When You Denigrate Objective Truth, This Is What You Get

I can’t help but think the insanity we’re seeing in politics right now is what happens when a culture gives up the idea of objective truth. For years, postmodernists have argued against a modernistic view of truth (i.e., that it can be discovered, known, and argued for, even if imperfectly—and that, in this way, consensus can be found across varying communities), saying we should drop it because it leads to dangerous conflicts. But in a postmodern world of relativism, people don’t stop trying to promote their political, theological, and worldview positions; they just use power and propaganda rather than rational argument to do so.

Ten years ago (on a blog that’s now defunct), I wrote about the danger ahead of us:

Those who advocate the postmodern view that we construct our world through our language within our separate communities do so in part because they believe it will be a remedy for violence in the world. If we would only understand that our views are merely the views of our community and not representative of reality itself (i.e., if we didn’t have confidence that we had the “right” view), then (they believe) we would be humble about our views and just live and let live, not attempting to force those views on others through violence.

Here’s the irony, however: this view will, in the end, lead to more violence than we currently experience. Imagine a world where all people in all societies view the world in these postmodern terms, believing that all of their values and stories about the world (history, theology, etc.) are subjectively created through the languages of their particular communities. Further, communication of one’s beliefs to another who is part of a different community is not possible in any meaningful way because the separate communities (e.g., Christians and atheists) have different languages and have constructed different worlds for themselves. The only way for someone outside the community to enter in is to slowly learn the language and behavior of that new community.

Why do I say this will lead to violence? Currently, people from different communities (like Christians and atheists) debate and discuss their diverse ideas in an effort to promote what they consider to be the truth. But imagine what would happen if the whole world believed in the postmodern view described above. The problem begins with this: Even if people do not believe their view represents actual reality, being postmodernist does not automatically make people care less about the view they prefer. After all, postmodern philosophers and theologians prefer their views strongly enough to write many books trying to convince others to take on those views as well. The danger then comes because of the isolating effects of the postmodern view. Each community is trapped within the confines of its own language, and the people within are unable (or believe they are unable) to rationally communicate with those outside (who have very different languages) to persuade them that their view is a better one. That is what will lead to violence. In a world where postmodernism dominates and people live out the implications consistently, what is left when separate communities come into conflict and the members believe rational communication and persuasion is impossible? Only the international language of power remains.

I’m not saying everyone has thought through what I said above. Ideas, and the behavior resulting from those ideas, work their way though a society even when most people have never thought through either the reasons behind their worldview or how that worldview connects with their behavior. This happens through institutions like our universities, which, as a result of ideas like those above, have shifted from being places where we search for truth together to places where we learn techniques to promote our particular tribe (including shouting down opponents, protecting ourselves from hearing views from outside our community, and driving out people who disagree with us).

I think this postmodern denigration of our ability to find a shared, objective truth through reasoned argument accounts for at least part of what we’re seeing play out now, from the violent rioting against Trump supporters to the frighteningly demagogic propaganda we’re seeing in the media.

Amy K. Hall

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