Overplaying Postmodernism

BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN

It is obvious that there are believers on both sides of the deficient Left-Right political spectrum who have substituted religion with other beliefs. People who have taken a leap of faith to believe all-out in an idea or theory.

The primary aim of the conquistadores was Empire, sanctioned by concurrent conversions. In the case of the Left, the Wokerati engage in a social media culture war to see leftist legislators get elected and at the same time try to enforce their extremes on unwoke heretics, in varying degrees of intensity, as if from Franciscan to Dominican. On the right, leading commentators repeatedly talk in overstatements of a “precipice” or “death of civilisation” as they combat the Wokerati and try to up their numbers of Twitter followers and YouTube watchers. Back in the real world, life trundles on – much nearer the centre where precipices sometimes actually get bridged and trade-offs reached – with governments coming and going, too caught up in the daily business of here and now, and self-preservation, to conjure enough examples of ideological purity to ever placate these believers.

One belief on the right, proposed by the likes of Jordan Peterson, is that divisive postmodernism – borne of the work of Jean-François Lyotard, along with other dead French intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault – is at the heart of woke nonsense. That this Cultural Marxism explains today’s breast-beating and guilt about sexism, feminism, ethnicity, racism, LGBT, BAME, political correctness, control of free speech and safe spaces. Apparently the postmodernists’ desire is to splinter society into chaos. Look at the Postmodernist phobias, we are told, specifically designed to shut down rational debate – islamophobia, transphobia, homophobia. Look at the nets thrown out by them to silence rational inquisition: racist, misogynist, sexist, patriarchal and so on. You see these divisions most starkly on social media where disruption and chaos are as ubiquitous as they are energy-sapping. Rightist commentators claim that it is that kind of commotion poststructuralism was designed to generate – to deconstruct truth and eventually disintegrate the capitalist system to that very dark point where Communism again becomes the answer.

Some do take the Petersons literally, even religiously, and they attract many followers. Meanwhile the Left tends to counter the likes of Peterson by describing them as conspiracy theorists and fuses the term Cultural Marxism with antisemitism (certainly the term ‘cultural Marxist’ has a history as an anti-Semitic trope). They deride those on the right who blame Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard for post-truth and absolute moral relativism. They goad right wing commentators, laughing that the left cannot even collectively decide on which pub to go to let alone be sure to choose a pint of Foucault over Gramsci. They frequently insist that Peterson misreads postmodern philosophers and unwittingly grants them more political clout than they merit – none so dismissively to date as Peter Salmon in Prospect Magazine last week who pursues a similar angle:

In general, the way to stop these Twitter discussions is to simply ask the poster which section of #foucaultandderrida or #derridaandfoucault they are basing their “argument” on. Having done this several times before growing bored, I have never received a useful reply. Like the confused lawyer in (the 1997 Australian comedy) The Castle, these critics seemed to have based their arguments on the vibe of the thing.

Peter Salmon is a recent biographer of Jacques Derrida so he must be right. No doubt these French philosophers were more nuanced than their detractors will admit. But the link between Derrida’s arguments and what has actually happened in terms of the beliefs expressed by the intersectionalists, critical race theorists and so on, is that Derrida’s methods of deconstruction have been carried to their logical conclusion. And that is what has created the insanity of what those on the right are fighting against – a Gordian knot of intersectionality. If not, what has?

Salmon continues:

If this were mere Twitter nonsense one could let it go. However its mainstreaming—to even the heart of UK government policy—can only be regarded as part of the backlash against a certain type of pluralism; a pluralism that threatens a status quo which assumes itself to be apolitical, common sense—normal. This backlash is drifting more towards rage and indeed, as we have seen, violence.

Salmon can be correct in saying that Derrida never said any of what the right claims, but the consequences of Derrida’s thinking and method have been profoundly damaging to rational argument. Denying that today’s progressivism is fixated with postmodernist focus on social marginalisation and the exploitative relationships between groups is like denying the existence of the moon. In much the same way one can argue that Marx never suggested that massive slaughter of entire classes of people and subsequent totalitarianism were essential to achieve the blissful state of Communism – but it is undeniable that that is what really happened. Were it not for Marx and the application of his ideas, the slaughter of over a hundred million people would not have transpired.

Ideas can be expressed and argued, but often they change as other people get hold of them and launch campaigns and policies based upon selected highlights. Look at the way Trump’s rally turned nasty, not because he said it should be nasty – he said it should be peaceful – but it is undeniable that violence ensued. It is the way ideas change and develop into action that is critical. There will be wingnuts on both sides of most debates who overstate, and they will have followers – some of whom are angry – that take overstated and extreme positions as gospel. Neither Salmon nor Peterson are absolutely right, but for the sake of useful blunt instruments for the causes of freedom and rationality, back Peterson.

Dominic Wightman is Editor of Country Squire Magazine.