Here is Foucault himself: “These investigations are not intended to ameliorate, alleviate, or make an oppressive system more bearable. They are intended to attack it in places where it is called something else—justice, technique, knowledge, objectivity. Each investigation must therefore be a political act.” (Source: Eribon, 1991, 228)
Postmoderns reject everything important about our civilization, root and branch, as oppressive.
Note the key word of Martin Heidegger - in whose writings all the major postmodernists are steeped - who argued that our entire Western tradition, from the classical Greeks on, must be subject to “Destruktion.” And note that a generation before Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, another hero to postmodernists, argued powerfully that Western intellectual and cultural life had exhausted itself and that we were into an age of nihilism.
Oppression - attack - Destruktion - nihilism.
And since “Western” civilization is increasingly a misnomer as classical and Enlightenment values spread around the world, the stakes are truly global.
Yet the postmoderns know that we advocates of civilization are serious about our ideals of truth and justice and that we take pride in our great-but-imperfect progress. It’s precisely our seriousness and pride that the postmoderns aim to subvert - and to replace then with cynicism, self-doubt, and guilt. Hence the relentless charges of racial and gender and financial sin and the constant accusations of hidden, unsavory motives.
Understanding postmodernism is a start but not enough. We need action steps, as intellectuals and activists ourselves, as parents and educators, as business professionals and politicians. What do we do about postmodernism to defend and advance genuine civilization?
It’s helpful here to recognize that a nihilistic philosophy is uncreative. By its nature it is only destructive. It offers no truth, no goodness, no beauty, no creation of value. It therefore has to be parasitic on those philosophies that do generate positivity in the world.
That is to say that postmodernism depends on the very system it attacks for both material resources and moral status. So the action step is to take away the resources.
Jacques Derrida stated forthrightly that postmodernism was giving birth to “the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.”
We must starve the beast.
The most important resources postmoderns have are the ones we give them - especially our moral sanction. Moral sanction is a powerful psychological force. When we treat postmodernists as misguided idealists and as serious about problem-solving, we give them the standing that they in turn use to attack, often viciously, our sense of moral worth. And it’s always tempting to respond in kind.
The high road does involve costs. But we have advanced our civilization against amoral and immoral adversaries by taking the high road - in the hard work that created material prosperity, in the honest thinking that eliminated crippling diseases and doubled lifespans, in the righteousness of our vigorously attacking slavery, and the deep commitment to justice that extended liberties and equalities to men and women of all races and ethnicities - and doing so on the basis of a philosophy that strives for objectivity and often achieves it. We are the force for truth and goodness in the world. That is, we have the moral high ground.
It’s the postmoderns who have bought into a philosophy of pessimism and cynicism, who have given into jaded despair, and their attacks are meant to bring us down to their level.
We need to understand postmodernism, but we should not sanction it. Yet we can only remove our sanction because we know our genuine accomplishments and the ideas that made them possible. Know your enemy, yes, but first know yourself.