Post-Postmodernism – Elitism, Relativism, Everyman
The Postmodernist movement in the 20th Century was an attempt at reclassifying empirical knowledge to include its historical and societal context, thereby bringing much of history leading up to a state of knowledge into the conversations about knowledge itself. That is to day, instead of coming to a conclusion about what we know, in Postmodernist discourse, this knowledge can be reinterpreted as a complex and multifaceted story, which when read from new perspectives take on new meaning. The new narratives that arose from the Postmodernist ideal meant that, in art and literature in particular, much of the ideas of the “outsider” were included in the stories, because the stories owed their existences to the events leading up, to the historical context in which these narratives arose, and the contemporary conditions that these ideas occupy in the current day. In addition to this, Postmodernism paved the way for the outsider, the “other” in society, to be heard and read, to expand the discourse in modern society to include those on the outside of the elite.
As I said in my talk at Victorian Skeptics on June 17 this year:
“But in today’s world, the idea of Postmodernism has been extended into the realm of our everyday; ideas and opinions, regardless of how informed they are, hold some meaning and value. Postmodernism outside of art and literature means that the words of authority, of experts, and of history and science, have all been diluted to the level of the individual’s testimony.”
The ideals of Postmodernist thought, a looking back upon the situations that lead to the current day, in a multithreaded narrative rather than a linear and single threaded pathway, have allowed us to see the world with a much wider lens, and to be able to appreciate much of historical contexts that may have once been buried in obscurity. As it is often said, history is written by the victors, so those who lost something along the way are less likely to have their stories told. This is a healthy thing, because to be blinded to our past means to be doomed to repeat our mistakes.
Somewhere along the line, however, this reevaluation of human history has trickled out of the world of art and literature and into the mainstream of society. The problem being, it has only been accepted on the most superficial of levels, and the understanding of the importance of alternative narratives has come to mean giving all opinions and viewpoint equal weight in validity.
As I also said in my talk:
This is a crucial point to make, for it seeps into the decision-making of our own lives, and the politics we find ourselves in today. Postmodernist thinking, in its post-Postmodernist guise, is bolstered by the mainstream media, whose only aim is to turn a profit. People eat this ideal up, because they feel a sense of inclusion in an increasingly isolationist world, they feel validated in a world that presents the unobtainable as the ultimate goal of the individual; The feel like their lives have some meaning in the grander scheme of things.
A recent tendency I have seen in schools around the world is the “everyone is a winner” attitude adopted by so many teachers, under pressure from parents who see their child as the most amazing thing that has ever lived. Don’t get me wrong here, every parent should see their child as exceedingly important to them, there is no debating that, but not every child will grow up to be an elite athlete or a nuclear physicist. This does not take away from the idea that children are special and should be nurtured to help them reach their ultimate potential. A fact remains though that most people are destined to live comparatively mundane lives; society is not built on everyone being exceptional. And yet, we see every child awarded first place at school athletic fairs, because “participating is as good as winning.” No doubt this tendency also acts as a way for the parents to be proud of their child, whether they are good at the allotted task or not.
This teaches people to have unrealistic expectations about the world around them. In the sheltered environs of a primary school, it may be a useful tool to quash overly-competitive behaviours that can result in a fracturing of the peace, but these kids upon leaving the safety of a junior school situation will be exposed to the real world, one in which competitiveness is necessary to be the best that a person can be.
Things are not, however, equal on all fronts, especially in science, empirical truths, and falsifiable evidence. A person’s own viewpoint on vaccination, for example, may reveal some real questions about safety, and their fears may actually be justified, but once it has been shown that these fears are not needed, the opinion and standpoint should be seen as useless. Relativism is useful only to the point that it values the individual over the group, and when the interests of the individual actually stand to harm the group, it must be actively shunned.
If the post-Postmodernist ideal is that of equalising and shunning the elite, then if adopted, the elite become seen as the mundane. The expert testimony of a climate scientist, saying the earth’s oceans are rising in temperature, gets held alongside the testimony of the farmer who says he had the coldest winter day in 20 years. The expert opinion of an immunologist is held next to the anecdotal testimony of a homeopath. Words from a geneticist compared to sermons from an evangelical preacher. All opinions are seen as equally valid, therefore nothing is special, or more worthy of putting trust in.
The elite here are the actual experts, the ones doing the work in the field, taking the anecdotal and the empirical, weighing them up against one another, coming to a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis, and formulating a theory based on the evidence. The personal testimony comes from the gut, from personal experience, from emotion and from personal observation. The only problem being, we are ruled by our emotions, whereas the words of experts come from a world devoid of emotional bias.
This is the world of Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame“. From Wikipedia (bolding mine):
In quite an astute prediction, Warhol has seen the future of the mainstream mass media, and no doubt in some what influenced the outcome. Warhol, being an influencer of popular culture, had a position in society where he actually made this come true, and the dystopian present of reality television, disposable consumerism, and the celebration of the mundane are now standard and commonplace. Warhol’s ideas were that of the post-Postmodernist, and the seeking of fame, no matter what the cost, is the highest pinnacle that many seek for. To quote the lyrics from The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy’s song “Television, The Drug Of The Nation” from 1989:
A post-Postmodernist viewpoint in the arts can be seen as an inclusive act, where those who would otherwise miss out on telling their stories, those outside of the artistic elite, can have their own testimonies heard. The only thing we lose in this situation is the skill-set required to produce masterworks, or the poetic nuances of a great piece of literature. Where once the high arts were considered to be a pinnacle of humanity, it now occupies a space also inhabited by the amateur and the outsider. But this “everyman’s voice” stands to only erode the importance of the testimony of the experts in our society.
The problem arises when this attitude is brought to bear in areas that affect our lives as a society. Not all testimony is equal. Where expertise once held a place of respect and authority, we now see the voices of the everyday person elevated in status to be seen as equal in terms of worth. Because everyone has a voice, every voice can be heard at the same volume, so nothing stands out from the fray. Everyone is important, but I would never trust an uneducated cleaner to perform an appendectomy on me.
We have to be careful with the information we promote. We have to be brutally honest when we demand what we think is best for us. We have to be mindful of what we need as compared to what we are used to. Most of all, we have to call out this kind of relativist thinking when we see it, because while we are all entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts. I think we are beginning to see this in our cultures, but we have a long way to go before we can work out a balance between the importance of the individual versus the importance of the group. There is a balance, of this I am sure, but I cannot see where this lays just yet.