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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Postmodernism 101

A Postmodernist Primer and its Implications for Our Time

Last February, the Resource Center Team of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Amherst College released a “Common Language Guide,” a series of definitions reflecting the ideologies that dominate many campuses today, to serve as “a guide to common, shared language around identity.” Conservative students at Amherst immediately passed the document to right-wing media outlets, a flap ensued, and the office withdrew the document, denying that it “represent[s] an official position of the college or an expectation that everyone on campus should use any particular language or share a point of view,” while claiming that it did illustrate “the ways in which many people at Amherst and beyond understand their own identities.”

The document is still widely available on line.  It illustrates the enormous campus power of diversity bureaucracies at most of our major institutions, where they increasingly claim the right to critique course content and cross-examine faculty about things they have said in class. It also reveals a great deal about how contemporary academics think and how influential their thinking has become.  Although it looks simply like a set of definitions, many of the definitions have a political and moral content as well as a simply descriptive one.  And because the young people who populate our major media outlets, our artistic communities, and the Democratic Party have usually passed through leading colleges and universities, the ideas it embodies have worked their way into the American mainstream, with, in my opinion, tragic consequences.  I have never discovered a relatively short text that lays out the fundamentals of this ideology clearly and concisely, but the Amherst guide manages to do that without being systematic about it.  A number of key principles that are seldom if ever stated emerge from the definitions that the office clearly wanted its student body to accept.

The postmodern ideology that the common language guide embodies comes from several twentieth century thinkers, led by the Frenchman Michel Foucault, and revolves around a particular idea of power.  It does not see power primarily as physical force, but rather as something expressed, above all, through language.  Thus, the guide’s definition of power reads as follows:

             “1. The ability to name or define.
“2. The ability to decide.
“3. The ability the set the rule, standard or policy.
“4. The ability to change the rule, standard or policy to serve your needs, wants or desires.
“5. The ability to influence decision makers to make choices in favor of your cause, issue or concern (YWCA)[sic].Power can show up materially and immaterially, and in various domains, including: personal, social, institutional, and structural.”

The list begins with the ability “to name or define” because this ideology thinks that defining reality conveys more power than controlling it.  This does indeed reverse the traditional view of Enlightenment thought, that language is designed to describe the real world, not to create it.  We shall return later to the critical question of why this view has become so popular in the last three decades.  Meanwhile, I note that power can be “immaterial” as well as material, that is, it doesn’t necessarily imply physical coercion, or greater wealth, or authority over a certain sphere of human activity, but can merely be a supposed ability to control how people think.

The definition of “oppression,” on the previous page, identifies the holders of power, which belongs not to particular individuals, but to groups.

“A system for gaining, exercising and maintaining structural and institutional power for the benefit of a limited dominant group. An inequitable system where a select few hold material and social power and marginalized groups are coerced to participate in the system against their best interests. Oppression exists on the individual, interpersonal, institutional and ideological levels. There is no such thing as reverse oppression, because oppression is rooted in institutional power.”

The definition of “racism” identifies the group that holds power more specifically.

“A system of advantage and disadvantage based on the socially constructed category of ‘race’ and the idea of white racial superiority and black racial inferiority. Specifically within the United States, racism refers to white racial prejudice and power used to advantage white people over indigenous people, black people and people of color(IBPOC) and has been made possible by the historic and present-day unequal distribution of resources. Racism is enacted on multiple levels—institutional, interpersonal, individual and ideological—and can exist both consciously and unconsciously. Unconscious or covert racism is often hidden and not recognized as racial discrimination, whereas overt racism refers to conscious attitudes and intentions to harm and discriminate against IBPOC. Both covert and overt racism are forms of violence and are rooted in the idea of white supremacy.”

 In an age when any of us can send a swab to ancestry.com and receive a breakdown of the tribal and racial origins of our particular genetic inheritance, one cannot help but be a bit surprised by the assumption that “’race’” is nothing but a socially constructed category, even if one believes, as I do, that the intellectual endowments of all racial groups are comparable.  More shocking, however, is the extraordinarily America-centric idea that racism only involves beliefs in white superiority over black people (although the definition immediately includes other “people of color”—that is, nonwhites—among its victims.)  As a matter of historical fact, racism, whether defined as prejudice or as systematic oppression, has existed all over the world since the beginning of human history.  Many Asians remain convinced today not only that Asian civilizations are superior to others, but also that certain Asian peoples such as Chinese or Japanese are superior to other Asian peoples.  Both American Indian tribes and African tribes often regarded each other with the deepest hostility as well.  But here, racism connects only to “the idea of white supremacy,” and the rest of humanity receives a pass.  In the same way, while the guide defines misogyny as “A type of gender-based oppression founded in the belief that women are inferior to and must remain subordinate to men,” “misandry,” the parallel prejudice of women against men, does not appear in it.  This is because, as another entry on “reverse oppression” explains, “women cannot be ‘just as sexist as men,’ because they do not hold political, economic and institutional power.”

Gender, indeed, plays a much more important role in the guide than race.  Here is the definition of “male privilege”:

“A group of unearned cultural, legal, social and institutional rights extended to cisgender men based on their assigned-sex and gender. Cisgender men have access to institutional power, make the rules, control the resources and are assumed capable. Masculinity, as enacted by cisgender men, is universalized and viewed as the normative gender. Cisgender men are often unaware of their dierential treatment (see Fragile Masculinity). While trans men, masculine-of-center women and nonbinary folks have access to benefits based on their proximity to hegemonic masculinity (see above definition), male privilege is reserved for cisgender men. This is particularly true for white cisgender men.”

The term “cisgender men” (like “cisgender women”) refers to the “assignment” of male or female to newborns, based on whether they have a penis on the one hand or a vagina on the other.  We shall return to this concept shortly.  Trans men refer to biological females (my term) who have declared themselves to be men, while “nonbinary folks”, a critical concept, refer to people who refuse to be defined as men or women, for reasons that we shall explore later. I know, of course, that humanity includes a very small number of people born with indeterminate sex organs, and another small number who have always felt that they did not belong in the body they were born in, but the new view gender goes way beyond them, as we shall see.  The historical ignorance of this definition, which assumes that all males, and particularly white males, have “access to institutional power, make the rules, control the resources and are assumed capable,” boggles the mind.  The vast majority of men around the world have never fit that description and do not now; they have struggled to eke out a stable existence on the best terms they can.   Later we shall see how this extraordinary view could have emerged and become so influential.  This definition, interestingly, also seems to claim that nonwhite men have more privilege and power than white women by virtue of their “gender assigned at birth,” although not as much as white men. 

While I had already been familiar with much of the language and thinking behind the guide for years, it truly opened my eyes about gender issues, and particularly about the increasing numbers of young people who refuse to accepts pronouns like “he” or “she” and claim non-traditional gender identities.  I had assumed that they felt a disconnect between their physical selves and their self-image, but the guide suggests something more is involved.  Many, including the authors of the guide, are rejecting traditional gender terminology not on emotional grounds, but on political ones.  This emerges very clearly from the definition of the “gender binary”:

“A socially constructed gender system in which gender is classified into two distinct and opposite categories. These gender categories are both narrowly defined and disconnected from one another. They are strictly enforced through rigid gender roles and expectations. Further, there is a hierarchy inherent to the classification, in which one gender, men/boys/masculinity, has access to power and privilege and the other, women/girls/femininity, is marginalized and oppressed. These classifications are seen as immutable; those assigned male at birth should identify as men and embody masculinity, and those assigned female at birth should identify as women and embody femininity. This binary system excludes nonbinary, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming individuals. All people are harmed by the gender binary system, but your place within the system determines the degree and quality of harm.  The gender binary is weaponized through conquest, colonization and continued occupation of indigenous people’s lands. The gender binary system is inherently violent and foregrounds all gender-based oppression.”

In other words, hospital personnel don’t put M or F on birth certificates simply to identify different biological types, but rather to segregate infants into the critical social categories of oppressor and oppressed, for which the terms “man” and “woman” are synonyms.  The penultimate sentence also suggests that the creation, and maintenance, of those categories is responsible for war, conquest, and racism (see above.)  Those who choose to live outside the “gender binary” are not simply courageous iconoclasts, they are the only people in our society, it would seem, who want to escape from this traditional system of oppression.  Lest any readers think that I am overstating my case here, let me add the guide’s definition of “nonbinary”:

“An identity term for a person who identifies outside of the gender binary. A person whose beautiful existence transcends reductive binary constructs and works to annihilate gender and gender-based oppression once and for all.”  Rather than a minority that deserves our tolerance and respect, nonbinary folk emerge as the vanguard of the revolution that will lead us into a new utopia.

I turn now to some of the political implications of this world view.

The Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that dominated the western world from the late 18th until the late 20th centuries before starting to give way to the ideas embodied in the Amherst guide, took numbers and statistics very seriously.  It got into the habit of identifying species, or buildings, or systems of government, by the features which they had in common.  Eventually the Enlightenment gave equal political rights to larger and larger numbers of people, and entrusted the choice of political leaders to electoral majorities.  All these features of enlightenment thought and institutions gave more weight to the most common attributes of human beings, and of other animals and plants, and of various distinct kinds of institutions, when they attempted to describe them.  Democratic politics in particular tend to favor the thoughts and feelings of the average or median individual, and political leaders, to take one key example, have a better chance of being elected if they endorse and at least seem to embody, the values of the largest number of their voters.

The ideology of the Amherst guide stands this methodology on its head, because it denies certain realities of human existence.  Here is the very significant definition of   “Cissexism”:  

“The system of belief that cisgender individuals are the privileged class and are more natural, normal or acceptable than transgender, genderqueer, nonbinary and/or gender-nonconforming people.”

“Cisgender” individuals, to repeat, accept the definition of their gender that medical personnel put on their birth certificate.  They constitute well over 90% of the population.  While I believe that individuals who reject that definition, like all other individuals, deserve equal rights, that statistic makes “cisgender individuals” normal insofar as the term does in fact describe almost the entire population.  By normal I do not mean morally superior or praiseworthy, but simply enormously more common.  One could also make a strong argument that there is something natural about the tendency to identify as a man or a woman, given the frequency with which members of the human species have done so.  But to the new campus ideologues, the word “natural” always appears in quotes to indicate that it is an imposed category, and numbers mean less than nothing.  Indeed, as we have seen, the views of the overwhelming majority of “cisgender” individuals deserve less consideration, since they are collaborators in a system of oppression, the system that, in this view, “assigned” them a given gender, and thus a particular status, at birth.  This attitude towards statistical reality also emerges from the definition of “People of Color,”         “An umbrella term for any individual belonging to a racially minoritized group.”  One does not belong to a minority by virtue of comparative numbers, but because the dominant culture has designated one’s group as a minority, hence the new verb, ”minoritize.”  The postmodern movement has fought the idea of any particular person’s or group’s experience as “typical.”  I wonder whether a modern democracy can function without some such idea to bring us all together—combined, of course, with an equal respect for the rights of those who fall outside it. 

Another idea runs through all these definitions:  that only the oppressed are truly virtuous.  I think that that idea has found its way into the Democratic Party, which is deeply influenced by what happens on campus.  The only virtuous men, according to the Amherst guide, are those who embody “healthy masculinity,” who “work in solidarity with marginalized gender identities to end gender-based oppression. They have an understanding of how their masculinity is impactful, and do the work of healing, undoing and preventing harm.”  The current controversy over the “squad” of four Democratic women in the House of Representatives—Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley—stems in part from the belief that their views deserve more weight because they are “women of color.”  The election of more women has become a good in itself among Democratic activists, whether to make total numbers within Congress more equal, or to give women more of a voice, or to give female children and adolescents more inspiration.  Many of these activists also favor writing off the votes of the white working class, which in their eyes has proven itself to be hopelessly racist and oppressive.  We shall find in the coming year how many of our fellow citizens accept these views.

Two other definitions from the guide have also found their way into our politics.  The guide defines “equality” as follows:

        “Treating everyone exactly the same. An equality emphasis often ignores historical and structural factors that benefit some social groups/communities and harm other social groups/communities.”

         The definition of “colorblindness” elaborates on this view:

         “The ideology that believes the best way to end racial discrimination is through treating individuals the same, regardless of race, culture and ethnicity. This belief, however, ignores historical and structural factors that benefit white people and disadvantage indigenous, black and all other people of color. ‘Colorblindness’ does nothing [sic] to address inequity, since it does not acknowledge the impacts of institutional and systemic racism on people of color.”

        Although modern democracies, like other known forms of government, have never treated everyone exactly equally, they have made progress in that direction, and I do not think they can continue to function if they abandon the ideal of equal treatment as their goal.

The guide also included a definition of “Legal/Illegal”—one that does not include the word “law:”

         “Highly racialized term to describe a person’s presence in a nationwithout government-issued immigration status. Not an appropriate noun or adjective to describe an individual. Often misused to designate certain undocumented members of a society (specifically people of color) to deny their contributions, right to exist and recognition as people within certain national boundaries.”

In a recent Democratic debate a number of candidates appeared to accept this definition, in practice, when they called for decriminalizing entry into the United States without permission and access to health care for illegal immigrants.  What history and current events both tell us is that immigrants, like everyone else, need legal status—rather than simply the moral glow that comes from life in a relatively poor region—to assure them of basic rights.  As a matter of fact, a whole new school of legal thought, critical legal studies, tends to argue that the whole Anglo-American legal tradition was just another way to enshrine the power of straight white males, ignoring that without it, no one will be safe.

I turn now to the paradoxical relationship of the new ideology to western civilization.

While neither reason nor science were confined to Europe in the ancient and medieval worlds, both acquired an unprecedented influence within Europe and its settler colonies during the 18th and 19th centuries.  In the political realm, reason and science decreased the influence of religion in politics, tried to rationalize government to serve the people, and spread the idea of equal political rights and equal citizenship for all.  The Enlightenment also created the modern university, an institution dedicated to the use of reason, not religion, to explain the world.  Those ideas and institutions spread around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries, both by example and because of European colonialism.  Nations like Japan and Turkey concluded that they had to adopt some western ideas and institutions to compete against the west and maintain their own sovereignty.  Communism—an offshoot of the Enlightenment—became a potent revolutionary ideology in Russia, China, and Vietnam.  African peoples introduced to ideas of equal rights by colonial powers demanded those rights for themselves.  Many other empires, of course, had spread their values and influence over large parts of the world in centuries past, but the Europeans, for whatever reason, did so most successfully.  And yes, millions of people inside and outside of Europe and North America concluded that that showed the superiority of western civilization.

The Amherst guide bluntly denies that this historical development was a good one.  Here is its definition of “Eurocentrism:

 “A worldview that is biased towards European thought, history, knowledge, institutions, peoples and culture, often favoring eorts of colonization and development specific to countries in the Global North while dismissing the benefits and advantages of the thought, culture and history rooted elsewhere. Often used to refer also to Western-centrism, which is inclusive of non-European countries in the Global North.”

I see irony here, because this whole postmodern ideology could never have emerged from anywhere but at the heart of western civilization, which gave the world the idea of equal political rights and successively extended that idea to new economic and social groups, to all races, and to women as well as men.  Yet some postmodernists have now repudiated that idea as a snare and a delusion.  This is how the distinguished historian Joan Wallach Scott, who has worked for decades at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, could actually come to argue, in a recent book, that the Enlightenment, not the Muslim religion, has had the worst impact on women’s rights in the Muslim world.[1] That, however, offers a clue as to how this remarkable world view, so utterly at odds with both historical and contemporary realities, could have become so popular.  And here, in another irony, the postmodernists have something to tell us.

Reality, they constantly teach us, depends on one’s perspective, which in turn depends on one’s race, gender, and sexual orientation.  (The Amherst guide has remarkably little to say about class.)  The postmodern perspective did, I think, resonate with a particular group of individuals who began to emerge about half a century ago:  well-off women and nonwhites attempting to enter academia and the professions in the United States, and probably in certain European countries well.  What did they find?

They found a world where men unquestionably held nearly all the power, and where a good many of them (but never all, by any means) refused to take women seriously.  Some of these men also exploited their position to try to secure sexual favors.  In addition, these women—like their male counterparts, for the most part—found themselves in highly competitive environments where employment and promotion outcomes often had little relationship to ability and performance.  Faced with this daunting situation, some women easily concluded that the workplace (especially the academic workplace) was a male conspiracy and nothing more.  And that view became the basis of a good deal of scholarship, the kind of scholarship that led ultimately to the production of the Amherst guide.

The great flaw of contemporary academics—a flaw not confined to any race or gender—is to confuse their reality with reality in the rest of the world, even though they actually live in an environment every bit as separated from the real world as a medieval monastery.   And as a matter of fact, some postmodern ideas describe academia far more accurately than they do the real world.  In academia, language does matter more than reality.  One’s status frequently depends on adopting the right views, using the right jargon, and attacking the right enemies.  Very few people in academia have the discipline and patience to evaluate work on its merits.  The right to define what is important does determine a great deal in the academy, including who gets hired and who does not.  And groups can much more easily impose “hegemony,” as defined by the Amherst guide—“The imposition of dominant group ideology onto everyone in society”—on a campus than in the world at large.  Hegemony, the guide continues, “makes it dicult to escape or resist ‘believing in’ this dominant ideology; thus social control is achieved through conditioning rather than physical force or intimidation.” That is exactly what the Amherst guide was designed to do.

Like so many other intellectual movements, the postmodernist ideology, or “political correctness,” aroused a good deal of attention in the major media when it first became a force on campus in the 1990s.  It tended to fade from view over the next twenty years, but it meanwhile achieved almost complete hegemony on most of our campuses.  Now its impact has emerged on the national scene in the media, the arts, and politics.  Whatever Democrat is nominated next year will almost certainly have made a number of rhetorical and policy concessions to it.  Donald Trump, meanwhile, will do everything he can—which is a lot—to make the election a referendum on the gulf between the new ideology and traditional values.  The voters will decide.


[1] See the review of Scott’s book, Sex and Secularism, by Laura Kipnis in the New York Review of Books, May 24, 2018: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/05/24/secularism-letting-their-hair-down/


Energyflow said...

Excellent article. If reality can indeed be altered by indoctrinating the young this is proof. The intelligentsia of the currently ruling generation in media, universities and poltics has been trained at such institutions and brainwashed in an ideology of very questionable value. It seems to seek to mediate between those in power and those seeking power to obtain its transfer from the one group to the other in sucn a way as to ensure it is acheived nonviolently through guilt. One could use any such arbitrary groupings or designations like astrological signs. Ever more people take this seriously. Perhaps in 50 years I could sue over discrimination against pisces in natural science degrees. I could maintain Pisces Pride week for various historical figures of artistic and religious creativity and look down upon others. We can see here how ideology as with neocons, religious fundamentalists, etc. is created in the mind. Perhaps if this new ideology goes far enough it will be responsible for a transformation of society into weakened male and whites and powerful minoities and women.

Bozon said...

Although we differ on many things, and are irregular forces, I will just quote this famous line: 'Welcome back to the fight.' Casablanca
All the best

Joe said...

It seems that the woke crowd has gone full Jacobin. Today's wokenfolks operate the same "terror of virtue" as Robespierre described to the National Assemblee of France on 18 Floreal 1794:
"Now, in these circumstances, the first maxim of our politics ought to be to lead the people by means of reason and the enemies of the people by terror… The basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror. Terror without virtue is murderous, virtue without terror is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice – it flows, then, from virtue.”

Joe said...

The end result of this Jacobin woke coup attempt will be an era of a New Restauration, like what happened after the French Revolution. We will soon see an era of traditionalist and conservative values arise across the globe, culminating in a new Victorian Age.

Roy Bakos said...

Dr. Kaiser,
I think that your writing is wonderful and insightful but I believe that you have based your disagreement on the UMASS guide on an error. The idea of race, especially and starting with the idea of "whiteness," is indeed a social construct which, in the West, primarily arose along with Colonialism as a means to justify the enslavement and abuse of conquered peoples. The tern was used in law and pseudo-science to create the idea of a "white race" that was superior to all others and this justified European conquest and domination.
Your error comes when you write about ancestry.com. What that stuff tells you is your ethnicity which is something that is very different than race. Ethnicity is based both on biological factors as well as cultural ones while race is completely constructed and done so out of thin air. Examples of how this has played out in the United States are how many immigrants from Ireland, Poland, and Italy were not considered "white" when they first got here and it took them a few generations to assimilate into the dominant racial group of "white" people. They had an advantage over POC in that their skin allowed them to merely drop a few letters off of their last names (Olshonovicz becomes Olson and Butterini becomes Butts) and their skin color allows them to become "white." You completely overlook this history in your analysis.
Secondly, your problem with language as the definer of things is rooted in the falsehood that Enlightenment thought used language merely to describe reality. The study of Linguistics has shown that language and reality both run and in hand and that language indeed shapes the way that we look at things and perceive them in the "real" world.
This stuff indeed seems scary because it calls most of the assumptions that we make about the world around us into question. This questioning, while making the world seem a bit less stable, is indeed a good thing because the world has never been as stable as we have made it out to be in our national and ethnic origin myths. Postmodernism is not problematic in this sense. The problem arises when those myths and stories are not replaced with others that unify us and tell us about our shared humanity. Clinging to these myths enable race-baiting and all of the awfulness employed by this Administration and it is inherently reactionary. Pretending that race is somehow a binary and that our understanding of the world can easily fall into overly simplistic binaries like "good" or "bad" is indeed problematic for those who may not be in the dominant or deciding role in their society.
I often hear from my fellow "old white guys" in my working class town (Buffalo, NY) that racism is made up because there are more stories about it now and that we can't be more racist than we were 20, 30, 40, or 100 years ago (This works for sexism and the #metoo movement as well). The truth is that there very well may be less racism now but we simply hear about it more because the victims of it finally have a voice to express their experience into the mainstream. That those stories shock so many is no surprise. If those in the majority just listen, we will be able to get through all of this and actually start to heal from what Toni Morrison aptly refers to as America's Original Sin.
Roy W. Bakos

Bozon said...

Now that Postmodernism 101 is set out above, I wondered if I might suggest a Postmodernism 102, and wondered if you might have a convenient example of what I have in mind, already on the shelf.

I think of postmodernism as comprising not just what one might call "Postmodernism of the Left", which is more or less what the Amherst Common Language Guide appears to me to be, but also postmodernism of the right.

No reply needed, but a post on or related to, or merely a reference to, that issue would be wonderful. It would round out the analysis, at least for me.

All the best