The need for a common truth
One of the tenets of postmodernist philosophy is that it proposes the relative nature of truth; in other words, that no truth is absolute. While after World War II postmodernism was a healthy response to fascism, postmodern attitudes toward the truth have spread into mainstream society in unforeseen, simplistic and unwelcome ways, not the least of which is an increasingly nihilistic, anything-goes attitude in politics shown in stark relief through the current occupant of the White House.
What is the postmodern attitude toward truth? Playwright Harold Pinter summed it up this way:
There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
The initial impulse of postmodernism was to engender tolerance. In other words, the message was that you can believe your truth and I can believe mine and that doesn’t mean that either of us is ‘right’ in an absolute sense, but rather that we can each live with our truths and accept that truth is relative.
In a positive sense, this was a precursor to the requirements of a post-WW II world where people could (ideally) accept and live with one another in peace. The downside is that without common beliefs, there can be a lack of consistent notions of right and wrong.
According to Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind:
The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.
This lack of faith in the notion of absolute right and wrong has led us down a very precarious path where a (generally) laudable postmodern tolerance has been abused.
Postmodern global capitalism, having replaced the moral compass of common human decency with the profit motive, has in many ways perceived postmodern moral relativism as a green light for abusive behavior that requires only the search for profits as the primary ‘good’ of society. In other words, to profit over another becomes an imperative that subsumes all others.
As a result, modern economic injustices and inequalities have become so rampant that any healthy postmodern tolerance among a majority of the people has been stretched thin. A postmodern politician like Trump understands that he can manipulate the situation in order to maintain a personal and political advantage, and in tandem protect the investor and corporate class that he represents.
Unchecked, postmodern attitudes can descend into a destructive nihilism. In other words, a nihilist such as Mr. Trump perceives there are no consequences to actions because morality is relative and ultimately any ‘truth’ can be seen as a utilitarian tool used by the skillful to get what they want.
Moreover, postmodern tendencies to question objective truth can make some interpret it as an enemy of science. Thus the misuse of postmodernism’s healthy skepticism that questions science’s ultimate abilities to define objective truth (as evidenced in quantum theory or Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science) is simplified into a knee jerk anti-science impulse that fits neatly with Mr. Trump’s desire to denude science when it doesn’t fit his needs.
In other words, just when the climate crisis demands we listen to our scientists, many doubt they can trust what scientists are telling us, because they are, after all, just presenting ‘their’ version of scientific truth.
Further, modern American culture promotes cultural narratives that are framed by the media as ‘good guys and bad guys’ and heroes and villains; hence a polarization emerges that when combined with postmodernism relativism allows for nihilists such as Mr. Trump to manipulate people in very Machiavellian ways.
The roots of our current attachment to a heroes and villains narrative arose from 9/11 (although certainly it goes back even further to Pearl Harbor), where the media framed the event in melodramatic terms that saw the United States as a victim. The Marvel Comics movies that have become dominant since 9/11 only re-enforced this cultural trend. According to Elisabeth Anker of Cornell University:
In the United States, the September 11 crisis unfolded through a narrative trajectory of injury, pathos, and moral retribution. The U.S.’s initial response to the terrorist attack was a nationwide empathic victimization, a collectively experienced pain in response to unjustified suffering perpetrated by an evil villain. Political leaders declared that the country was attacked because of its virtue; the ideals that define America, those of freedom and democracy, were precisely what the “evil-doers” aimed to destroy through their violence.
Mr. Trump has turned this melodramatic narrative inward to the ‘fake news’, the ‘socialist left’ and the invading migrants. The external terrorists have been replaced by internal ones.
Even if we doubt Mr. Trump has the intelligence to philosophize about post-modernism, we need to grasp that he intuitively understands and adheres to the postmodern impulse that truth is relative and that as a nihilist believes that there are no moral consequences to his actions as long as they remain relatively within the framework of the law. Toward this end, lies are easily justified.
Put simply, if a lie is used for the greater goal it is allowed or even desirable. For Mr. Trump, the greater goal is, of course, winning elections, but also making sure that people project their hate at the targets intended, and, as a result, create disunity and acrimony that poisons the potential power of human unity, a unity that is perceived by many to be organically ‘socialistic’ in its intentions. Again, the status quo investor and corporate class represented by Mr. Trump are protected through what is essentially a divide and conquer strategy.
Mr. Trump’s Machiavellian methods tend to pit one group against another, assigning blame to one group at the expense of the other, and demonizing the opposition as a villain. In turn, the left (particularly the left-leaning media) turns Mr. Trump into a villain, and I would venture this may be at their moral and political peril. By taking Mr. Trump’s bait, the left can become part of the problem they seek to solve. He succeeds at normalizing hate because of the left’s desire to frame heroic narratives where they (the left) are the heroes saving us from the villainous Trump.
In short, while this toxic stew stirs up the base (both left and right) from an emotional perspective, it also leaves little room for negotiation and collaboration — two things urgently required if we are to move beyond the status quo and solve the larger pressing problems of the day such as climate change or social and economic inequality.
To sum up, the postmodern phenomenon of relative truth has now become so mainstream that seemingly reasonable people can have diametrically opposed viewpoints in such a way that it appears that they cannot be remotely relating to the same reality.
There is no easy way out of this conundrum. As a rule, situations like this are often resolved with violence. Since civil war-level violence on the domestic front is not really a desirable option, other vehicles for social resolution must be sought.
The rise of ‘post’ postmodernism posits that we revisit idealism and faith as potential vehicles to resolve postmodernism’s most pernicious problems. However, the question arises: faith in what?
Turning to the tenets of ethical humanism or religious humanism might be one option. Such an approach allows both a faith through reason as proposed by the Dalai Lama and a personal relationship with the divine if you need it.
Perhaps we can turn to new forms of faith-based humanism that incorporate Buddhist and other approaches but also leave ample room for the secular and non-religious. Such an approach, as long as it incorporates common human values while supporting human dignity, decency and environmental justice might become not only desired but essential for our collective survival.
D.R. Thompson is a film producer and essayist. His essays have appeared in The Potomac Journal, SolPix Webzine, Life as a Human, Utne Online, Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), and other blogs. Films produced and/or supported by Thompson have garnered international acclaim at festivals such as Sundance, Cannes, and Berlin. His book of essays A World Without War is available on Amazon here.
Elisabeth Anker — Villains, Victims, and Heroes: Melodrama, Media, and September 11
Scotty Hendricks — Is Postmodernism really anti-science?
Alexis Carre — The Postmodern misuse of tolerance
Allan Bloom — The Closing of the American Mind
Cover photo courtesy of Adobe Stock Images