance is the most superficial of the three, and so the most easily shed.

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