What’s it all about, anyway? Is postmodernism a good thing or a bad thing? Some people accuse others of being ‘post modern’, using it as an epithet. Others wear the mantra proudly. But what does it mean?
There are plenty of opinions on this, from the pedestrian to the scholarly. But I often find that they confuse the issue more than anything else. As for me, analogies and anecdotes help me to understand things better, so with that in mind, here is my take:
A modern mind set claims to be logical and scientific. It is based upon the idea that there are irrefutable propositional truths that are to be known. Not only are they to be known, they already are known and anything that is not in complete agreement with these truths must ‘logically’ be in opposition to these truths. Something is either off or on, hot or cold, Left or Right, right or wrong or true or false. This way of thinking in terms of absolutes boils down to a matter of ‘either this or that ‘ but rarely both. Gray areas, ambiguity and compromise are things to be avoided.
In this way, modern thought is not necessarily conservative or liberal, it is just very definite. It is built upon time-proven conventions passed down by respected authorities (often teachers and other experts). Certain absolute truths have already been established so there is no need to waste time and effort questioning them. Those that do so are not really interested in finding the truth (since it is already known and accepted) but have other motives in mind. Anyone who questions accepted doctrine, be it religious, scientific or political, is discouraged and even ridiculed. (Those who are slavishly devoted to the prevailing theory of global warming as well as those who refuse to contemplate the prospect are both examples of this typically modern mindset.)
Postmodern (or what I prefer to think of as ‘anti-modern’) thinkers are inclined to be dissatisfied with conventional wisdom. They are skeptics who choose not to believe everything that the experts say is true, especially if the observable evidence suggest otherwise. (In other words, those truths expounded by the experts are not as propositional as the experts might think.) Therefore, they will try not to speak in absolute terms because when they do so they often fall back into a ‘modern’ way of thinking, effectively closing the door on dissent and constructive dialog. The authentic postmodern response is to suggest that we consider ‘both/and ‘ possibilities rather than ‘either/or’.
One case in point: Not too long ago the preferred way to teach students how to read was with the use of phonics. At some point the teaching authorities determined that not all children could learn to read this way and they introduced whole language instruction techniques, and in many places ceased to teach phonics. This proved to be (according to parents and many reading teachers) generally unsuccessful. It was often said by parents (who themselves learned to read using phonics); “Why change things? If it worked for everyone before, it should work for the students of today”.
But it didn’t work for everyone before. Many students, though in the minority, were labeled as below average in intelligence or just plain ‘dumb’ when really their only problem was a lack of reading comprehension. The trouble with those experts who resorted exclusively to whole language instruction was that they fell back into a modern mindset – either whole language or phonics, but not both. Today both techniques are being used successfully in the class room. (All of us learned to read using both techniques. How else would we know how to pronounce words like ‘epitome’ or ‘antique’ ?)
Another case (and one currently close to my heart) involves the science of nutrition. Around 40 years ago, the nutritional ‘powers that be’ came to the logical assumption that fat is bad for humans, in spite of over 100 years of well researched and documented evidence to the contrary (not to mention the anecdotal histories of millions who have unsuccessfully tried to remain healthy the ‘conventional’ way). Today these experts (who are typically academics and politicians that rarely have any field experience) will admit that the evidence suggests an entirely different conclusion: that it is a diet high in carbohydrates (and correspondingly low in fats) that is causing the current epidemic(s) of heart disease, obesity and diabetes – but irrationally they refuse to accept this very same conclusion. For them, the ‘truth’ is already known: Fat is Bad.
Not surprisingly, this same type of thing occurs with religion. Certain people interested in things of a spiritual nature come to definite and non-negotiable conclusions based upon an accumulation of what they believe to be incontrovertible evidence, even when that evidence seems to contradict itself. During this process extensive debates may occur among those who come to far different conclusions but eventually one school of thought wins out and this school is is now considered to be the exclusive holder of the sole ‘truth’. This truth is passed on from generation to generation and (just as happens in science) it is increasingly saddled with subordinate ‘truths’ that help protect it from confrontations with contradictory ideas and evidence. This is what we call orthodoxy. (This custom of creating ad hoc theology can result in dogmas that have a decidedly post modern aura about them, such as the idea that God is both infinitely merciful as well as rigidly judgmental – but we’ll save that for another discussion.)
When other people with spiritual interests (such as those ’emerging’ from the ‘modern’ Christian traditions) come to see inconsistencies in this orthodoxy and are driven to question it, they are called heretics and not only their arguments, but their motives as well, are called into question.
When I look at things this way it makes sense (for me at least) to toss out the confusing terms ‘modern’ and ‘post modern’. There have been modern and post (anti) modern thinkers throughout history, no matter the era. The ‘moderns’ are more interested in maintaining their (often the majority or controlling) status quo while the authentic ‘post (anti) moderns’ have no interest in status quo. It seems to me that the great discoverers, artists and thinkers though out history are postmodern. Whatever at the time is considered to be the accepted and indisputable truth – the conventional wisdom – is ‘modern’ for that time. Anyone willing to call the conventional wisdom into question, while conceding that (no matter what they find) the search for truth is never over, is ‘post modern’ in spirit.