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Postmodern Discourse & Its Discontents

Via Steve Sailer, [1] here’s an interesting post on the distinction between modern discourse and postmodern discourse [2]. 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 [3] 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.

53 Comments (Open | Close)

53 Comments To "Postmodern Discourse & Its Discontents"

#1 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 23, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

Modern: Today, as opposed to yesterday.

Post-modern: The day after yesterday, yesterday’s tomorrow.

“Modern times” have been arriving, and post-modern times succeeding them, throughout human history.


#2 Comment By SG On January 23, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

Siarlys, “modern” and “postmodern” are academic terms, like “neoclassical” or “medieval”. Modernism started being categorized under that name when it was literally “modern”, and when trends in arts, sciences, and academia started shifting around 1950 people decided to define the newer trends as “postmodern”.

Dismissing the topic being discussed because you don’t like the (commonly accepted) terminology is like dismissing Gothic literature because it has nothing to do with east German tribes.

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 24, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

SG, did you think you were telling me something I didn’t know?

I often reject academic terms and commonly accepted (in elite intellectual circles) terminology, because so much of what passes for academic analysis consists of classifying without edifying.

The terms “modern” and “postmodern” are particularly vulnerable to ridicule, because they are such poorly considered terms, which reflect the narrow and chronologically self-centered mindset of the boobies who concocted them, and made them “commonly accepted.”

Oh gosh, a few years have passed since we defined what we were then enjoying as “modern,” and fashions have changed again! What, oh what, shall we call that which comes after that which we have defined as “modern”? Oh, of course… POST-modern!

Now, what comes after post-modern? And how do sociologists 500 year from now refer to “the ancient modern era”??? And what commonly accepted terminology will they apply to their own time?

I take a similar contemptuous attitude toward one of Rod’s favorite cliches, “moral therapeutic deism” (or whatever the ordering of the three words is), because, again, it is nothing more than the authors of some study applying labels to patterns they somewhat subjectively identified in a pile of individual comments about what individuals within the targeted population said about what each individual believed.

But as Goebbels said, if you repeat this garbage often enough, people start to believe it has meaning.