Worldview 101 (part 5) - Postmodernism and the New Tolerance

In the process of writing the wrap-up post for Worldview 101 it occurred to me that one other perspective deserves a brief mention due to its prevalence in America today: Postmodernism. This isn't a really coherent view of life like some of the other worldviews I've written about. Nevertheless the collection of basic ideas we call Postmodernism is extremely popular in America today, particularly among younger and college educated people, and it's becoming more widespread every year.

Postmodernism is really the grandchild of Naturalism rather than a totally unique worldview. Some thinkers took the ideas of Naturalism to their logical ends, such as the belief that there is no higher reality beyond matter and energy and thus there is no meaning or truth (a belief called "Nihilism"). Postmodernism rejects Naturalism's confident assertions about the nature of reality, and questions whether we can truly know anything so certainly.

As a worldview, Postmodernism can be described using the 4 worldview questions:

1. Origin - where did we come from and thus what are we?
The true nature of reality is hidden. Exactly how we got here and what we are is not knowable with any certainty. In fact, if any absolute truth is out there at all we can't know it for sure. Consequently, the "truths" we think we know aren't really true. One of the main goals of Postmodern thinking is to jolt your sense of what is real. This can be seen in the "Postmodern architecture" photo above, wherein the building doesn't appear to be a basic rectangle sitting straight up and down as we all "know" buildings must. And the bizarre goldfish picture (right) is trying to do the same thing by blending categories that we all think of as separate (a bedroom and a goldfish bowl).

Where did the "truths" we think we know come from? They're just social constructs. That is, people we respect (our parents, religious leaders, historical figures, etc.) have created their own stories that give meaning to human events, but they're just stories. (Was the European settling of of America the dawn of a new age of freedom or the death of freedom? Depends on who's story you listen to: the European's or the Apache's...)

2. Problem - what's wrong with the world?
In a word: metanarratives. That's a fancy way of referring to any over-arching story or idea that ascribes meaning to human existence. For example, "America is a shining city on a hill, a beacon of liberty" is a metanarrative. It's a story Americans utilize to give our nation meaning. But of course, the Postmodernist will point out that that the Sioux and Choctaw didn't see it that way when they were rounded up into refugee camps.

You see, to Postmodern thinkers, all such metanarratives come from people and people alone. They're not actually true, they're just someone's opinion; one group's made-up beliefs that are used to dominate and subjugate another group. These metanarratives are only power trips: heavy clubs used by people to beat others into submission. And when two different overarching stories collide, bloodshed results; whether it's white America vs. Native America, or the Palestinain Arabs vs. the Jews, or even "the Hatfields vs. the McCoys."

Incidentally, as with all worldviews, the Bible lays out a metanarrative: Christianity's compelling picture of God's plan to redeem the earth. But Postmodernists are more likely to see that story as the source of Old Testament era genocide and the modern-day Arab/Israeli conflict than the life-giving, meaning-producing explanation of history we Christians understand it to be.

3. Solution - how is the problem fixed?
End metanarratives. Give everyone the ability to construct their own individual story which will give them their own "meaning," but do not allow anyone to apply a metanarrative to the rest of the world. (Interesting how Postmodernism reacts against much of Naturalism, yet ends up sounding a lot like it...) Humanity is simply here, and as long as we are, we should stop trying to force our preferred meaning-stories onto other people. Only then will we enjoy some kind of peaceful existence.

4. Purpose - why am I here?
Stop asking stupid questions. Since there is no truth or meaning that we can really know, there is no real "purpose" for humanity. You construct your own story to make whatever you want of your life, I'll construct mine, and let's just agree to leave it at that.


An important connection exists between postmodernism and the modern-day concept of "Tolerance." Classical tolerance is a good thing: it's basically the idea that in a pluralistic society wherein people disagree, we should all choose to disagree agreeably. In other words, we respect other people's right to hold different views, and we hold respectful (even if sometimes passionate) debates about truth. This classical tolerance is what the American political system was built around.

However, Postmodernism swept in and, like a parasite, latched onto classical tolerance and morphed it into something new and more sinister. The New Tolerance essentially means no one can disagree. Because truth isn't there in Postmodern thought everyone's view is just "their take," and thus no more valid than anyone else's view. In other words, no one's ideas are any better than anyone else's ideas because there is no standard by which to measure "better," there is only opinion. Consequently debate (even respectful debate) is meaningless, since the point of making arguments is to persuade people that your view is more "right." The Postmodern world is a value-free and truth-free world of nothing but individual opinion - utterly meaningless.

And the only "sin" one can commit in this amoral world is to disagree with someone else, because disagreement is seen as a form of coercion: forcing your own metanarrative on someone else. Thus the "Tolerance police" take zealous offense at anyone's claims of truth, seeing such claims as "oppression" and hostility. Thus "Tolerance" has gone from the concept of respectful debate to the concept of no debate allowed.

In a nutshell, I think postmodernism has identified a real problem but has come up with a terrible solution. It is true that various "metanarratives" have been used throughout history in horrible ways. But it does not follow that all metanarratives are equally horrible. Nor do I see any reason to believe that the amoral, value-free world of postmodernism, with it's chilling effect on honest debate, can protect the principles and values that make human life worth living.

Nonetheless, Postmodern-fueled Tolerance is a potent force in America today, even affecting huge numbers of Christians, as we'll see in the next and final post of this series.


allison said...

could you tell me the name of the artist who did the fishbowl in a room with the kids and goldfish? Thanks,

Matt Guerino said...

Hi Allison! Thanks for the inquiry.

The photo is in numerous places around the web - I don't recall now where I originally found it. But it is attributed to and artist named Sandy Sklogund and it's titled "Revenge of the Goldfish"

Hope that helps!

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