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Postmodern Discourse & Its Discontents

Via Steve Sailer, here’s an interesting post on the distinction between modern discourse and postmodern discourse. You saw this earlier on this blog See which one best corresponds to the comments threads here and elsewhere.

First, the characteristics of modern discourse:

Following are ten key characteristics of modern discourse, what many professors and students even now consider the normal or standard way to think, study and argue in the academy:

• “personal detachment from the issues under discussion,” the separation of participants’ personal identities from subjects of inquiry and topics of debate;

• values on “confidence, originality, agonism, independence of thought, creativity, assertiveness, the mastery of one’s feelings, a thick skin and high tolerance for your own and others’ discomfort”;

• suited to a heterotopic space like a university class, scholarly journal, or session of a learned society conference, a place apart much like a playing field for sports events, where competitors engage in ritual combat before returning with a handshake to the realm of friendly, personal interaction;

• illustrated by debate in the British House of Commons;

• epitomized by the debates a century ago between socialist G. B. Shaw and distributist G. K. Chesterton;

• playfulness is legitimate: one can play devil’s advocate, speak tongue in cheek, overstate and use hyperbole, the object being not to capture the truth in a single, balanced monologue, but to expose the strengths and weaknesses of various positions;

• “scathing satire and sharp criticism” are also legitimate;

• the best ideas are thought to emerge from mutual, merciless probing and attacking of arguments, with resultant exposure of blindspots in vision, cracks in theories, inconsistencies in logic;

• participants are forced again and again to return to the drawing board and produce better arguments;

• the truth is understood not to be located in any single voice, but to emerge from the conversation as a whole.

Now, the characteristics of postmodern discourse:

Over the past half century, a competing mode of discourse, the one I call postmodern, has become steadily more entrenched in academe. Following are ten of its hallmarks, as Roberts and Sailer describe on their blogs:

• “persons and positions are ordinarily closely related,” with little insistence on keeping personal identity separate from the questions or issues under discussion;

• “sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness are key values”;

• priority on “cooperation, collaboration, quietness, sedentariness, empathy, equality, non-competitiveness, conformity, a communal focus”;

• “seems lacking in rationality and ideological challenge,” in the eyes of proponents of modern discourse;

• tends to perceive the satire and criticism of modern discourse as “vicious and personal attack, driven by a hateful animus”;

• is oriented to ” the standard measures of grades, tests, and a closely defined curriculum”;

• lacking “means by which to negotiate or accommodate such intractable differences within its mode of conversation,” it will “typically resort to the most fiercely antagonistic, demonizing, and personal attacks upon the opposition”;

• “will typically try, not to answer opponents with better arguments, but to silence them completely as ‘hateful’, ‘intolerant’, ‘bigoted’, ‘misogynistic’, ‘homophobic’, etc.”;

• has a more feminine flavour, as opposed to the more masculine flavour of modern discourse;

• results in “stale monologues” and contexts that “seldom produce strong thought, but rather tend to become echo chambers.”

Makes a lot clear, doesn’t it? This has a lot to do with why intelligent people in professional settings keep their opinions and their thoughts, however apparently benign, to themselves. If somebody from an official victim demographic takes offense, the emotion is often considered sufficient grounds to find the person guilty — as the case of Prof. Michael Mason, cited in the linked article, illustrates.

UPDATE: Be sure to read Alan Jacobs’ dissenting take on this topic.

You may think that the rules of modern discourse will absolve you upon examination of your case. That is a dangerous assumption to make.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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