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Postmodernism’s moral low ground

By Stephen Hicks - posted Thursday, 7 February 2019

Here again Rorty represents the other, postmodern side. When asked directly about the Left’s many historical sins, crimes, and outright brutalities - and it’s important to note that all of the leading postmoderns are of the Left, usually the far Left - Rorty replied: “I think that a good Left is a party that always thinks about the future and doesn’t care much about our past sins.” [Source: “A Conversation with Richard Rorty.”]

(How unsurprising, then, that younger Leftists have little understanding of or care about the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Cuba, or even Venezuela.)

I’m using Rorty as a foil, but it’s important also that he’s a mild postmodernist, one who - despite his philosophy of getting away with stuff and calculated forgetfulness - hopes that we can in limited ways still try to be nice to each other.


His contemporaries and followers in the next generation are not so nice. The nastiest insults fly at the drop of a hat. Fascist. Racist. Toxic sexist pig.

And that’s not only from the intellectual leaders themselves, or the graduated activists, but also from undergraduate students at now scores of universities across the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

There are no snowflakes, by the way, among the student activists. As young adults, they’ve watched scary movies, argued rudely with their schoolmates, had their hearts broken, learned about environmental degradation and the Holocaust, seen online porn, and in most cases lost grandparents and other loved ones. They may be young, but they’ve not been raised in bubbles. So when they call for “safe spaces” free from the expression of opinions they don’t like - more is going on than hurt feelings. When they hurl macro-insults against perceived micro-aggressions, a rhetorical weapon is being deployed. They have been trained well by their professors about tactics for shutting down opponents in the ideological wars. Delicate snowflakes do not use crude language and harsh confrontation.

So how do we deal with vigorous activists who are cynical about truth and civil debate? 

For now, here’s an indication of the best strategy.

The first step is to understand what we are up against and where it came from. Bad philosophy got us into this mess, so philosophical self-education is essential. Clarifying one’s adversaries’ beliefs is empowering.


And that means grasping the fundamentality and audacity of the postmodern challenge.

Postmoderns are not merely those who believe that knowledge is hard, that truth can be slippery, and that goodness is rare. Every intelligent and thoughtful person knows that. So we can and should have vigorous debates among liberals and conservatives, optimists and pessimists, naturalists and the religious, objectivists and subjectivists, and so on, about the right or best answers.

But the postmodernists in theory and practice are a more dangerous phenomenon, for they make it clear that they are purely negative, purely critical, purely adversarial. Their interest is not in solving problems or suggesting improvements but rather in causing more problems and making things worse.

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Stephen Hicks will be touring Australia delivering lectures and seminars on Adventures in Postmodernism - in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, and Brisbane. To book or find out more click here.

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About the Author

Dr. Stephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University, Illinois, USA, and the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault.

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