As If We Need Another Crisis…
More than two hundred years ago, Thomas Paine elegantly expressed, “These are the times that try men’s souls…,” and today, many feel the same sentiment. As the country copes with the recent acts of domestic, violent extremism, perhaps it is necessary to introduce another theory of phenomenon which may help explain some of the elements surrounding the acts of terrorism. In recent months, many former and current government officials have described the current political climate as a “constitutional crisis.” Indeed, there is certainly a crisis, but not necessarily the type they describe, and to help explain, it may be helpful to offer the old expression “if you are looking for new ideas, open an old book.”
In 1962, philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Among its many ideas was a reference to the failure of existing theories to solve problems defined by that theory, termed a crisis. The emergence of a crisis, as Kuhn described it, is followed by a scientific revolution, which is a non-cumulative, developmental and gradual episode during which a pre-existing paradigm (or model) is replaced in part or in whole by an incompatible one.[i] Before going any further, it is necessary to draw a clear distinction between science and Science. Any systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions is a science. There have been and still are many sciences that remain today, but none are as popular as the Science we implicitly reference today. The Science of today, that is championed by scientists, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, is what Kuhn referred to as Normal Science or a research methodology firmly based upon previous scientific achievements and thus supplying the foundation for its further practice. Today’s Science consists of a whole constellation of shared and exclusive assumptions, processes, models, and methods. Some of its fundamental elements are deductive and inductive reasoning and logic, inquiry, the scientific method, and a reliance on sense perception and observation. More importantly, the circumstances surrounding nearly all our advancements in healthcare, industry and technology are a result of solutions developed by way of this Science. Furthermore, knowingly or not, nearly all of us determine what is fact or not and make sense of our existence by employing these implicit processes. As a result, they serve as the cornerstone to the modern world we all know today.
Yet, as many have recently argued, there is something perplexing about today’s social and political climate. Indeed, it is senseless, and Americans must collectively find a way to make sense of this senselessness. Naming it alone will not solve it, but perhaps it will bring us closer to a national self-awareness that can commence the healing so essential to our continued greatness. The crisis that this country currently faces is a philosophical crisis, which pits modern thought against postmodern thought. To be clear, postmodernism is not some form of trendy, divergent thinking, but rather a serious intellectual, conceptual, cultural, psychological and philosophical engagement which challenges humanity’s relationship with itself and the world.[ii] Postmodern thought, whose forerunner is most closely related to socialist thought, was thought to emerge exclusively from academic institutions, because they offered alternative and informed views of the world. However, technology’s advancements have created endless spaces within which postmodern thought can emerge. And, while the political left’s postmodern inclination often originates from academic institutions, the political right’s postmodern inclination originates from the internet, where a multitude of divergent perspectives can thrive freely.
Postmodernism’s ascendance in today’s society constitutes one of the greatest intellectual challenges to concepts of truth and fact, established knowledge, and to the democratic, constitutional republic all Americans know today. In the short term, postmodern thought displays itself in “quirky” artwork, film and literature. In the long term, however, postmodern thought affects political behavior by encouraging the decline, radical transformation, and reorientation of political parties, encouraging, as well, the growth of new social and political movements, and ambivalence toward previously existing ones.[iii] Postmodern thought demands cultural and societal transformation for the sake of transformation. Modern thought emerged, in part, as a method to seek truth. Inversely, postmodernism does not “seek the foundation and the conditions of truth, but exercises power for the purpose of social change.”[iv]
To be clear, elements of postmodernism frequently masquerade as other schools of thought or academic disciplines, such as pluralism, liberalism, chauvinism, nationalism, relativism and populism. Populism, for instance, helps achieve radical democracy by reintroducing ‘forgotten’ conflicts into politics to foster the mobilization of alienated sectors of society with the aim of displacing the dominant power structure.[v] With populism, postmodernism shares spontaneity and a certain anti-intellectualism, a tendency to idealize the masses and their public resistance.[vi] And, intending to disrupt an opponent, postmodernism uses relativism only as a rhetorical political strategy, but does not believe it.[vii] Postmodern thought converts to a tenable position what modern thought would otherwise discourage or disqualify. Postmodern thinkers do not retain symmetry with their principles, because their previous beliefs, thoughts and behaviors do not define their identity, and therefore they do not have to remain consistent with what they have done or said in the past. As a result, they do not see hypocrisy as a character indictment, rather quite the opposite. Combine this attitude with the fact that YouTube and social media ensure that people’s words and actions of the past remain fresh and present, and it makes making sense, in modern sense, senseless. Technology and social media have surely enhanced postmodern thought’s persuasiveness and pervasiveness.
Postmodern thinkers deconstruct popular narratives, seeking to uncover the power behind their construction, and employing a contextualism invoked by their belief in historical contingency.[viii] They are concerned with the immediate, the present and have no agreed narrative for the future. Postmodern thinkers relish the simulated, the image and the representation; they savor the sensational over the true; they blur the lines between fact and fiction; they savor the hyperreal; they constantly construct, deconstruct and reconstruct their identities as the situation permits; and they believe in imagined communities. Counterintuitively, to a postmodern thinker, words are never intended to be literal. Language and rhetoric are used elliptically and deliberately falsely, layered with circumstantial meaning, designed to help the speaker evade answering a question or taking a permanent position.[ix]
Modern thought and postmodern thought represent two philosophies and two sciences, in that those who employ either to explain the world around them subscribe to two different methodologies and perceive reality differently. This discursive competition between modern thinkers and postmodern thinkers plays out on television, social media and daily conversation is riddled with evidence of this crisis: “that does not make any sense,” and “that is hypocritical,” and “that is illogical.” When a political commentator or journalist invokes the phrase, “it is an assault on facts and truth,” they are inherently referring to the consequences of a postmodern outlook. And, comments like these signal a rising incommensurability of reality between modern and postmodern thinkers. The incommensurability thesis, as Kuhn described it, states that past terms, like ‘justice,’ used in another era or culture cannot be equated in meaning or reference with any present terms or expressions, because concepts derive their meaning from the paradigm in which they are developed.[x] If a given paradigm, in this case, postmodern philosophy, has very forceful advocates, it is more likely to win widespread acceptance, and the truth that everyone is currently seeking will become relative to the accepted paradigm, in this case a paradigm that espouses many, constantly changing truths.[xi] For a postmodern thinker, truth changes as the immediate context demands, and when falsehoods can masquerade as truth, up can appear as down, bad as good, harmless as dangerous and evil can be made to appear as virtue.[xii]
With this in mind, talking past each other will become normal, and increasingly harmful to civil discourse. Among the people, ideas like justice, equality, right, good, fair, the news, etc. will sound the same, verbally, and in conversation but will have a different meaning and conceptualization. However, it is important to remember that violent rhetoric begets violent action and when passionate persuasion seems unachievable, enmity and primordial violence often follow. The tinder is already present, doused in accelerant, awaiting a match. Where Americans were once able to appreciate opposing political viewpoints through civil discourse, postmodernism’s weaving in and amongst communities has catalyzed and accelerated this incommensurability of reality which prevents people from understanding each other and in extreme cases, causes them to commit acts of violence to either get their point across or annihilate the opposition, and this week, just as in June, 2017 (the congressional baseball shooting) sadly demonstrates the validity of this argument, and portends for an equally bleak future. Kuhn anticipated a more worrisome scenario by warning that, “conversions will occur a few at a time until, after the last hold-outs have died, the whole profession will again be practicing under a single, but now different paradigm. We must therefore ask how conversion is induced and how resisted.”
That Cesar Sayoc could believe ridiculous conspiracy theories about political elites is only ridiculous if you subscribe to modern thought. However, postmodern thinkers who live in hyper-realities, which are models that eventually become more real than the realities they supposedly represent, cannot determine fact from fiction, and therefore understand these caustic narratives as wholesomely credible. In fact, a postmodernists’ notion of identity is constructed like that of a fiction, where they play roles. Edgar Madison Welch (Pizza-gate), Robert Bowers (Pittsburgh Synagogue Terrorist/Murderer), and Cesar Sayoc (Failed Pipe Bomb Assassin) all thought they were doing the right thing on behalf of the oppressed victims, and they all rationalized their actions by seeing themselves as liberators. Furthermore, those who raised the idea of the attacks being “false flags,” a comment which used to only see the light of day on the most extremely fringe conspiracy blogs, was a near unanimous talking point of many mainstream media outlets.
The distinction between a postmodernist, an oblivious postmodern thinker and the craven opportunist, who sees nothing wrong with peddling fantasies for argumentative gain, is becoming less clear. The amount of educated and celebrated, respected and revered people that promulgated pernicious yet nonsensical conspiracy theories about the pipe-bomber or Seth Rich, or Sandy Hook, or Benghazi demonstrates how common this pattern of thought has become. Thankfully, many fans of the most prolific conspiracy theorists remain uninitiated, otherwise there would have been pipe bombs sent to Secretary John Kerry for creating a weather machine in Antarctica that split Hurricane Lane in two (that was a thing).[xiii] Unfortunately, postmodern thought, like antifreeze to a dog, tastes good and is often satisfying, but it kills civil discourse in the end. These senseless acts of violence are only the beginning, and it would be irresponsible to think our adversaries have not noticed. In fact, the Russians have been aware of it for some time, and it is precisely why they employed their disinformation campaign in 2016. It was so effective and remains so effective, because it was contextualized strategy – shrewdly aware of the postmodern consumers of disinformation. Postmodern populations are easily manipulated because their lives are like screenplays, and because those aiming to deceive will always find people willing to be deceived.
Some would consider it incredulous to believe that thoughts could possibly be the cause of so much pain and grief in the world. Disappointingly, they are not trying hard enough to solve the problem and fail to recognize that the history of the world is indeed a history of thoughts, shaped by ideas before it is even shaped by events.[xiv] There are no easy buttons here and the simple solution to this complex problem will seem elusive because it is illusive. This problem requires so much more than a discrete solution, and it will require a profound and societal reflection on our origins and a reevaluation of our future. Any subsequent strategy would require the country to institutionalize the adaptation required to thrive in an info-sphere, e.g. a world revolving around information technology, which reshapes human reality.[xv] Finally, strategists concerned about “gray zones” or “lone wolves” should consider postmodern thought as contributing to the difficulty surrounding these problems. If we do not embark upon this enterprise in self-knowledge quickly, then we will transform gradually and unknowingly, and unlike many pundits have stated, history will be neither, favorable nor unfavorable, but ambivalent. If anything, future generations will comment, “Oh. This is when we changed, and this is the philosophical revolution.” Our generation must be the one to reclaim this generation.
The views and ideas expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the United States Army, the United States Department of Defense or the United States Government.
[i] Thomas S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
[ii] Michael Drolet, The Postmodern Reader: Foundational Texts (New York: Routledge, 2004), 33.
[iii] John R. Gibbons & Bo Reimer, The Impact of Values (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 309.
[iv] Frank Lentriccia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 12
[v] Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 3.
[vi] Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions, 13.
[vii] Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, 109.
[viii] John R. Gibbins and Bo Reimer, Postmodernism in The Impact of Values (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 305.
[ix] Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, 175.
[x] Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 114.
[xi] Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 81.
[xii] Yuval Levin, Tyranny of Reason: The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook, 241.
[xiii] Morgan G. Stalter, “John Kerry Trolls Infowars For Claiming He used an ‘Energy Beam’ From Antarctica To Control Hurricane Lane,” The Hill, August 25, 2018. https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/403621-kerry-trolls-infowars-for-claiming-hurricane-lane-was-caused-by
[xiv] Yuval Levin, Tyranny of Reason: The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook (Maryland: University Press of America, Inc., 2001), 215.
[xv] Luciano Floridi, The 4th Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality, 1.